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If you’ve ever watched an agility competition, you’ll recognize a handful of the most popular breeds in the sport. While the Border Collie will almost always hold position number one on the list, the Australian Shepherd will never be very far behind. Often referred to as the “Aussie”, these speedy and highly intelligent little dogs excel at almost any dog sport, eager to please as long as they have a goal to shoot for. Though they were bred to herd livestock, Aussies make fantastic agility competitors and often surprise people with the amount of speed they can pack into their medium-sized bodies. Australian Shepherds make agility look easy and many spend years working with their owners to turn agility into a nearly lifelong pursuit.
Teaching agility may be daunting. There are quite a few obstacles in a typical competition course and running them successfully takes a handler with plenty of control to guide their dog through each one without fault. But competition is not the only reason to learn agility. Many dogs do it for fun and exercise and it’s a great way to bond with your Aussie, regardless if you bring home a trophy or not. However, be aware that agility is best done once your dog is done growing physically to prevent injuries to developing bones and joints.
You and your dog will need to learn each individual type of obstacle in a typical course, of which there can be anywhere between three and six. Multiple versions of the same type of obstacle may also be utilized in agility courses, which requires a familiarity for each one. Your Aussie will learn how to use your guidance to bring them to the finish line of an agility course and within just a few weeks, he can be running along with the best agility competitors out there.
Make sure your dog is assessed by your vet to see if he is in good shape to start agility training. Small puppies or senior dogs may not have the physical capabilities for running obstacles and any pre-existing conditions for your Aussie may be worsened by the strenuous exercise required for agility. Get a clean bill of health before beginning.
You will either need access to agility equipment through a local club or organization or you can build your own obstacles at home. Professional equipment can be pricey, but there are many affordable DIY options. At the very least, you will need a jump or jump bar that can be adjusted for height, a tunnel that is rigid and stable, a ramp that can safely hold your dog’s weight, and a set of at least six weaving poles that won’t topple over if your dog hits them. This equipment can help you get started on your path to creating a great agility runner.
The Clicker Method
Learn the clicker
Start by familiarizing your Aussie with what the clicker means. Every time the clicking sound is made, your dog should receive a treat or reward. Don’t ask anything else from him while you’re doing this, just click and reward to get him associated.
Get used to the obstacles
Let your dog wander around the course you set up while clicking and rewarding for any positive exploration.
Practice one at a time
Each obstacle will require a separate training session. Take some time to familiarize your Aussie with one obstacle before moving on to the next one.
Reward for appropriate behavior
Every time your Aussie makes the appropriate behavior around or within the obstacle, click and reward. This includes things like jumping over hurdles, investigating the tunnels, or taking tentative steps on a balance beam, seesaw, or ramp. Clicking and rewarding for these things will create a positive association with the obstacle and the behavior required to navigate it.
Add verbal commands
Adding commands like ‘jump’, ‘over’, ‘weave’, or ‘through’ can help your dog associate certain behaviors with their appropriate obstacles. Remember to click and reward for progression through each obstacle.
Put the obstacles together
Once your Aussie is comfortable with each obstacle, start asking him to do one after the other in succession. For example, through a tunnel and out into a jump over a hurdle. This combination is common in agility courses. Search for other combinations while clicking and rewarding for a successful completion of both obstacles together.
Create a competition course
Look up some courses that have been used in past agility competitions and learn them together with your dog. Click with each successful obstacle completed within the routine while saving a large reward for a completed course.
Go from small to big
Start with smaller courses to get your Aussie used to multiple obstacles in a row and eventually progress to longer courses as he gets adjusted to watching you for guidance.
The Lure Reward Method
Choose a good lure
Some dogs are lured by treats and others may be lured by fun toys. Find something your Aussie really wants and use that to get her through the learning process.
Focus on one obstacle
Decide which obstacle you’d like to start with first. Learning one at a time will help your dog focus without getting overwhelmed.
Guide with the lure
Hold the lure close to your Aussie’s nose to start with and then pull it back and towards the obstacle. Reward for any positive behavior towards the obstacle at first to build a good association with it.
Go through the obstacle
Using the lure, show your dog what you’d like from her. If it’s a jump, hold the lure over and on the other side of the jump to encourage her to go over. For tunnels, hold the lure in the exit side while encouraging your dog to go through. Use the same procedure for each new obstacle she will learn while putting a name to each one such as ‘jump’, ‘weave’, or ‘chute’.
Focus on completion, not speed
Before trying to increase your speed, your Aussie needs to know how to complete each obstacle. Using the lure to keep at a slow and even pace through each obstacle, rewarding with the lure for progress. Use the verbal command for the obstacle when she succeeds.
Increase the number of obstacles
Add more obstacles to your dog’s training over time, using the lure to guide her through each obstacle in succession. Reward for multiple obstacles completed in a row as she starts doing individual obstacles reliably.
Turn up the speed
Once your Aussie can perform each obstacle, use the lure to guide her through them at a much quicker pace. Stay quick on your feet as you’ll need to stay ahead of her movements to provide proper guidance.
Practice a full course
Set up a pretend competition course and familiarize your Aussie with the entirety of the set of obstacles. Run through it multiple times, using the lure to guide her through the sequence and offer the reward only when the course is complete in its entirety.
The Leash Method
Grab a long leash
Some obstacles will require you to be some distance away from your Aussie to guide him through it. A longer leash will allow you this distance while still being able to keep in contact with your dog.
Focusing on one obstacle at a time, making each one as easy to complete as possible. This means lowering jumps, keeping tunnel lengths short, and using fewer weaving poles. Set your Aussie up for success from the start.
Use the leash for guidance
With a hold on his leash, lead your Aussie through the first obstacle, rewarding with plenty of praise when he makes his way over or through it. Use a treat for further reinforcement if necessary.
Add a name to the action
Come up with a name for each obstacle or use a verbal command to differentiate them for your dog. Use these verbal cues when he succeeds at the obstacle and praise enthusiastically.
Master each obstacle
Using the leash, guide him through each type of obstacle, praising and rewarding as you increase the height of the jumps, lengthen the tunnels, and add more weaving poles into the mix.
Put it all together
Once your Aussie has a handle on each individual obstacle, guide him through a few at a time, saving your praise and reward for the very end of the set.
Remove the leash
If your Aussie shows confidence in each obstacle, you can remove the leash and guide him through with your verbal cues and commands. Always be ready with the next cue in the sequence, as your dog will move quickly. If he shows hesitation, decrease the difficulty of the obstacles and let him try again, praising with successful completion of the obstacles as he rebuilds his confidence.
By TJ Trevino
Published: 12/20/2017, edited: 01/08/2021