Pre-Agility Training

A Game of Praise & Fun

Maxine Bray's LassieOver the years, Maxine Bray has known a lot of people who own young dogs they eventually wanted to train for competition but who have small gardens or no agility equipment of their own or access to it. She has spent many years perfecting agility training without equipment or using the bare minimum. It is all based on positive action, praise and play.

Before owning any of my own agility equipment, I devised many exercises using little or no equipment, and from five weeks old when I normally get my pups, I start pre-agility training using 'agility words.' This is nothing more than constructive play with no stress or strain on the pup whatsoever. I don't even let them walk up and down the very low back door step.

Playing with the pup on the lead while agility is being trained by others begins the bond between handler and dog. It teaches the dog that it is to stay with the handler regardless of what else is happening. The dog can't do anything but stay with the handler because it's on lead so you can praise it for staying with you. Only when you are positive the dog will stay with you do you do the same off lead.

With all this pre-agility training, the play and praise is important every time a small exercise is complete correctly. Ignore if the pup does it wrong. Don't 'tell the dog off.' It may take longer for some dogs than others. Dogs love praise and soon lose confidence if told off.

Directional Commands
Get your dog warmed up by throwing a ball or toy straight. Then start to throw slightly to the left, command 'left, 'back' or whatever word you intend to use. Once the dog has got the idea, throw the ball slightly to the right and command 'right.' Very quickly the dog will learn directionals.

Put the dog on lead. Encourage it to walk ahead of you by saying 'go on,' move left or right, giving a little tug on the lead and the direction command.

I use a mixture of both of these as well as other games to teach directionals.

Contact training
I don't like my pups climbing up and down the back door step, so I made a small ramp which is sanded and painted like contact equipment. I teach the pup to walk up and down it, always saying 'walk on' or what ever words you would use for contact equipment. This way no strain is put on the pup's joints, and it is learning without realising from a very early stage.

Later when the puppy is old enough to walk up and down steps, I use the stairs as a substitute for an A-frame. Starting off with one person at the bottom of the stairs and the other at the top, telling the dog to 'walk on' between them, each person collecting the dog and praising.

Then moving off from the top of the stairs, the person commands 'go on' while the person at the bottom catches the dog before it alights, commanding 'creep' and gently putting the dog into a down at the bottom of the stairs. Once the dog has completely understood what is required, this exercise can then be moved on using only one person, Again this is all a game and only praise is used.

Using a dogwalk or builders' plank on the floor, put your dog on its lead and teach it to walk across. Once confident, hesitate at the end each time, praise and walk off. This is built up over time to running off lead time hesitating and praising. If it goes wrong, then go back to lead stage. Once the dog is confident lift the plank by using a brick at each end which introduces slight movement.

If you dog is going to have a long stride (Standard Poodles, Dobermans etc), then on a lead let the dog put one foot on the plank, hesitate, praise them continue as above. This will help get the 'up' contact and so stops any problems before it begins.

From a very young age, I cover the pup with a light weight small sheet. Using lots of praise. I encourage it to come towards my voice from underneath the sheet. Praise and play. Later on by talking to your dog while its in the tunnel, it encourages your dog to come through faster and go in the right direction. If you are behind your dog, use a 'go on' command and a directional command if needed, before the dog comes out of the tunnel.

Place two jump wings (no pole) out. Sit the dogs and wait. Walk around the jump. Stand facing the dog and call. Then play. Don't always walk around the same side.

Place two jump wings (no pole) and sit the dog. Wait. Hold the dog's collar. Roll the ball/toy through the jump wings. Let go and command the dog to 'go on.' This teaches the dog its okay to work away from the hander. More jump wings can be added. The handler needs to run outside of the wings so the dog doesn't get into the habit of returning to the handler (i.e. getting eliminated by backjumping.) The pole can be introduced once the dog is old enough, first of all lying on the floor.

Even with very young dogs, you can roll a ball along the floor and encourage the pup to 'go on,' so they begin to learn to work away.

Shows don't have warm up rings or pay on the day and 'no equipment' bans in camping and parking areas. It's important to warm up your dog before it competes. To warm up the muscles used in jumping, it's a good exercise to teach your dog to jump into your arms or, if your dog is too big to catch, over your outstretched arm or leg. This way there is less likelihood of 'pulls' or injuries, Again I start the dog as early as possible, sitting on the floor, playing and saying up and holding the pup each time it naturally jumps onto my knee. Then I move into kneeling and finally standing. Again lots of praise is used.

I play 'fast downs' teaching the dog to lie down o the floor firstly by putting it in a down and, as always, using lots of praise. You can play this in the park shouting down from a distance. This is great in an emergency if they are heading for a road or another danger. This technique can be used for the table.

Learn your 'natural working distance' between your dog and yourself. That's the space between you and your dog before it starts 'turning a deaf ear/' Some dogs take their own line while others turn and come back to the handler. If you recognise the natural working distance, it can help you on an agility course, and if you can't run then it's important to position yourself on the course to help you dog as much as possible.

