Anyone who has seen Chris Kurzfeld and her dog Tegan on an agility course marvels at their partnership. It was very early on in Teganís career when Chris realised she was not going to be able to 'run' with her dog. She would have to teach Tegan to work away. Here is the story of how she did it.
Tegan was not, and still isnít, the most confident dog. Sheís a real mummyís girl, but I had to try. She was already competing so could do all the obstacles Ė all I had to do now was to get her to do them on her own.
Firstly I had to find something to 'turn her on' and found she would do anything (almost) for a tennis ball or a piece of sausage. We then worked on waits. These went dreadfully wrong when we first started using them in the ring. I had to 'throw away' quite a few classes by taking her back and not letting her compete till she waited. It was tough, but boy was it worth it. I knew I would have to have strong waits if this was going to work.
I taught her 'yes' as a release command. I had already taught her 'left' and 'right' commands by getting her to twirl left and right using a piece of sausage. She now had to learn a 'go on' command so I would throw her ball and give her the command as she chased it.
I practiced each exercise, except contacts, in my garden for the week after she had learnt it. It wasnít a big garden but we could get three jumps in a line.
We went from straight lines to stars. These are great as you can have the jumps close, with you in the middle, and gradually move them out whilst you stay in the same place. Tegan picked this up quite quickly and soon she was doing double stars with hardly any movement from me. Again it was all done with praise and Jo encouraging her to begin with then it was back to the beginning to do it all again without Jo.
After stars came 'snakes' and 'pull throughs' starting with two jumps and adding more as Teganís confidence grew. With snakes when we added a third jump I had to get her to turn away from me, we did this with Jo encouraging her at first then with me throwing the ball - over arm (Joís famous aeroplane arm) - over the jump. It took ages to get my timing right but we got there in the end. With 'pull throughs' we put 2 jumps side by side with a big gap between, I then sent her over a jump and called her to me through the gap using the 'through' command, as she came to me I would send her over the next jump by throwing her ball over it. Again it was all in the timing, which I frequently got wrong. As Teganís confidence grew we added more jumps and I began to move further away. If she showed signs of not being happy with the distance then I moved nearer. Once she was happy with the distance we then put the jumps closer.
I learnt early on that Tegan needed to be 'tricked' into thinking I was going with her. I do this by making sure my body always faces the way I want her to go and not turning away till she is committed to the obstacle. Early on this went wrong many times Ė and still does when I get my timing wrong. To help get the timing right we did an exercise where we put two straight rows of three jumps side by side with a bent pipe tunnel at the end.
With Jo encouraging her, I started off by sending her over one jump, into the tunnel and up the other line of three. I slowly moved back till she was happy going down one line, into the tunnel and up the other line. Once she was doing this without Jo I found I could send her down to the tunnel and could step to the end of the other line and pick her up. If I moved before she was committed to the tunnel she would pull off.
To teach Tegan the 'go round' command, whilst a the same time teaching her to turn away from me, I started off in the middle of the box, tennis ball in my right hand and Tegan on my left. I then sent her over the jump whilst at the same time throwing the ball to the left and giving a 'left' command, as we had already done this when doing 'snakes' she picked this up quickly. Once she was happy doing this I then would her over a jump, turn her right, throw the ball and turn her left after it. When she was happy doing that we did it the other way. To get her to 'go round' to the next jump in the box I put the wings touching, then with Tegan, myself and the ball in the middle I sent her over a jump, turned her left (or right) and, with exaggerated body language, gave her a 'go round' command. She wanted the ball and, with the jumps on low, the only way she could get to it was by going over the next jump. It took quite a while, but as her confidence grew I could move the box out and eventually move myself outside the box. One word of warning! Be sure what commands you want to use. To this day if I say 'go round' she does it beautifully. If I just say 'round' Ė forget it!
Sometime it was frustrating because I knew she could do it, say after a jump, but then didnít seem to understand when contacts were introduced. I remember telling her off once, not sure exactly what for, but I know it put our training back a couple of weeks. After that, whenever I felt frustrated I would do something with her that I knew she could do well, praise her and forget about training for that day. I still do this either in training or when competing. If it goes wrong in the ring I look for something easy for her to finish with, that way I can keep her confidence up with praise. This type of training teaches a dog to think for itself, with a bit of guidance from itís owner, nagging doesnít work, praise does.
Training this way does take longer
I am now training Katz. She is 16 months old and is nothing like Tegan. She has more confidence and, although she does like to please me, is not so much of a mummyís girl. Moving house, and my accident, means we are not as far along in our training as I would have liked. She is ragger and sausage mad and, unlike Tegan, knew her directional commands before she went anywhere near any equipment. She can do all the equipment, except weaves, and is confident doing them without me being close to her.
We havenít got to the stage of putting things together yet, and we havenít a clue what those contact bits on the end are for, but hopefully that will come when I can get back to training her. Teaching her has been easier as she has fewer hang ups and knows no other way.
Tegan took longer as she had to be re-trained. There is no doubt that the effort was worth it. I love her to bits Ė she is such an honest dog and my star girl. We may not set the Agility world alight but I always come out of the ring knowing that, whatever has happened, E or clear, she has given me 110% and well deserves her jump into my arms for a cuddle.
This move took her nearer to friends Jo and Iain Fraser where she joined Crazymaesy Agility and began training with and for them.
In 2000 Chris started her judging career and has been judging at various levels since.
Her move to Wales in 2004, with husband Andy, seven dogs and one cat, took her to an area where there are no clubs close by but, having a paddock and her own equipment, Chris is developing a new circle of agility friends.
Editors note: Yes, of course.