She flows with the grace of a cool stream. She is a black shadow moving effortlessly over one jump, then another, and another. She slips into a tunnel and smoothly turns to execute two, three, four more jumps in a sweeping arc. She glides, she flies, negotiating the obstacles with ease. And it is all I can do to concentrate on directing her to the next obstacle instead of marveling at her beauty and speed. She is moving at better than 20 kilometers per hour.
The sport of Dog Agility has been an unexpected delight for both my dog and me. In the beginning, it was a reason to teach my dog a number of novel behaviours using Clicker Training and operant conditioning. But my adventures with my dog in this wonderful sport have taught me a great many lessons about kindness, persistence, patience and trust.
I’ve learned a great deal about dogs too. How they move and how their senses work. I’ve learned about the character of dogs and how far they will go to work with us, given proper motivation. And I’ve learned how much fun you can have in 30 seconds!
To the casual observer, the sport of dog agility looks simple enough. Direct your dog over a set of equipment in a prescribed sequence. There are jumps of various kinds, tunnels of varying lengths and shapes from straight to “C” shaped to more exotic curves. There can be teeter-totters, hoops, an A-Frame (a 3-foot wide, 5-foot tall obstacle resembling the peaked roof of a house), sets of poles that dogs must weave in between, and a long narrow Dogwalk that resembles a 36 -foot long bridge.
Just to make it interesting, no two courses are the same. Each competition run offers a new constellation of equipment for dog and handler to negotiate. And each piece must be performed within specifications. No bars must be knocked down on the jumps. The dog must weave in the correct direction and negotiate each pole. The dog must touch the safety zone (usually the bottom third) of the A-Frame, Teeter-totter and Dogwalk.
My beautiful dog Tiramisu is a Canadian Agility Trial Champion now. We have been playing this game together for just over five years now, and we’ve been from Victoria to Seattle to Calgary to Saskatoon and other places to play our favorite game.
It’s been an adventure that has challenged my ability to teach my dog things and be an effective communicator. In fact, my greatest teacher in this game has been Tiramisu herself.
One of the first things I needed to learn about was how dogs see the world. It turns out that dogs see faster than people do. They literally process more visual frames per second than the human eye can process. So our dogs actually see increments of movement in between the frames that the human eye can see. Their field of vision is wider than ours, a full 270 degrees compared to our 180 degrees, and they see movement better than we do although they see less detail.
It turns out that dogs believe their eyes more than their ears. That’s one of the first things Tiramisu taught me. As we run the agility course my body and movement may say one thing while my verbal commands say something different. She usually believes her eyes. So, over time, I’ve come to depend less on talking to my dog and more on using my body to direct her around the course.
Learning the Dance
In a very real sense, Tiramisu and I are dancing at high speed. A turn of my shoulder or a dip of my head can send her in a different direction. It has taken me a while to learn what all the right moves are, and Tiramisu has been mostly patient in showing me how she will respond to my movements.
In the beginning, it was a frustrating process for both of us. My clumsy attempts at getting myself from one place on the course to another would confuse and frustrate her. There just wasn’t enough clear information in the flapping of my arms and my barreling to wherever I was running on the course. Tiramisu would turn and run toward me, barking, telling me off for being so unclear.
Despite her frustrations, Tiramisa loved the game. She would always come out to play, hoping I would be a little smarter and a little better the next time. But then I figured out something important — Tiramisu didn’t know where the course was supposed to go! She only knew that we had messed something up if I told her so with my body language. That’s when I figured out that she didn’t need to be frustrated if I made a mistake. All I had to do was allow her to take the wrong course, where my poor handling had directed her, and give her lots of praise for going where I had sent her.
Once we had figured that out, it was on me to watch and learn and discover ways to direct Tiramisu to the right obstacles with more consistency. But always her efforts were rewarded. Thank you Tiramisu for playing this game with me and trying your best no matter where I send you. No more frustration, no more scolding her for going to the wrong thing. She was always right. And that’s the game she loves to play. The running, jumping, “dad is oh so proud of me” agility game.
Success came very quickly after that. We learned to dance together as a team instead of a push-pull that felt more like a battle of wills in those early days. Sure we still take wrong turns and don’t always complete courses correctly. But it doesn’t matter anymore. We do our best and run the courses together — and she is never wrong. Good girl and thank you for dancing with me!
Work Some, Play Some
Thousands of people around the world play the wonderful sport of Dog Agility. Not all of them are dancing, not all of them move at high speed. Not all of them share the joy that Tiramisu and I share as we run around our courses. It is, after all, a competition and that can attract competitive personalities. Failure is a more serious matter to some than it is to others.
If you have a dog and haven’t had a chance to try this wonderful sport, I encourage you to do so. It can teach you a lot about partnership, communication, and the wonderful personality that is your dog. There are agility training groups in most areas these days. And you don’t have to enter competitive trials to earn ribbons or titles if that’s not something you want to try. It was the joy of interacting with my dog that drew me into this sport, and it’s the joy I see in Tiramisu that keeps me playing with her.
Author Robert Fulghum once said, “Live a balanced life — learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.” Yes, dance and play every day some. That is what we do, Tiramisu and I. And we smile and we laugh and we grow together while dancing together at high speed.
“Teeter Dog” – Infinite Exposures 2006
“Dancing Together” – Petra Wingate 2008