Home Schooling Your Clicker Trained Agility Dog   
by Helix Fairweather

Why Home School Your Agility Dog?

Agility is a complex, demanding, but oh so fun, sport. But let's say you're a clicker trainer and agility classes with correct use of operant conditioning and clicker training are few and far between. You've made the decision to train your dog using clicker training, you've researched all the standard books and videos, you've been to clicker training obedience seminars. How will you make the leap to clicker training your agility dog?

I made this leap a few years ago. I had taken several sets of agility classes with my older Beardie, Maggie. I wasn't very happy seeing three adult humans (myself included) pushing Maggie up over the A-frame (which was higher than my head) with Maggie quaking in fear the entire time. I had heard about clicker training and decided there had to be better ways to do this. Maggie was a dog of many psychological challenges, fearfulness being the top of the list. As I tried to practice agility things with Maggie, her fearfulness grew more and more apparent. It was trying to solve that problem that led me to try clicker training, to Dani Weinberg, my friend and mentor, and to operant conditioning, clicker lists and clicker trained dog agility.

Brady, also a Beardie, was my assistant at learning clicker training. I was determined to do competition obedience with Brady AND do it with clicker training. Well, that was tough to do. I didn't know how to use the technology while still preserving her known behaviors. I decided to try training agility things in order to teach myself clicker training and not "mess up" any obedience work. Ha ha, right?

I made simulations of agility equipment. Weird looking things grew in my backyard. I had no training plans other than what I made up myself — and those were never written down. I knew what the goal behaviors were and I trained the best I could to arrive at those behaviors. Brady and I did pretty darned well, I must say!

Brady's obstacle training, in hind sight, was a total bunch of lumps (see Bob Bailey's excellent post, "Ratios, and a new direction", March 16, 1998, ClickTrain email list) — I really did not know how to split behaviors! I had multiple criteria going and never even knew it at the time. Nevertheless we managed. Brady was "mostly" trained on all the obstacles when the Big Move hit; we moved from New Mexico back to Oregon. I gave away much of my makeshift equipment. The temporary home we moved into had little space to train and I was desperate to keep our training up so I enrolled in a local agility class.

My thinking was this: the trainer does not use corrections and Brady is almost fully trained on the obstacles so we can probably handle a "traditional" agility class. By "traditional" agility class, I mean one in which dogs run up over medium height equipment (they refer to this as low, I'd call it medium) with no real training, just a weekly exposure to running up and over things. I didn't know enough at the time to think about the philosophical conflicts between traditional training and clicker training — I thought just the lack of corrections was enough. Turned out I was wrong. There are BIG philosophical differences between training based on the laws of learning and training with little attention to them.

Let's consider Brady as the example: At this point she was clicker trained to do the agility obstacles accurately. Her entries onto contact equipment were straight, her exits were immaculate — she never, ever missed a contact zone (trained with a target stick as a running contact — well, OK, a walking contact in Brady's case). Brady was very accurate. And why not? She had been clicked for accuracy many, many times. But she was slow as all get out. The instructor told me not to worry, that Brady will get faster as she gains more confidence on the equipment — and I bought that! After all, what did I care? There were no corrections in the class and the instructor was an experienced competitor so she must know.

What's wrong with this picture? Yep. The instructor was not a clicker trainer. If she had been a clicker trainer, she would have told me that we now needed to train for speed. If she had been a clicker trainer, she might have realized how many gazillion times Brady had been clicked for a slow, but oh so accurate, performance of the obstacles and what a powerful bunch of reinforcing that was — one that is not about to be undone with 'gaining confidence'. It wasn't until much later, probably in our second year of competing, that I figured out what that HUGE philosophical difference had cost us in training for agility.

Yes, you can take a standard agility class but you'll need to stay on top of the philosophical differences between training a dog with operant conditioning and a marker versus other styles of training. Standard agility classes usually go way too fast in my opinion. Dogs are not given any time to learn to do the correct behaviors. Each week a set of obstacles is presented and dogs just run up over them or through them. Little or no attention is given to training foundation skills. Certainly this is not true of all agility classes; definitely visit a class before signing up to determine if it is an actual training class or a "run 'em up over" type of class. My recommendation to anyone interested in doing agility is to first train your dog to have a solid foundation on all the equipment, one that includes all the facets you will want from a given behavior, before ever setting foot in a regular class. Walk into a class with a fully competent dog ready to learn your part of the team's work. That will allow you to have your dog be your training assistant so that only one of you at a time is experiencing the learning curve.

