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The thinking behind the exercises.

Whenever you speak to a raw beginner about Working Trials agility, they are almost always concerned about the safety of their dog. This starts when they look at a full height scale.  The comments are, "Oh, I don’t like the look of that".  Then a large proportion of them start talking about the possibility of getting it removed from the test. This is not the way to gain rapport with serious Trialists.

If you think about it, what the beginner is saying to the experienced trialists is; - "Of course, I care more about my dog than you do".  They will usually get their head bitten off at this point, and the possibility of help coming from the person they are talking to will be greatly reduced.

This next bit is only my experience and opinion.  I cannot claim any medical knowledge whatsoever, but one thing is certain - if you decide against doing the jumps, don’t bother buying tracking equipment - you won’t be needing it. I believe the agility will find a problem in the dog, but not cause it.  Keeping the dog fit and at a working weight is absolutely imperative for good consistent agility.

In February last year I spent the day on a beach in South Wales.  I’d tracked on Friday and Control and Agility was on Sunday, giving me a day to kill.  I decided some down time was available, so armed with a picnic and a good book, I spent the day in a parking bay overlooking the rocks and beach.  It was a beautiful day for February, but rather cold, but running the engine and heater occasionally kept me warm and comfortable, and only caused a small hole in the ozone layer.  Between walking the dogs, eating the picnic and brewing the tea, some of the time was spent reading, but for most of the time I just watched the world go by. The world in this case was the dog population of South Wales; they came in all sizes and shapes, from Greyhounds to Corgis and St Bernards to Yorkies, all manner of dogs.  The one thing they all had in common was excess weight; they were to a dog ‘unfit’.  I would see them get out of the vehicles, walk down on to the beach, play ball for a couple of minutes, then, as the owner wandered across the beach the dog had obviously lost its bounce, and was trailing flatfooted for a few hundred yards till the owner decided enough was enough.  By the time they had returned to the car the dog hardly had enough energy to jump in. There were hundreds, maybe thousands, of dogs like this.  It was really depressing watching dog after dog go by in this condition.  Then, during the afternoon, from behind a large van four dogs appeared; they were the total opposite to all the dogs I’d seen that day.  They were two GSDs and two black and white Collies.  They were full of energy, bouncing around playing.  They were a sight to behold, full of energy, just how dogs should be.  After a few seconds, from behind the van, two ladies appeared; I immediately recognized them as well known Trialists.

The point of these ramblings is that the dog population of the UK is mostly overweight and unfit.  If you look at the dogs at a working trial, they are all as fit as fiddles.  In my personal experience, with 5 dogs in over 400 trials, I’ve personally never had a serious injury to one of my dogs caused by the jumps; however if the dog picks up a strain or injury, having to do the jumps in competition will make it necessary to lay the dog off trials and allow it to return to full fitness before trialling can continue. (It’s annoying for the handler but certainly best for the dog.)

When embarking on the training which will lead to a dog which is competent and consistent on the jumps, we need to realize that there are three elements to the exercises.  Firstly the dog’s mental state / attitude to doing the jumps; secondly the dog’s ability, approach and style while doing the jumps; and thirdly the control before, during and after the jump.

All three components will have to be brought together during the process of training, but in the initial stages of teaching if they are taught separately, the whole process will go much more smoothly.  My preference is to teach the play that will create the attitude and determination to traverse the jumps, and the control at the same time but separately.  The play is covered by an article written by myself and published in WTM, February 05. (Back issues available, etc.)  The Control element will need to be looked at as a whole.

Fitness.

Let’s assume your dog is not overweight.  But a slim dog is not necessarily a fit dog.  I’m no expert on canine fitness, but the difference between a dog with muscle and one without is fairly obvious, even on a dog with a long coat.  My way is to find a grassy bank and throw a fairly heavy toy from the top down, encouraging the dog to fetch it; the running up and down will help the dog’s aerobic fitness, carrying the heavy toy will help front end muscle.  Start slowly, don’t expect the dog to run up and down more than a couple of times.

As the dog’s fitness improves, gradually ask for more until the level of fitness you require is achieved, then continue the exercise to maintain fitness. Two things to remember - if you are using a ball make sure it’s too big for the dog to swallow, and don’t go into an exercise routine after the dog has been fed, as this can cause torsion. Dogs die of both of these things.

Control.

Control is a very important and integral part of the working trials agility, not only from the view of losing points, but also good control will allow the dog to work in a correct frame of mind, maintaining focus, and will make the process of teaching the actual jumping much easier.

Starting at the end and working back, my preference is for a down on the other side of the jumps.  When I am training this I do it in as motivational a way as possible.  When the dog is given the command, I want to see the dog instantly and willingly go into the down, with its attention on me, waiting expectantly for the next command.

