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Taking teaching seriously but making it fun

For a long time, people had urged Mike Bacon to set up a course for people interested in becoming agility instructors. He was understandably  reluctant as he had been on instructors courses and he knew what a difficult task it would be. It had to be a good course if he were to do it. After people who had been organising the only agility instructors' courses in the South West stopped was he persuaded to set up his own training course.

The first step was to work out what people needed so I spent many hours observing handlers and their dogs at shows and agility training classes. If you go to any agility competition and spend some time watching, you will probably see the same thing I did. In amongst the good performances, there are people who are struggling with the basic handling techniques, and there are dogs that do not know how to do the equipment correctly. There are also some dogs whose behaviour when not competing leaves a lot to be desired. Not all but some of the responsibility must lie with the club or training group where people learn their agility and, therefore, with the instructors.

So why is this?
Don't underestimate what is involved in being a dog agility training instructor. It is very challenging. It's difficult enough teaching basic pet dog control, but the agility instructor has to teach people to train their dog to do many complex tasks in a short time from a distance and at high speed. The agility instructor must have good people skills and be a combination of dog trainer and sports coach.

In my experience there is really very little help for people who want to become agility instructors. The usual route is for someone who shows some ability to train their own dog and commitment to be asked if they would like to instruct. Often they shadow an experienced instructor and before long they are taking their own class. They then find out there is a huge difference between training your own dog and teaching other people how to train theirs.

It's important to take into account that agility is a comparatively new activity. New training and handling techniques are constantly being developed. Some have gone out of fashion and come back again as new generations of handlers take up the sport.

There are good basic principles for dog training but, in my opinion, there is not one specific way to teach agility. Different methods suit different dogs and different people. All the methods have their advantages and disadvantages. The agility instructor should be aware all of them and have them in their tool kit ready to use.

Taking the plunge
After considerable thought and preparation, I finally came up with a syllabus and a set of course notes ready for review which I presented to fellow instructor Helen Prosser and my daughter Claire. To both of them, I am very grateful for their input. Eventually we agreed a format which we were happy with and we ran a trial course with some local people who had a wide variety of experience in agility and dog training in general.

Several revisions later, we were ready for a wider public, so we advertised our first proper course on Agilitynet. We had expected a certain amount of interest from people in the South West, our own area, but we were stunned by the huge response including a number of applications from places as far away as Scotland. Imagine how surprised we were to get some enquiries from Spain and Kuwait!

Our first course was instantly full. We even had a waiting list. It was clear that our original plan to do one course per year would not be sufficient. Now we try to fit in three a year.

The course
When people book, we ask them to complete a application form, outlining their experience. That way we are able to adapt the course specifically for them.

The basic syllabus consists five modules which are split into two courses. The topics are in line with the Kennel Clubs Accreditation Scheme for Instructors (KCAI) and are also excellent preparation for anyone intending to take the Agility Club Approved Instructor (ACAI) exam.

Course 1 consists of three modules.

Module 1 - Starting Agility Training
Covering organisations, rules and regulations, legal requirements, health and safety, qualities of an agility instructor, dog training principles for agility theory and practical, assessing dogs ability and suitability, what to do about problems at the beginner stage. It is a mainly theory module with some practical elements.

Module 2 - Starting to Teach Agility
Including foundation training for puppies and young dogs,  basic control exercises, starting equipment training, the different ways to train contacts and weaves - their advantages and disadvantages - and how to spot problems when they are beginning. It is mainly hands on with a little theory.

Module 3 - Teaching Handling Skills
Looking at all the basic handling techniques - their advantages and disadvantages - and how they suit different dogs and handlers. Also where and when it is best to used each techniques, and how to progress in stages without de-motivating dogs or handlers. It mostly practical and lasts a full day.

When we have groups of students that doesn't have much agility experience - sometimes they have none at all but have been asked to start teaching agility for a pet dog club or kennels - we do one module per day. But when we have a group of students who've had previous experience of agility and/or instructing dog training - some have already been competing successfully and instructing - we send them a copy of the course syllabus in advance so they can select the topics they want to focus on. In this case, we can combine Modules 1 and 2 and run them both on one day, adjusting the course to fit the students' experience.

A good example of how this works happened when I was asked to go to the Isle of Man to run a course. They had a group of instructors, all with similar agility experience, so we were able to ascertain in advance what they wanted to cover. They were a great group of students with a positive attitude towards dog training and agility, but I found it much harder work than usual as I did not have my back-up team, demonstration dogs or special training equipment.