The basic prerequisites to home schooling your clicker trained agility dog are that the dog has learned to be operant (i.e. he knows how to learn) and that he has mastered base behaviors, such as sit/down, stay, come when called, self-control (such as don't jump on people), walk on a loose leash. He should also be healthy and somewhat fit at this point. If you have the opportunity to instill play behaviors, you'll have my envy! My dogs have all come to me as adults with little interest in toys — training toy motivation has been a long process for Brady and I.

Doggie Skills — Mastery of the Obstacles

Each agility obstacle must be performed in a safe, fast and accurate manner. Your training plan must be built to incorporate these characteristics. For example, it's not safe for a dog to lift his head while running through the chute (a sleeve made of nylon) — lifting his head will cause him to become tangled in the material. It's not safe for your dog to jump off the A-frame from halfway down the ramp. As noted by my experience with Brady, speed needs to be trained in the very beginning stages of training, right alongside accuracy.

The dog must be able to enter each obstacle from any angle, from a significant distance, at various speeds. You might end up in a tight spot on a course and have to send your dog over a jump with a path that is practically parallel to the jump bar (Fig. 1 This is called a slice) — something to train as part of the foundation skills when training a jump. We can save ourselves some running distance (and consequently some breath) if we can send our dogs from 20 feet into a tunnel — distance training is a requirement as a foundation skill. And the dog must be able to work at various speeds — not everything can be done at a full-tilt boogie!

Just as in competition obedience, the dog must be able to perform with all manner of distractions — kids eating ice cream cones at ringside right in line with your SEND to the weave poles (this was a true event for Brady and I — she made it!), a dog bouncing around on deck being motivated by his handler for his run just as you and your dog take a turn that brings you facing the start line, a group of horses and their riders clomping by outside the agility ring at a county fairgrounds — the list of "interesting": distraction stories is endless (and quite humorous too).

Obedience people take note: your dog must work equally well on both your left and your right sides. Start NOW teaching him to walk and/or heel on your right side. Start NOW teaching him that everything he does can be done from either side, start NOW . . . did I say start NOW?

Debbie Sacerich uses the mantra: LEFT, RIGHT, CALL, SEND, WIDE to describe foundation training for agility obstacles and I've adopted this as my training mantra too. LEFT (Fig. 2), RIGHT (Fig. 3), CALL (Fig. 4), SEND (Fig. 5), WIDE (Fig. 6) — it means your dog should be able to do each obstacle from the left, from the right, being called to you, being sent by you, from a distance away or any doable combination of those (see Fig. 2 through 6). This is a very easy way for clicker trainers to think about breaking down the criteria into single bits that can be trained separately.

And you'll need to think about what Julie Daniels refers to as the "elements of difficulty" associated with each obstacle. As an example, she lists four elements of difficulty for the teeter: substrate, noise, balance, and height.
(Fig. 7) Substrate refers to the actual material the dog is working on. In the case of the teeter this is a narrow board with a rough surface. Separating out noise and training that as a separate element will give a noise sensitive dog a chance to learn to handle the noise without having the teeter drop out from under her at the same time — a big plus! Balance — this element of difficulty involves teaching the dog to control a moving board and lovin' every minute of it. Lastly, height. The height of this moving, tipping board starts off at almost ground level (piece of pipe for a fulcrum) and gradually is raised to its full 24" height. Each obstacle has its own set of elements of difficulty. A good training plan will split each of them out to some degree so that the dog is comfortable with each before adding them together. This calls for clever simulations of equipment!

The most important consideration in planning your dog's mastery of the individual agility obstacles is his structure, his physical condition and his functional ability. Does your dog have the angulation and reach needed to jump? If not, his job will be harder. Are his hips sound? Is his spine flexible? The best person to answer these questions is a veterinarian who is very familiar with the stresses and strains involved in doing dog agility. For me, this means not just any vet — I use a vet who specializes in sports related injuries, one who does agility with her dogs, and who is also a veterinary chiropractor and veterinary acupuncturist. Another tremendous resource is Suzanne Clothier — if she does a seminar anywhere you can drive to, do it! She is a master at assessing a dog's ability to function as an athlete.