At this point if I was doing a lecture, someone would always jump up and down stating the position as handler’s choice.  Quite right, but nearly always the handler wants to avoid doing the down because they are having difficulty getting the dog to accept it.  So, rather than spending the time getting the exercise trained to the extent of a conditioned response, it seems much easier for the handler to except the sit; the problem is the sit hasn’t been trained properly either, so when it decays to a stand the handler will start saying "Wait", with a smug smile, knowing of course that the judge won’t dock for the wrong position.  Again, the dog is doing the stand by default rather than training, so the next stage is the position decaying from a stand to a wander. This is a relatively minor problem until the dog wanders back past the jump, when the judge starts talking about nought, zero, or nothing for the jump.  Of course, if we are talking about the scale, the wandering will almost certainly take the dog out of position, possibly out to the side, where it’s easier for the dog to come back round, losing the points for the return, or getting too close and falling back and hurting itself.  If this happens, many months of training might be required to rebuild the dog’s confidence. So for me I’ll spend the time get the down to be really reliable, then everything will fall into place on completion of the exercise.

Control prior to the jumps.

As you are approaching the jumps, if your control is insufficient, you will either have to physically restrain the dog if it is keen, or cajole the dog to approach the jump.  In most cases this will be by holding the dog’s collar, commonly known as "hand-bagging" the dog.  In the higher stakes this will rarely be allowed and then only by weaker judges.  During training, I spend a good amount of time doing heelwork around the jumps, approaching, halting and walking away.  This is best done on the lead to avoid the dog anticipating the jump from an incorrect position. When the dog’s tendency to try to anticipate becomes less, and finally ceases altogether, relaxed control should be the order of the day.  When this has been achieved we are ready to start training the jumps themselves.

Training the Scale

Doubt is the biggest single stumbling block to the dog becoming competent at the scale, so before we commence training the scale, there are a few building blocks of understanding which need to be in place.  First you need the dog to be able to approach the scale with the dog in a relaxed and focused state of mind, secondly your control needs to be of a standard where the dog can be heeled to the jump and sit without any need for manhandling. Thirdly it helps a lot if the dog has been taught to do the clear jump so has an understanding of the "over" command.

I do not train the scale until the dog is reasonably competent on the clear jump and understands the command to jump whatever is in front of it.  The process of teaching any jumping can be enhanced by putting the command to the dog when it is free jumping while out walking in the woods as the dog is relaxed and happily running around encourage it to jump over fallen trees, branches etc. While doing this put the command to the dog’s natural actions.

In the first article in this series relaxed control around the jumps was discussed, before starting work on the scale I would go back to earlier training and reinforce your previous work on the control. Training the scale can be daunting for both dog and handler and if your relaxed control has decayed while training the other jumps (and if you’re honest with yourself you will realize it probably has) the daunting nature of the scale is likely to cause slight stress, which in turn will affect your control; having to reinforce the control around the scale will make the whole exercise considerably more stressful than necessary.  When the training has been reinforced you will be ready to start training the scale. 

With the scale set at about 3ft (a height which the dog is comfortable with) I start by teaching the scale backwards i.e. With the dog in the down on the other side of the scale I recall it over, with the scale set low it’s easy for the handler to get eye contact and if necessary have the dog on the lead just to guide it over. When this has been completed a toy may be thrown away from the scale as a reward to the dog. Care should be taken when rewarding the dog with play, as it might get overexcited and will need to be returned to a calm concentrated state before continuing with the jump training, dogs which are overexcited tend to be careless which often leads to falls and accidents..

The progression from this stage is fairly straight forward.  Leave the dog in an appropriate position walk round the scale, after a pause call the dog over when the dog has completed the down position call it up to heel then send it over. You are now doing a complete scale exercise but not in the correct order, careful observation of the dog’s technique must be made and the height increased gradually to maintain the dogs focus and attitude.

When the scale reaches around 4ft 6ins the dog is likely to start resisting and refusing, lower the scale and insist the dog traverses the scale. If the dog jumps freely at the lower height but refuses at the higher one instead of getting into conflict with the dog at the higher height repeat the lower height a few times until the dog refuses then insist. After insistence when the dog starts to jump again serious praise and reward will be needed to rebuild the dog’s confidence.

Once the dog has been taken through the period of resistance,  increasing the height  the moving towards full height should be straight forward. It must be remembered that dogs get tired quickly and if you increase the height by more than 6 inches a session you will be asking a dog which is suffering from slight fatigue to increase the effort. (Its my opinion that 3 sets over and back is enough for one session ) Tired dogs make mistakes when scaling which can lead to falls and negative associations for the dog. As the dog is becoming confident and competent I will for a session or two set the scale at about 4ft and instead of the normal routine place the dog out of position in the down (my preference ) walk round the scale look over and recall the dog over the scale. With practice the dog will learn to return from imperfect positions, so on the odd occasions when the dog goes out of position it will know how to correct its self for the return and complete the exercise. Once the dog has become consistent in doing the whole exercise…. the approach, halt, over on command, stay in nominated position, then return on command, It will be necessary to practice the whole exercise at various venues and on different scales. This is easily done by using other people’s scales, although in my early days in Working Trials I used to carry my jumps round on a trailer, pull up in the local park or recreation ground, sports field or even a wide grass verge on a quiet lane unload the jumps and do a couple of sets, reload the trailer and leave. If you ask the park keeper they will almost always refuse, but if you don’t ask you’ll have finished and be reloading the jumps back on the trailer before the keeper gets to you. If he complains simply apologize sweetly and next time do it when he’s not around. "its hardly a hanging offence"  When the dog is consistently doing the jumps correctly I only train them a couple of times a month unless problems occur.

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