There is nothing more fascinating to me than watching my dogs navigate the complex terrain of a forest hike at high speed. They dart with what appears to be split-second timing, managing their strides perfectly to prepare to jump over a fallen log or unexpected gully. The twists and turns of a romp through a forest trail or a zoom around the local dog park definitely shows some canine athleticism. It’s a pretty awesome reminder of the agility of the average dog.
I’m sure that most of us don’t really think about it. We just take our dogs “out for some exercise” and let them have a run and a play. But there is plenty going on in those activities. As a dedicated competitor in the sport of Dog Agility, it’s interesting to me how many of my fellow competitors see the physical challenges of our sport as different from our daily activities with our dogs. I think that’s remarkable for a number of reasons.
Trials and tribulations?
My dog is getting older. At almost 12 years old, she can certainly be considered a “senior citizen” for her breed (Belgian Shepherd). One of the considerations that my wife and I discuss as my dog gets older is how many runs we should ask her to do in a day. The agility venue we compete in typically offers 6 chances to run each day. Other venues offer less, typically 4 runs or fewer in a day. So, is it reasonable to ask a “senior” dog to compete in 6 runs each day for a 2 or 3 day trial? Well, if she’s healthy, yes.
Here’s why. In a typical week, we take our dogs to the park to run and play ball 3 or 4 times. Each of these outings lasts between 30 and 60 minutes with our dogs sprinting after balls and typically running and chasing around us. Belgians are an active breed and so they are almost constantly moving for 90% of the time we are out.
Contrast this to the 6 runs in a typical agility day. On average, an agility course will be less than 200 yards long and have less than 25 obstacles to negotiate. Our dogs usually complete their runs in less than 50 seconds. In total, our dogs will run roughly 6 minutes of agility in a single day! That’s about 10-20% of the physical activity they get on our typical non-agility outings with longer breaks between each agility run than they take at the park.
But agility is different
While many competitors and agility experts have tried to tell me that the physical work a dog does in agility is unique to other activites, I have yet to be convinced. We often take our dogs on walks in the woods where they have to negotiate jumps over all kinds of things. They frequently go up and down slopes and even occasionally navigate balancing on logs or other narrow walkways. Perhaps the only physical activity that I can consider unique for my dogs would be navigating the weave poles. No other activity we do other than agility requires that specific action (but many shorter variations of it do occur regularly – slipping out of half open doors for example!).
So our dogs run and jump and start and stop pretty much all the time. What makes agility so different may not be the physical activity but the way we ask for it. At the park, our dogs are generally running and playing on their own schedules. Agility requires them to watch us for instructions about where to go and what to do almost constantly. To me, that makes agility appear to be much more mentally taxing than physically taxing for my dogs.
I remember sitting through some Music Theory lectures in college that left me totally drained. Spending an hour dissecting rhythmic counterpoint and harmonic structures could leave me more in need of a nap than a rousing game of football with friends. I can only imagine how tiring it can be for my dog to watch me carefully for cues and try to get to where I’m trying to send them on the agility course.
Focusing on me and watching intently for my next signal takes energy. Learning something new or working on something we haven’t done before can be even more work for my dog. So our practice and training time for agility can be much more exhausting for my dog than the trials themselves. Our trial runs are limited by a certain amount of time we are allowed to be on course (typically under 2 minutes). In practice, I’m free to continue to ask my dog for repetition after repetition until I am satisfied with the results.
Our local practice group has a “3-minute” rule for our practices. No dog and handler can be out and working for more than 3 minutes at a time. The reason for this is to keep ourselves from asking too much from our dogs. We want to avoid frustrating or fatiguing them. So we can each take several turns of less than 3 minutes each to practice our skills. It’s easier on my dogs and it forces me to work more efficiently with the time I have; less exhaustion and confusion for my dogs.
Some people I’ve met at agility trials don’t believe me when I tell them I train for less than 6 minutes each week on agility equipment. Many of them attend one or more hour long class each week. Some even take additional private lessons. And some even have agility equipment at home that they work with daily. After all, practice makes perfect, right? Not necessarily.
My grandfather used to warn me that “practice doesn’t make perfect; PERFECT practice makes perfect.” His point was that doing things poorly many times is not as useful as doing things correctly a few times. That’s especially important when I am working with my dog. She’s not a neutral participant, after all. She will be affected by the rewards and frustrations of any training exercise. It’s in both of our interests for me to come to our training sessions prepared, focused, and intent on doing the best work in the least strenuous way.
So my dog and I practice agility every single day. I know, you thought I said that we only practice on agility equipment less than 6 minutes each week. And that’s true. You see most of agility doesn’t require equipment to practice. There is the focus on me, the ability to respond to cues promptly, the skills to go out to specific targets or around objects, and many other seemingly mundane skills that need to be practiced. We practice all of those skills several times each day around the house and on our outings to the park or on hikes. I reward my dog for all of it and it pays off.
How much is too much of a good thing?
Training for the sport of agility is a tricky thing. We have things we need to teach our dogs. There are things we need to learn ourselves as handlers. And there is the relationship that we are developing with our dog that has to be carefully managed to keep them happy and enthusiastic partners in the game. I frequently hear agility competitors worrying over how much training is too much or if a particular method or technique is too strenuous for their dog. It can be difficult to balance getting enough training time in and making sure our dogs get enough time off so they continue to enjoy playing with us.
Behavioural science and progressive training showed me the value of short, well planned training sessions. What that meant for my own agility training was breaking down what I needed to practice. Things like turns and helping my dog to manage her speed in various course sequences requires time on the equipment. But other skills like attending to me for the next cue and learning to perform several behaviours in a row could be done anywhere and at any time. I found ways to use lots of short training sessions both with and without equipment. The everyday focus work provided a foundation for the work with the equipment.
Deciding on the right amount of training really came down to carefully considering what my goals were in agility. We take our dogs for runs several times a week to keep their physical conditioning up. We practice responses to simple cues at each meal time and several times during the day to keep their mental conditioning up. So when we get to that 6 minutes each week when we are around the equipment, I know exactly what we need to work on and we get the job done without anyone having to become fatigued, exhausted, or overworked. For us, it’s a lifestyle and not a specific activity. Agility is just another part of my life together with my dogs.
My dogs have shown me that they come with most of the skills for dog agility built in – the running, the jumping, and the turning are all there. They know how to do that stuff. What they don’t know by default is how to respond to me when I ask them for those skills. That is what needs to be trained and practiced. And we work on that learning just like any other skill; bit by bit, with lots of rewards, and lots of fun. At almost 12 years old, my dog still can’t wait to play agility. I’d call that a success.
Until next time, have fun with your dogs!
[With thanks to the “savages” of the Canine Nation Forum for inspiration!]
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