Doggie Skills — Motion

With all those factors in mind, you can design a training plan to train each agility obstacle in a stationary setting, that is, with no motion. Agility is, of course, a moving situation. Your dog will need to be able to change gaits — walk, trot, canter. He will need to be able to change leads. Horse people know what that means but dog people often do not. Here's an example: as your dog jumps a hurdle, knowing he is going to be turning to his left upon landing, he will land with his left front foot first, thus he is set up to make that left turn — we say he's on a left lead. While running towards a jump that is straight ahead, he may be on either his left lead, that is, his left front foot hits the ground first, or he may be on his right lead. With the proper information as to the next task, he can switch leads to accommodate what comes next.

Ideally we'd like our dogs to be able to switch focus from handler-focus to obstacle-focus. On a nice long straightaway of obstacles, we don't need him checking in with us. We'd like to see him looking straight ahead, going for each obstacle in his path. This we call obstacle-focus or highway driving. If the course is tight and twisty, we want the dog to be handler-focused, ready to take direction from us, city driving. Your agility dog needs to be able to do both modes and to change easily.

Your dog needs to be able to take directional cues and stay in his stride. Directional cues are usually body language cues (verbals are used too but dogs read our bodies for the primary signals) such as, Out, Here, Turn, Away, Around, Wrap, Left, Right. Directional cues are very fun to train and can be done in small spaces in odd moments — waiting in line, doing laundry at the laundromat, waiting at the vet's office.

And, again, movement means your dog needs to be treated as an athlete. That requires physical conditioning to keep him fit or for getting him fit. Conditioning is very much as it is for humans; there are aerobic workouts to extend endurance and specific tasks for building specific muscles. For example, walking uphill builds up a dog's front end muscles so as to have better lift for jumping. Once he's in condition, he can then do uphill runs. Again, this is the type of exercise that needs to be recommended by your agility-oriented vet. I strongly recommend you do jump chute training with your dog to physically condition him for jumping and to teach him to jump with proper, efficient style. Suzanne Clothier's book, The Clothier Natural Jumping Method, is the best way to do this. (www.flyingdogpress.com) I think jump chute work is the best gift you can give your future agility dog. It takes space; it's a big commitment but it is so very worth it. The dogs love it. Their muscles become conditioned. And they become a secure, comfortable, efficient jumper.

Handler Skills — Motion

Guess what? We humans have to be in motion too! Oh yes, agility is a team sport. However there are all levels of motion that a handler can choose to do. The California style of agility handling is to run with your dog most of the time and I do mean run with your dog! Not all of us can do that. The opposite end of the spectrum is to stand relatively stationary and send your dog around the course by only verbal directionals and obstacle cues. This can be done but it requires a training plan aimed at this goal. When you do your LEFT, RIGHT, CALL, SEND, WIDE training, you'll need to extend WIDE to very great distances. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle.

One handler skill that is tough to do at first is to run while watching your dog out of the corner of your eye — this is not easy! At the same time, you must use your body effectively to influence your dog's path to the correct obstacle. Many people set out to rely on verbal cues only, thinking that their dog will go in the tunnel as soon as he hears Tunnel!. Well, we're only human and the day will come when you are charging towards that tunnel and you yell Table!. What's a good dog to do? Most of them will go straight into that tunnel because that is what your body language is screaming. So good handler training involves learning to use your body cues in the best way for your team.

Another handler task is to be in the correct place to give the correct body signal. This comes from planning your strategy for that particular course. But it also comes from an ability to think (and react!) on the fly — to make an immediate decision based on where your dog is at that moment. I'm getting pretty used to BJ's speed (BJ is my new agility dog) and how he'll react to any particular setup on a course. But once, he really got me! He was blazing fast and I was left in the dust! I never had time to think nor react on the fly since I hadn't been called on to do that with him yet.

