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Have you ever watched fascinated by dogs hurtling round agility courses or playing flyball?
It is pure joy to see happy, self-motivated dogs flying over jumps, almost as if they had wings. There's real pleasure written on every line of their body, as they challenge themselves to get around the course as quickly as possible.
But these aren't superdogs, rather they are dogs who have been taught to focus their energy on clearing jumps. This is a wonderful experience for both dog and owner, a great way to bond, plus it provides valuable mental and physical stimulation for the dog.
As well as keeping dogs fit, it also improves basic obedience levels by getting them tuned into the owner and used to doing what's asked on command. Indeed, many dogs who lack self-confidence can become confident and outgoing when they learn skills such as jumping over hurdles. The great news is, this is an easy skill to teach, so there's every reason to give it a go.
Teaching a dog to jump a hurdle does just that, with the added twist of using a command such as "Jump" to instruct the dog as to what's expected of him. Ultimately, you expect the dog to sit a short distance from the hurdle, and wait for the command to jump over it.
Start with the hurdle low or even resting on the ground (for small dogs.) Once the dog masters popping over one obstacle, it's a fun challenge to have him jump several hurdles or even a small course. Indeed, this is one of the skills required of dogs that compete in agility trials. Of course, you can also increase the height of the jump, so that he has to jump higher as his skills improve.
Most dogs thrive on this sort of challenge, but some more than others. If your dog is less than 12 months old, has a health problem, is overweight, or otherwise reluctant to exercise, then always chat with your vet first before embarking on an energetic activity.
While you can purchase hurdles specifically for dog agility, you may wish to start by improvising obstacles using household objects. Simply resting a broom handle across two bricks makes a perfectly usable low jump. Other equipment you may need includes:
- A belt-bag in which to have easy access to the rewards
- A friend to hold the dog as required
- A lure toy, such as a clam-shell or lotus-flower training toy
- Jumps or hurdles
- A flat, open space with good footing
It is vital that your dog has fun while learning. This means keeping your voice light and encouraging, and never punishing the dog if he gets something wrong. Things won't go right all the time, so simply call the dog to you and give him a command that he does know, such as "Sit". Then you can reward this good behavior and try again with the jump.
The Line of Sight Method
Warm the dog up
With the dog on a leash, walk him for 5 - 15 minutes in order to warm up his muscles and prepare him for activity.
Create a low hurdle
Set up a low jump for the dog. Make sure it is low enough for the dog to step over without difficulty. At this stage, you are teaching him confidence around the hurdle as much as how to jump over it.
Walk the dog over the hurdle
You need the dog to walk to heel or beside you so that he follows as you walk over the hurdle. Set off and as the dog follows and steps over the hurdle, praise and reward him.
Call the dog over the hurdle
Now have the dog sit a few feet in front of the hurdle. You may need a friend to hold the dog's collar if he doesn't have a rock solid sit. Position yourself on the other side of the jump, a few feet away and in a clear line of view. With the dog's attention on you, call him to come. Use a happy excited voice, perhaps even clap your hands to get his attention.
Label the action as "Jump"
When the dog runs toward you and passes over the hurdle, when his paws leave the ground say "Jump" so as to label the action for the future. Then reward him for coming to you. If he runs around the outside of the hurdle, simply call him to you and reposition him back at the beginning. Only reward the dog when he goes over the jump.
Practice and raise the hurdle's height
Practice the above, but be sure to make it a fun activity and be generous with praise. Once the dog is regularly running over the low hurdle towards you, raise the height a little. Incrementally raise the bar until the dog is jumping the desired height.
The Chase a Lure Method
Get the dog used to the lure
The idea is to have the dog chase after a lure, which you happen to toss over the hurdle. By labeling the action "Jump" you can phase out the lure and give voice commands once he has learned the required action. First, you get the dog used to the lure. Clam-shell training toys are ideal. These are softballs inside which you can place a treat. Start by showing the dog the lure and how it contains a treat. Allow him to work out how to open the clamshell to get the treat out.
Have the dog chase the lure
Once the dog has learned the lure contains tasty treats, play a game of chase with the lure. Roll the clamshell across the floor. Have the dog chase after it and praise him when he opens the lure to get to the goodies inside.
Toss the lure over the hurdle
The next step is to toss the lure over a low hurdle. In his eagerness to give chase and get the treat, the dog will take the shortest route which just happens to be over the jump.
Label the action as "Jump"
Repeat the step above. When the dog jumps the hurdle, call out the command "Jump" as his paws leave the ground. Keep practicing, being sure to always keep things fun for your fur friend. If he starts to tire or get distracted, then stop and do something else.
Phase out the lure
Start to say "Jump" earlier, as the dog approaches the hurdle. The idea is to guide the dog as to the action you want. As he starts to anticipate taking the jump, you can phase out throwing the lure each time. Instead, run with him and praise him heartily when he takes the jump. Reinforce his learning by still throwing the lure as needed, but not necessarily for every jump.
The Chain Reaction Method
The final method draws the earlier steps together so that the dog jumps over multiple hurdles on an agility course. Using either line of sight or the lure method, get the dog comfortable with taking a hurdle. He doesn't have to be perfect at this stage, but it's helpful if he has an idea of how to take a jump.
Set up a mini-course of 2 or 3 jumps
Place the desired number of hurdles in a straight line. Keep the bar low, as the first test is to get the dog taking a series of hurdles, rather than the height he jumps. If you can, pace out the distance between jumps so that they naturally fall in with the dog's stride length.
Walk the dog over the course
Encourage the dog (either walking to heel or on the leash) to follow you over the hurdles. Give him lots of praise and encouragement, and reward him once you have passed over the final hurdle.
Line of sight "Jump"
If you trained the dog to clear a single hurdle by line of sight, then have the dog sit 4 to 5 feet from the first jump. Walk yourself to the end of the course, and stand on the far side of the last hurdle, where you are clearly visible to the dog. Call him to you and give the "Jump" command as he approaches the first obstacle. Most dogs will then keep running toward you over the subsequent hurdles. Be sure to keep calling in a super-excited voice in order to keep his interest. Once he clears the final jump give him lots of praise.
Lure the dog over several jumps
The use of the lure over several hurdles requires you to run alongside the first couple of jumps and then toss the lure over the final obstacle. Since dogs usually run faster than people, this allows you to keep the dog moving forward even though he has outpaced you. Simply run alongside the hurdles, encouraging the dog and using the "Jump" command. As he pulls ahead and approaches the last obstacle, toss the lure over it to keep him going forward. Then catch him up and give lots of praise.
By Pippa Elliott
Published: 10/09/2017, edited: 01/08/2021