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In The Zone. Part I.

Originally appeared in the November 1998 ESAA Newsletter

Do you have a large, boring lawn that is just crying out for some eye-catching architectural features? If so, you have come to the right place ..... agility equipment gives a whole new meaning to "yard art"! You like the landscaping you already have and don't have a lot of spare cash to invest in agility lawn art? Don't let this dissuade you from trying agility because you really can train without having your own personal agility course. Although I personally own only a pipe tunnel (which lives at a friend's house), some weave poles, a couple of PVC jumps and co-own an A-frame (last summer's auction bargain), I have competed fairly successfully in the sport. I have one friend that I met at an agility trial about five years ago. She had seen an agility demo and decided that it looked like a fun activity to try with her dogs. She had never been to a class but had assembled her own "agility course" from boards and hay bales. I guess she did a pretty good job of teaching the fundamentals of agility with these devices because her dog quickly became one of the most successful competitors on the West Coast and has earned two agility championships. Although she now trains using real agility equipment and owns her own agility school, the point I want to make is that you can do a lot of basic training without a large investment in equipment. You can combine some simple homemade devices with membership in an agility club, enrolling in classes, or striking up a friendship with someone who has equipment you can use. Most of the training techniques that I will be describing over my next several columns can be started at home without agility equipment. Many of the basic exercises would be good to do with obedience dogs even if you don't have an interest in agility competition.

As I mentioned last month, the challenge of agility is to balance speed with control in correctly negotiating the obstacles that make up the course. This balance is of extreme importance in the performance of the contact obstacles. The three contact obstacles required on AKC, NADAC, and USDAA courses are the A-frame, dogwalk and teeter totter (see saw). In watching an agility competition in any of these organizations, you will notice that these three obstacles are always painted in a two-tone fashion -- the ends of the ramps are always yellow with the remainder of the obstacle being some contrasting color. Most agility exhibitors do not want their canine partner emulating Evel Kenevel on the contact obstacles -- the A-frame was not intended to be a ski jump nor the teeter a catapult or springboard! Thus, each obstacle possesses a safety zone, the "contact" zone, which the dog must step into when decending the ramp. The contact zone is painted yellow to enable the judge to determine if the dog has stepped in the safety zone. To hit the contact zone, the dog must be in control of his descent. Dogs out of control will leap off the obstacle above the contact to avoid planting their noses into the ground. All agility organizations require the dogs to touch the contact on the down ramp and in some, the dogs must also touch the contact on the ascending ramp. This is intended to keep the dog from vaulting onto the obstacle in an unsafe manner. Missing the contacts in all organizations results in a penalty that is sufficiently severe to prevent the dog from earning a qualifying score. Therefore, it is imperative that the dog be trained from the very beginning to perform contact obstacles in a manner that will allow the dog to be "in the zone" every time. Just as we must learn to adjust our auto driving for the road conditions, a dog must learn to control his feet and adjust his speed depending on the course conditions. In the early days of the sport, many of us did not think about all the issues faced by a dog in performing a contact obstacle. Thus, we ended up praying to the contact gods on a regular basis. My first agility dog often acted like he was allergic to yellow!

Learning to negotiate the various contact obstacles can be a great confidence builder for dogs of any age. This is not to say that a dog might not be reticent to try out a contact obstacle the first few times. Once a dog has a few successes, you will see a marked difference in his self-confidence. Even small puppies can be trained on the A-frame and dogwalk. The first exercise I am going to describe can be done by any dog regardless of age. It also would be a good exercise for obedience dogs to help them become more aware of their bodies.

The Walk the Plank Game

Equipment Needed: A 12"-wide board and a extension-type ladder

It is important for any agility dog to learn to control the placement of his feet on the contact obstacles. Most of the beginning dogs in my agility class seem to have no idea what their feet are doing when they are moving. Dogs who play the "Walk the Plank Game" before they are exposed to the real contact equipment seem to have a much shorter learning curve.

First, you will work on building coordination. I learned this creative use of a ladder at one of Christine Zink's seminars. Place the ladder flat on the ground. If you don't own an extension type ladder, you can construct a 6-8 rung model out of 1" x 2" or 2" x 2" lumber. For puppies, you can use dowels or PVC (PVC is the agility trainer's friend). Although puppies might have difficulty with this exercise at first, it will help them develop their coordination. Try to walk the dog (on leash) down the length of the ladder. This is similar to the tire drill done by football players. Don't try to get the dog to run yet. At first an adult dog will probably try every avoidance maneuver that he can think of to try not to walk inside the ladder. He will probably step on or trip over some of the rungs. This is because he simply doesn't know how to maneuver his feet. For dogs who show real resistance, lower the criteria. Place the dog inside the ladder so he only has to step over two rungs. You may have to pick up the dog to position him inside the ladder. If I can pick up a setter, so can you! Let him stand there for a minute or so. Feed him and make him comfortable. Then, using a food treat, lure him over the two rungs. It should only take a few trials to be able to negotiate the entire ladder without touching a single rung. Once you get consistent performance, increase speed until the dog (not to mention you) is running the length of the ladder. For those of you who have taught targetting, you can place a target at the end for a reward once the dog is comfortable with the ladder. If you have a cheater, use a food tube to deter self-rewarding. Chris uses the ladder exercise as a preliminary skill builder for jumping. For more details of her program, get her book Jumping From A-Z. The targetting idea is not part of Chris' program.

