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Your Border collie has developed a bad habit of digging up the carpet when you're out. Although you walk the dog twice a day, he seems over-eager to chase after anything that moves, which means keeping him on the leash. A friend suggests it could be that the dog feels frustrated because he hasn't got an outlet for his intelligence and love of herding.
This strikes a chord and sets you thinking.
It occurs to you the perfect solution is agility. You enroll with a local club and discover the blend of obedience, activity, and excitement seem heaven-sent as your dog is immediately a transformed character. There's a new light in his eye, a way of watching you for directions, and when he's on the move over obstacles, his body language is transformed like a dog given wings.
And the icing on the cake is that he no longer digs the carpet at home. Instead, he sleeps peaceably, the odd paw twitching as he dreams of snaking around that agility course.
For many dogs, running an agility course gives them a sense of purpose and helps correct behavioral problems due to boredom or anxiety. However, it's important to work by encouraging the dog rather than intimidating or threatening them.
When running an agility course, the dog will encounter obstacles such as hurdles, long jumps, tunnels, weaving poles, high balance, sea-saw, A-frame, hoops, and a 'stay' station. The dog must learn each of these skills in turn, while watching the owner for instructions as to where to go next. Simple as that and lots of fun!
To teach a Border Collie to run agility, you need basic obedience kit and some improvised obstacles to practice on.
- Pea-sized tasty treats or a tugger toy to motivate the dog
- A treat pouch or bag for easy access
- Four pieces of piping to mark out a 'pause square'
- A low table
- An old tire
- A broom and some bricks, or a hurdle
- A tunnel
- A see-saw or A-frame
The Giving Instructions Method
Understand the idea
Part of the skill of agility is following a laid out path to encounter a variety of obstacles on the way. To do this, the dog needs to be obedient to the owner, know how to follow hand signals, and follow cue toys. The latter are used when the dog can run faster than you and needs to be directed to run forward.
Basic sit and stay
Both to run a course and to learn how to tackle individual obstacles, the dog must know how to sit and stay still. This allows you to move to the other side of the obstacle and call the dog over. 'Sit' can be achieved by luring the dog with a treat, moved in an arc over and behind his head. As he sits, say the word "sit" and reward him with the treat. Similarly, to teach 'stay', start with the dog sitting. Say "stay" and hold your hand in a 'stop' gesture. Take a step away from the dog, wait a few seconds and then step back and reward him for not moving. Gradually increase the distance your travel for each 'stay'.
Turn 'left' or turn 'right'
This is taught by guiding the dog through the course with a treat in the hand closest to the dog. It's up to the handler to appropriately position themselves on the correct side of the obstacle so that the dog can turn either left or right to the next obstacle. The dog learns to follow the hand, and the handler verbalizes "left" or "right" depending on the direction of travel. Eventually you can leave out the treat and just go by voice and hand
A strong recall is essential for safety while running agility. By its very nature, agility is a place where several dogs congregate and not all dogs may be as well behaved as yours. Training the dog to recall could prevent them running off or getting into a fight. Teach recall on a longline. Move away from the dog while making excited noises. When the dog runs to investigate say "come" and reward him.
The dog will need to jump up onto the stop stable, step up onto the high walk, and step onto the A-frame. Therefore, teaching a command for 'up' is very useful. Tap the object with a finger and in an excited voice say "Up". If the dog is reluctant you can place a small treat on the object, just out of reach so the dog steps up to get it.
The Off the Ground Method
These hurdles are what most people associate with agility courses. You can start with something as simple as a broom resting on the ground or raised up on a brick at either end. Have the dog sit on one side, go to the other side, and call the dog over. Then give praise and fuss. As the dog becomes more confident you can gradually raise the bar higher and add in a series of jumps to make a course.
Several bar jumps
Your dog has mastered jumping over a hurdle, but now there are three jumps in a row and you can't run fast enough to keep up. The secret here is to run alongside the dog and keep pace as best you can to guide him forward. For the final jump, with the dog in the lead, toss a clam-shell treat toy over the last jump for the dog to chase after. A clam-shell is a training aid made up from two halves, joined together with velcro. You can place a small treat inside for the dog to find. First you show the dog there's something tasty inside, then close the clam-shell and hey presto, the dog will follow it when thrown to get to the reward.
This involves the dog jumping through a tire that is supported off the ground in a frame. Use a similar technique to teaching a regular jump, with the tire resting on the ground and the dog stepping through for starters. Be sure to go crazy (in a good way) when the dog musters the courage to step through As he gains confidence you can start to raise the tire off the ground in its frame.
This is where the dog is expected to jump up onto a low table and pause for several seconds before continuing the course. It is a test of discipline, for a dog that is hyped up after a fast run who wants to continue on his way. The trick here is to have the dog love being on the table. Encourage him to jump up and then give him praise and fuss, for the required time he is meant to stay. Shortly before the end of the pause time, give him a treat, and when time is up, flag him to carry on his way.
This can be alarming for some dogs as the see-saw moves under paw and causes a banging sound. First, get the dog used to the sound of the end hitting the ground, by having a friend push on the see-saw while you walk in circles around it. Praise the dog. Then have a friend hold the see-saw so that one end is firmly planted on the ground. Encourage the dog to walk onto this firm footing with the aid of a treat. Keep the dog on a lead and as his courage grows, walk him to the center point, with the see-saw rigid. When he reaches the center, steady the dog and reassure him while the friend slowly lowers the 'up' end to 'down' , and then guide the dog off.
The Paws on the Floor Method
The dog is required to run through a long plastic tunnel that rests on the ground. While in the tunnel, the dog does not have sight of the owner. Start with a short straight tunnel. Have the dog sit at one end, and walk around to the opposite end. Attract the dog's attention through the tunnel and call him to you. Give him lots of praise and fuss when he successfully does this.
Starting weaving poles
This is where the dog is required to weave in and out between a line of vertical poles. There are various methods of teaching this skill. One method involves starting with two parallel lines of offset poles. Arrange them with a gap between so the dog runs in a channel between the two lines without having to weave. Each pass down the channel, narrow the distance between the two lines. As the space gets narrower the dog is forced to weave between the poles in order to get through.
More weaving poles
An alternative method is to stick with a single line of weave poles. Simply guide the dog in and out of the poles using his leash and treats to lure him. It is good practice to always start with the dog entering from the right side of the first pole, which is easy to do if the dog is taught to heel to the left side.
The dog walk
This is a raised plank along which the dog must walk, the challenge being that it is raised above ground level, which can be intimidating to some dogs. Start with the dog on a collar and leash. Have an assistant stand on the opposite side of the plank, to give the dog a sense of extra security. Encourage the dog to walk along using verbal commands. Alternatively, place a small treat at the far end of the walk and encourage the dog to walk steadily towards it. Give the dog lots of praise and fuss when he completes the obstacle. If he is uncomfortable with the height, start with the plank closer to the ground and raise it slowly as his confidence grows.
Agility courses often features a pause, where the dog is expected to stop in a down position for a certain amount of time. Practice this at home by marking out a square on the ground with piping, and have the dog 'stay' within the boundary, until released.
By Pippa Elliott
Published: 12/21/2017, edited: 01/08/2021