For Modules 1, 2, and 3 we give a Certificate of Attendance. Students can choose to have their practical work assessed and to do a multi-choice question paper for each module. The question paper is a sort of test but it done in a way that, we hope, is not too stressful. It includes questions that are designed to make people think and some to make them smile. If they get more than 80% percent correct, they get a Certificate of Competence.

Just over 100 people have taken the course so far, and there has been a 95% pass rate. The question paper is a very useful way for us to assess their progress and the course in general. If a lot of students give the same incorrect answer, we change how we are teaching that topic. It is also helps the students know what areas they need more work on.

There is a lot to take in on the first course in either the one or two day format. We strongly feel that people need some time to review and practice what they have learnt. For this reason, we ask people to wait several months before coming back for Course 2. That way they can let us know from personal experience what has gone well and what has not, and we can incorporate help into the second course. We also know the people by then - their strengths and weaknesses - which helps the focus of the course on the needs of the individual.

Course 2 consists of Modules 4 and 5

Module 4 - Competition Coaching
Reviewing the previous modules and continuing with advanced handling skills. It covers coaching techniques, goal setting, planning, motivation for people and dogs and is mainly practical with some theory.

Module 5 - Problem Solving
Covering three areas, specifically 1) Behavioural Problems, 2) Dog Training Problems and 3) Agility Problems. We look at how to identify problems early and what is the best way to deal with them. If we can find dogs with a relevant problem we use them for practical work. If not, we discuss what can be done. To be honest, we are never short of examples from the students' own experiences.

We only give Certificates of Attendance for Modules 4 and 5, though there is a course quiz used for review.

The average course size has been  8-10 people. The smallest was six and the largest 12. For the practical sessions and the quiz, we split into teams of three or four, carefully selected to give a balance.

The courses are usually held at Orchard Farm, Kenn, North Somerset BS21 6TT, a few miles from M5 J20. We have an outside sand arena, a grass training paddock and a small barn where the theory and some of the practical lessons are held. We are unable to offer camping, but there are is hotel, B&B accommodation and campsites that accept dogs nearby.

Diamond training
In our own training classes, we cater for both the competition handler and for the pet dog owner who just wants to have some fun and exercise with their dog. We believe that competitive agility can be fun and fun agility can be competitive so whichever their goal, we always train as if the person might want to compete at some time in the future. It's quite difficult to change from pet training to competition when the owner suddenly realises that they have a star. We follow the same principle in our instructor's courses.

Throughout the course, we encourage people to study all methods of dog training and dog sports, not just agility and to take what they feel is most appropriate to them. Even if it is not a technique they have used themselves, they should at least know about it as one of their students is sure to ask about it at some time. Most importantly, we encourage them to try things for themselves and make their own minds up about what will suit different dogs and people.

We have always loved dogs and enjoyed dog training, competing and instructing. Agility has been a huge part of our life. Because of it, we have travelled to many places and met people whom we would not met have otherwise. Through agility, we've made many good friends and, above all, we've tremendous fun. Running instructors courses is hard work and is very demanding but the positive feedback we get makes it all worthwhile.

More information about the instructor’s course can be found at www.diamond-dog-training.co.uk

About the author...
Mike Bacon
has been dog training for almost 40 years. He competed successfully in Obedience and Working Trials until specialising in Agility 26 years ago. With Jack of Diamonds, his Tervueren (BSD) he came 6th in the FMBB Individual Agility World Championships in Spain 2004 and was a member of the winning team in Germany 2005. He was appointed by the BSDA and WBSDS to be the Team Manager of the Great Britain Agility squad for the FMBB World Championship since 2006. His current Tervueren, Jet competed in the 2010 FMBB World Championships and is now competing in Grade 6.

Mike also trains his collies to work sheep but does not trial with them as he likes to have at least one dog activity that is done just for the fun of it. For same reason, he trains tracking and searching with his BSDs but does not compete in Working Trials. He runs workshops for like-minded people. He also works with people and dogs with training problems, specialising in stock chasing and dog aggression.

Mike set up Diamond Dog Training about ten years ago to provide 1-2-1 training to people who needed a bit more attention than they could get a training clubs. It was so successful that he took early retirement from his job as a project manager with an IT company to concentrate on dog training. In 2009 his daughter Claire joined him, helping with the agility and puppy classes so that he could spend more time dealing with problem dogs.

Mike is an Agility Club Approved Instructor (ACAI), member of the Kennel Club Accredited Instructor Scheme (KCAI), and a member of the Guild of Dog Trainers

More details can be found at www.diamond-dog-training.co.uk or you can ring Mike on tel. 01934 833525 or m. 07867 822425. Email mike_of_diamonds@yahoo.co.uk