Handler Skills — Strategy

The handler's part of the deal is to be the man (or the woman) with the plan. You've got to be very aware of your dog's strengths and weaknesses, preferences, limitations, stress signs and stress triggers. Some of those things you just plain do not learn until your first trial experience. Another factor is recent reinforcement history. For example, a friend of mine had problems with the table so she went on a table training binge. Next trial, she couldn't keep her dog away from the table! If you've been heavily reinforcing an obstacle lately, you'll need to keep that in mind when planning your strategy for the run. Lots of mental juggling for the handler!

With practice, you'll become adept at "finding the line". Agility obstacles can be scattered around out there in what looks like complete disarry. However, there will usually be a "line" — a line that is a great path for the dog, one that takes out all the kinks and knots of the course and allows him to get into a good striding rhythm. Finding the line can be a good way to minimize the amount of ground your dog covers, thus increasing the likelihood you can beat the course time. Many's the run that has been super, yet not qualifying, due to just a fraction of a second over course time.

Planning a strategy requires that you, the human half, know the rules for the organizations you plan on competing in. Knowing the rules ought to be part of your training plan too. For example, if you'll never run an AKC course (perhaps because you have a mixed breed dog), no need to train for the sit on the table. One organization has an incredibly steep A-frame; your training plan must address how you will train for this obstacle if you choose to pursue that organization's titles.

Many times the most efficient course, the one that will shave those seconds, requires a tight turn. Is your dog's physique up to making a turn that tight? Part of your strategy will be remembering how well your dog can turn tight. For a time I trained a Lab for agility. She was severely dysplastic and had bone graft surgery to create hip sockets where very little existed prior to surgery. Her orthopedic vet cleared her to do agility but I was not comfortable with being all-out with her. My sports medicine vet suggested that tight turns put too much torque on her hips and those were to be avoided. When we practiced fancy handling sets, I gave her plenty of latitude to make wide turns. Normally in training a dog as fast as she was, you would want to lop those big wide turns off but that was not the best way for this dog.

As the dog's partner, you need to be aware of potentially unsafe or unwise moves. Sure, the judge put that triple jump at a sharp angle but your dog does not have to approach it at that angle. Your job is to find a way to keep him safe even if the course presents a potentially unsafe situation. And of course, ultimately it's your responsibility to your team to scratch a run if the course cannot be done safely.

Team Skills

Ah! the blending of doggie skills and human skills into a team! Many of the factors I've been discussing, such as, motion, body cues, strategy, are things you'll need to learn from an experienced agility competitor. I mention them here for your consideration in planning how to home school your agility dog. Many of these factors need to be considered in building your foundation training plan.

Examples of team skills are consistent cueing, following through with body language, cueing to switch from obstacle focus to handler focus, switching sides in front of or behind your dog, having a partnership so that your carefully planned strategy can be executed. Relationship is the real foundation skill — the very first one that needs to be taught. I see people on various agility lists asking "I just got a puppy, what can I teach him to do at 10 weeks of age?" I always have the same answer: relationship, relationship, relationship. Teach that puppy to LOVE to play with you! Teach him that you know all the best games in the world, that you are where all the action is. Forget weave poles at 3 months! Teach him to play with you. That'll take you a long way in your future agility training.

Training Tools

You'll need to think about training tools when making your training plan. Targets — all of life involves targets. When we walk from our car in the parking lot of Walmart, we target on the entrance door. When we walk to the store, we target on the sidewalk. Targets are something to aim for and there are plenty of uses for targets in training agility obstacles.

I think of targets in two categories: neutral targets and target-lures. A neutral target is something that hasn't any reinforcement value in and of itself; it's just neutral. Examples are a plexiglas plate, a yogurt lid, a target stick, a rubber sink mat. Their purpose is to give the dog something to aim for or to focus on. When used as a training prop, these will eventually need to be faded (reduced in size).

I use the term target-lure to refer to a target with built-in reinforcement. Some examples are toys, balls, a food tube, a bait plate (food on a yogurt lid). These are used, again, as something to focus on; in addition, the reinforcer is right there, part of the process. Often these are used to build drive and speed. However, you should analyze their effectiveness carefully — is the dog being reinforced for the speed? or is he just running fast to a piece of food? In the case of toys and balls, these can become a tossed reinforcer. The case of a bait plate has an inherent problem — it needs to be faded and that's tough with food. It's either there or it isn't. That's why I recommend making a careful analysis for yourself; is your dog being reinforced for something specific? is the sight of the food on the bait plate a reinforcer? if so, what behavior is being reinforced?

