Agility can build a dog’s confidence. Agility can help a dog learn to focus on a task. Most of all, agility can help build a relationship between dog and handler. Most people go into agility thinking their dog will love to run and jump and do the obstacles, or they think agility will help the dog “blow off steam”, so they will be better behaved at home. Neither of these ideas are necessarily true.
Agility, besides involving physical skills, does require mental focus. It has been proven that how dogs are introduced to an activity will more than likely have an extreme impact on how they feel about the activity in the future. We all know that a dog who can perform skills at home may not be able to perform these same skills in a new distracting situation. The same is true for agility. Your dog needs to trust you and be able to ignore distractions in order to focus on the performance of agility obstacles.
The type of environment your dog experiences when introduced to agility can greatly influence his performance and his desire to want to engage in agility. The environment should be as stress-free as possible. Dogs should never be pressured into performing obstacles and they should never feel unsafe in their environment. There should not be dogs outside the ring out of control barking and lunging. This is way too much pressure for most dogs to be able to ignore and try to learn a skill. Classes should be structured so that all dogs can progress at their own level and students should understand that they should not compare their dog to others in the class. Dogs should be allowed to progress at a rate that is comfortable for them.
Helping your dog learn and supporting his efforts is what will build trust in your relationship. Rewarding of position and timing of rewards are two skills handlers must work hard to learn. This will help the dog understand the behavior that you are looking for. Late rewards and rewards out of position do not help the dog learn and could also cause confusion which may be expressed by “zoomies” or shutdown. Praise with a release to play or praise and rewards will help build confidence and focus. If your dog takes the wrong obstacle, you don’t need to make him feel bad. This can undermine their desire to choose because he is afraid to make mistakes. Instead, just don’t reward incorrect behavior and show your dog what behavior will pay.
Being a partner and a helper to your dog will pay off in all your life adventures. Agility can help create and foster this relationship.
Carolyn Fuhrer has earned over 130 AKC titles with her Golden Retrievers, including 4 Champion Tracker titles. She is also an AKC Tracking Judge. Carolyn is the owner of North Star Dog Training School in Somerville, Maine. She has been teaching people to understand their dogs for over 30 years. You can contact her with questions, suggestions, and ideas for her column by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.