Young Maxine Bray Maxine Bray was born to a dog owning family, both purely working dogs and pets. She owned her first dog at the age of six, a black Miniature Poodle, which she named pixie. She was determined that Pixie would do all the same things as the other dogs in the household which were GSD and Border Collies. Her household was never the same.

Pixie was a clown - always making you laugh - but she had a good working brain, and was at home herding sheep or going out shooting with the 'big' dogs. Pixie refused to be left out of anything! This little dog taught Maxine a lot and was never far from her side.

Maxine trained her first gun dog at the age of 12, her first sheep/herding dog at the age of 14. She spent a lot of leisure time with her father who trained 'obedience, rescue and attack' as well as demonstration 'agility' with the police and RAF dogs. Maxine helped out in a rescue centre as well as puppy walking for Guide Dogs for the Blind.

In the late 80s having bought a GSD puppy, Soda Pops, she started going to puppy classes and 'found' agility. She spent time running Nottingham Agility Club, starting a tuck shop to raise funds for them and forming a Junior section within the club which included Junior teams. This was all pre-Kennel Club Registration. Along with three other people, she started an 'Obedience for Agility Club'; then finally an agility club.

Most people would have seen Maxine over the last ten year scribing or timing. She has been judging since 1997 and accepted three judging appointments for the year 2000 including an international invitation from another Kennel Club.

Maxine lives in Leicestershire.

Maxine Bray. This article may not be used or published in part or as a whole for any financial gain without prior written permission.

Comments: Puppy training
Over the last 25 years 'in dogs' (I started early!), I've bred nine litters of Belgian Sheepdogs and have always tried to expose them to lots of stimulation as early as possible, noises, people, and strange surfaces, etc. Now, after catching the agility bug, I'm trying to think of some safe but useful 'obstacles' to include in my puppy pen as the newest members get out of the whelping box. They have gotten the 'climb the wall 'n' out' obstacle down pat.

A big PVC pipe would be good for a 'tunnel,' but I've heard chewing that is probably not good. Boxes are always fun but don't last long with nine active youngsters but are an idea. I'm trying to come up with a very low but tippy surface that won't be likely to squish toes.

Any ideas out there that would be a good start on a future agility dog?
Lorra Miller (USA)

That is a great idea to make mini obstacles for the pups! Their explorations now will impact their fast learning skills later for sure! Maybe you can click before they get their meals too.

I would suggest you get an 'end of the roll' from your local newspaper printer. This is a thick cardboard tube about 10" in diameter that would make a safe first tunnel for your babies. The paper on it may come in handy for the pups too as bedding. Sheet metal companies and cable factories also use thick cardboard tubes. You might want to check there for larger ones. You could cut the bottom off a five gallon bucket, and attach a 12" long peice of fabric for their first chute.

The Buja Board that someone explained on the list a while back sounds good for them too. It is a tennis ball in a sock, stapled to the bottom of the board. It would get them used to the 'earth moving' under their feet. I would definately supervise this one, as a pup could be under it and get scared or hurt. Have fun watching them grow!
Dayna Rousseau (USA)

Toys-R-Us have a great kids nylon tunnel for about $30 that is wonderful for puppies. Our two border collies are full grown and still fit into it and love it. The tunnel pushes together and has ties sewn on it so it is easily stored when not in use.

You can make a small, inexpensive teeter from a 2x6 or 2x8 with two half circles of wood nailed to the center to provide a pivot. The height of the teeter can be higher or lower depending upon the size of the half circle. You could also attach a board to a PVC tube in the center to let the board tip back and forth. I wouldn't make it more than a couple of inches off the ground or the pups would probably get frightened and maybe injured.

You can start out with ground poles that they can walk over and then raise them a little higher using crushed pop cans on the ends. Instant puppy jumps. The puppies would be basically just hopping or walking over these mini jumps - not really jumping.

It would also be fun to try the puppies on a mini ramp by using a board braced on one end on a box or pillow and other end on the floor making a slight incline. Start them going up and down the incline. Have fun.
Kathy Vogan (USA)

My favorite way of training a pup is to bring a trained adult into the lesson as well. In other words, I have two dogs on the puppy course.

For instance, I taught Dart the weave poles in one short training lesson. I had Lovies do the weaves and I had Dart follow Lovies, nose on rear end and on leash. After a couple days Dart was weaving off leash.

I always use guide wires for my weave poles. That way the dogs make minimal mistakes, I can stand in awkward positions and they still don't make mistakes.

I really like the 'adult show the pup' method of introduction to agility obstacles for ages eight months or so on up.