Once you have mastered the ladder, you are ready for "Walk the Plank". Place your 12" board on the ground. This simulates the dog walk which will be constructed of 9-12" wide planks which may be as high as 54" above the ground in competition. All you have to do is get the dog to walk down the plank. It will probably take only a few times to be successful. Next raise the board a few inches above the ground by either putting 2 x 4" runners under the plank, bricks or some other base (hay bales perhaps?). The only requirement is that the board be stable. You don't want the board falling over with the dog on it. Some of the best uses of my living room furniture have been in agility training. I have used the arms of the sofa for a base and had the dog walk from arm to arm across the board. I've only tried this sofa technique with puppies. Two small step ladders make a good, inexpensive base for the ramps of a low version of the dog walk. At this point, you do not want to add down ramps because you need to carefully train the dog how to utilize the down ramp. Bad habits gained in early training will come back to haunt you later at the worst possible moment.

The Force Be With You Game

Equipment Needed: A staircase.

The key to training contact zones is to teach the dog how to master the forces of gravity. Have you ever watched dogs run down a set of stairs? Do they run down each and every step, or do they tend jump to the ground one or two steps from the bottom? Mine want to get off ASAP. To understand why, try walking in the dog's proverbial moccasins even though everyone will think you have lost your marbles! When on "all fours" going down the stairs, your head is being pushed by the momentum of your body directly toward the floor at the bottom of the steps. I can barely creep down a set of steps on all fours without feeling uncomfortable. If a dog has too much momentum going down an incline because he is moving inappropriately fast, he is going to lift his head and bail off. This could lead to injury to the shoulders, legs or neck. The dog must learn how to control his momentum. This can be taught using an ordinary set of stairs.

Start by having the dog in a stand stay several steps from the bottom. Stand to the side of the staircase and lure the dog slowly down the stairs with a food treat. Stop moving the treat when the dog is at the bottom with his front feet on the floor and rear feet still on the stairs. Feed the dog. Give this position a name that can later be transferred to a similar body position on the A-frame, dogwalk , or teeter. Some common terms are place, touch, spot, tip, or contact. The command will come to signify to the dog that he is to go to the bottom of the incline, stop with two feet on/two feet off, and await further instructions. I have yet to see the dog who will not be touching the contact in this position. In order to achieve this position, the dog must learn how to adjust his speed and overcome the force of gravity. Repeat the exercise until the dog is comfortable with it. Next, stop luring the dog all the way down with the treat. Stand at the bottom of the stairs (don't block the dog's descent with your body), stand sideways with the treat in full view of the dog and call the dog down the stairs. Help the dog assume the correct position with the treat when his front feet are on the last stair. Continue the exercise slowly making the treat less obvious. If the dog should stop with his rear feet off the stairs, calmly place them back on the stairs and give the treat. If the dog should stop with all four feet on the stairs, encourage him to move to the correct position. Never feed when the dog is in any position other than two feet on/two feet off. If you are lucky and can find a long, steep set of stairs or a set of stairs leading from a hallway, you will have an opportunity to work on the dog having to adjust his pace to get into position. If you wish, you can combine your clicker as appropriate with this exercise.

Whether you know it or not, when your dog can do all of the exercises described in this column, you will have a dog with a really good contact obstacle foundation.... and you haven't even touched a single piece of agility equipment! You also have taught some skills that can be used in non-agility ways. If you like to hike with your dog, this training will give your dog the ability to traverse steep trails safely. You also can use it to prevent your dogs from treating you like a bowling pin on the stairs to your basement or pulling you down the stairs when going for a walk.

With puppies you can teach the same skills without using stairs. You can use a wide board propped against the sofa or a chair. I started my current competition dog at 12 weeks using a 2' wide board propped against the sofa. I started with a really gentle angle and slowly increased it as he matured physically. Although this dog does not stop with 2 feet on/2 feet off, he learned how to manuever himself so that he can go all the way to the bottom to eat a treat off a target at the tip of the ramp. The speed with which this dog does contacts is truly amazing. I got lucky. I think that the hundreds of repetitions that he did as a youngster away from the equipment are what led to his success. I would never again train a high drive dog not to stop, if for no other reason than to allow me time to catch up with the dog. The new dog I am training probably is going to be even faster, and I am insisting on a two feet on/two feet off performance. Having watched thousands of agility runs over the last year (we had 999 at our two day summer NADAC show alone), I can say that this contact style appears to be significantly more successful than any other. Next time, I'll talk about transfering your dog's new skills to the real obstacles.

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Last Modified November 22, 1998