Some other props to consider: training barriers (these are little gates made of PVC and plastic fencing), a ladder, toys, simulations of actual equipment, pseudo-jumps, cones, buckets, chairs, waste baskets. Training barriers are used to restrict a dog's choices. For example, when training a straight entry to the dogwalk, you can use a barrier either side of the dogwlk to "get the behavior". The downside of props is the tendency to be dependent on them rather than moving on after having "gotten the behavior". A ladder flat on the ground is useful for teaching a dog to move both his front feet and rear feet in a careful manner. It's also useful for teaching an easy or slow to change gait. Simulations of actual equipment can be something as simple as a 12 foot plank, painted with sand, with a piece of pipe under it — a low teeter! What I call pseudo-jumps are just jump uprights with a big space between them. I teach handlers and dogs to learn to steer by manipulating their way through a "course" of these.

Space Considerations

You might be asking, "How much room do I need to do this?" Well, it depends on what piece you are actually doing. You can train one jump, LEFT, RIGHT, CALL, SEND, WIDE, in a space about 15' x 15'. Training the A-frame will require a larger space; a very low A-frame is about 18 feet long plus you need entry and exit space. I do my initial A-frame training on only half of an A-frame because I train the end behavior first. I don’t need the full A-frame for a LONG time!

Training directionals, perhaps 20' x 20'. Targets, go-outs, baby sequences — you'll need about 20' x 30'. Handling sequences, such as Backyard Dogs exercises (Clean Run Magazine) will require at least 40' x 50'. A full course requires 100' x 100'. Jump chute conditioning can require up to 100 feet in length but only wide enough for the jump.

Where Can You Train?

You can use your yard even if it's small. My front yard is about 30' x 50' and has several trees in it. In addition, it has big lumps and dips. I can only put things that require good flat ground in a few places but I manage. You can form a training group and work specific obstacles at different homes — let's say Jane has an A-frame-like ramp, Joe has a teeter plank, Mary has room for a jump chute — rotate training between each other's homes. You can work in parks or school grounds (get permission first). We have found a local nursing home that allows our club to have practice on its grounds; the residents love to come out and watch us practice. There are agility club practice sessions but beware: these are often intended for competition type practice and give little leeway to those who want to just train on a single piece of equipment.

The biggest factor for me in choosing where I'll work is the surface. I will not train on concrete unless it is covered with stall mats (the very think, very expensive rubber mats). Loose dirt such as in horse arenas is fine, grass is fine — but, for me, the surface must be of good impact resistance for the safety of my dog's joints.

Types of Obstacles

Agility has three major categories of obstacles and one oddball one. Julie Daniels refers to these as the go-overs, the go-ups and the go-throughs. The go-overs are the various types of jumps — bar jump, tire jump, broad jump, panel jump, spread jumps. The go-ups are the contact obstacles; the A-frame, the dog walk, the teeter, the table. The go-throughs are the tunnel, the chute, the tire jump. The oddball obstacle is the finesse obstacle — the weave poles.

Most of these are fairly easy to cobble together in a practice quality sense. I have plans for some of these on my website — http://www.peak.org/~helix/Agility. The tunnel is the toughest one to come up with at a reasonable cost. Play tunnels have limited use; they are good for doing your early LEFT, RIGHT, CALL, SEND, WIDE training.The cheapest (and also the longest) is the plastic one from JC Penneys catalog. There are many ways to simulate these things to get your training started — a cardboard box for a tunnel, a box with a sheet on it for a chute, a footstool for a table, sink plungers for weave poles. You get the idea — necessity is the mother of invention.

The categories I've discussed are broad categories selected to start you thinking. My specific examples were just a few of the many things to consider when planning a training program. I hope I've given you much to chew on so that you decide you can home school your clicker trained agility dog and be ready to step into an agility class, confident in your dog's abilities and training, ready to learn your part of the job. It's a fun, fun sport — I hope you enjoy it as much as my dogs and I do!

I have developed a Cyber Agility Class for clicker trainers who would like to home school their clicker trained agility dog. For more information, contact Helix Fairweather, helix@cyberagility.com