Star & Cherie With all the dogs I cannot twin up with a trained adult (because they don't get along), there is the usual agony of trying to convince the dog that the bar on the ground for the weave poles is nothing to be afraid of etc. It takes months to get them to weave with the same ease that I get on a pup following a trained adult. Sometimes the pup weaves faster after one week than the adult. It's the same for the other obstacles.

Then just takes months of re-inforcing and proofing. But the obstacles are introduced without fear and very safely. And BTW I do back chain the down contacts. And very much depending on how I pre-conditioned the puppy, I let pup run over the equipment or not.

If pup was pre-conditioned on rough boulder, sand, rock terrain and they learned where their feet are, then they can negotiate a dogwalk or A-frame without hesitation the first time out. If on the other hand, they are afraid of height, don't know where their feet are, then back chaining for months will get them there.

Either way there's no shortcut in training. Puppy training should be short and not rushed. It should be always fun and safe and there should be no corrections. Pup should be guided into a do-it-all-right-type of training fashion.

Click and treat on down contact. After each obstacle it also helps to start short sequencing. And those Clean-run food/target cylinders are marvelous for starting go-outs on even an untrained pup.
Eva Martin (USA)

I have a good solid Golden, Marley. We lose time on the contacts. It is a long, long story, but the Reader's Digest version is that at age two she got spooked on an unsafe/unstable piece of equipment. I fed into her anxiety with 'easy, okay girl, easy, it's okay. Easy, easy, careful, careful.'

I spent an entire year salvaging our training.

Yogi as a pup But that's not the story. Cut forward to the new pup. I did things differently from the get-go. I wanted to build speed and confidence from Day One. Lizzie is fearless, and nothing bothers her. She went to trials from the first weekend home with me. She is not sound sensitive, falls off things and just doesn't care.

I have just started baby agility training at age five months. What this means is taking her to the paddock with my equipment. She's been walking on planks, running thru/sending to tunnels from the beginning. I can send her to tunnels from a good distance.

I've started to backchain the dogwalk. I set her up at the bottom. No problem. Backed her up a foot. No problem. Backed her up two feet and she fell off. Didn't know where her back feeet were relative to the plank. No problem, just no reward. Backed her up 2-3 feet and she fell off again into tall grass so no chance of injury. I could see that this really made her mad! So, as I was gathering targets etc., she picked herself off and did the whole dogwalk at speed. No problem. She was rewarded. Turned around and had her do it again, with me at her side. Again, no problem. Had her do it a few more times, and we have a fast dogwalk, with okay contacts.

Went to the seesaw, which I had set so the pivot was approz 8 inches above the ground. Thought I remembered some posts which said that the dog should have the choice to bail off if it wants. So I decided not to micromanage the seesaw.

The first time through she ran at full tilt and did a fly off at 10-12 inches, so safety is not an issue. The second time she ran and jumped off before the pivot. I'm still watching, not criticizing, not rewarding. This was clearly a puzzle to be solved for her. She was staring at it and I could tell she was really working it out. Third time she ran up, I clicked at the pivot, and rewarded the performance. She's now thinking about it, and was able to do the seesaw without commentary by me, just C&T.

Question: Any reason why I should not let this pup find her own way, as long as she can't get hurt? I really feel that I need to teach speed from the absolute beginning, and my prior micromanagement of 'easy, wait, easy, careful' just hindered Marley's performance. Don't want to go there again!
Betsy Hyde (USA)

Betsy, if I were you, I would quit right now and work on skills not related to agility equipment. This is a five month old puppy who you have shown has speed, agility and an appitude for the sport. Though she is fearless now, she still has some fear periods to go through, and if something happened like a fall off the DW or a teeter scare, it could be years before you get her back on and you may never have the performance you want (like you describe with your other dog, Marley). Why take the chance? Now that you know she has great potential, I would give her several months to grow up a little, before going any further on the equipment.
Susan McClair (USA)

Young Benson Good point Susan. What are we doing on equipment at five months anyway? Are we all getting into such a hurry to compete that we are not letting their little ones bones and mind grow up? This is like giving a driver's license and a Corvette to a eleven year old kid and letting them go out Friday night.

Besides scaring the heck out of the dog if they fall, what about the injury that can happen to it. And what about the injury that may show up 7-8 years from now when that little bruise on the joint or backbone gets calcium deposits on it and cripples the dog.

Waiting 4-5 months might make a bit of difference how your dog handles cause he/she will be a bit more mature, and a bit more mentally and physically sound. I guess I'll never understand why people ( if you let them) will run puppies over equipment even if its lower and or full height. It just don't make sense at all.
Scot Bartley (USA)

Why not just let the puppies enjoy the noise, dogs, people and a tunnel or two? Walk the plank and go over and check out the cookie on the target? Walk on a leash, get used to walking on both sides of their handler etc. You know people places and THINGS...
Jim Coral (USA)

At what age do you start agility training - 12 months as suggested by the Kennel Club or earlier? If you have any experience training a young puppy, send your views (pros or cons) to:- Agilitynet.