How to Train Your Dog to Run an Agility Course

Medium
2-8 Weeks
Fun

Introduction

Imagine a dog that is shy and lacking in confidence. This causes the dog to be nervous, especially in unfamiliar surroundings, and could ultimately mean he becomes aggressive out of fear. The question becomes "How can you grow a dog's self-confidence and give him a sense of purpose?"

For many dogs, the answer is agility training. Agility requires a mixture of physical ability and obedience training, where dog and owner work as a team. As the dog experiences the thrill and satisfaction of clearing obstacles to earn rewards, he gains a certain self-confidence. He starts to feel he's good at something, plus there are benefits such as it improves his obedience and has him place more trust in the owner. 

In short, agility is a fantastic way both dog and owner can have fun, which encourages them to work as a team. 

Defining Tasks

Running an agility course requires the dog to tackle a number of obstacles such as jumps, tilt-tables, weaving poles, and a high walkway.  Take care not to overwhelm the dog, but to teach one or two elements at a time, and keeping things fresh and interesting. 

Use reward-based training to encourage the dog and praise him when he does a task well. Conversely, if the dog keeps running around a jump, instead of over, never punish him. Instead, have him take the jump again but make the task easier, such as standing closer to the jump or luring him with a treat. 

Once the dog has mastered individual elements, you can string them together and have him run a course. Remember, this should always be fun, so if the dog is tired or not fully participating, then stop. And if the dog repeatedly makes mistakes, be aware you are probably sending out mixed signals , so take a step back and reappraise your own actions rather than the dog's. 

Getting Started

You can go to town by purchasing ready-made agility obstacles or improvise at home.  You will need: 

  •  Treats to motivate the dog
  • A treat bag so you can reward the dog on the move
  • Shoes with a good grip so that you don't slip over
  • Broom handles and bricks to create jumps
  • A plank and brick to make a walkway
  • A low table or platform
  • A tunnel
  • Plant pots as substitute weaving poles. 

The Tackle Each Element Method

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Step
1
Understand the idea
Before running the entire course, the dog should feel confident tackling each of the individual elements. When starting out, make the course simple and use those elements the dog completes with the most enthusiasm and ease, so that he has fun and grows his self-confidence.
Step
2
Basic jumps
Set up a pole on the ground or raised up on two bricks. Have your dog sit on one side of the jump (have a friend hold his collar if the dog won't stay). On the other side of the jump, call the dog enthusiastically so that he comes to you. If the dog takes the correct path over the pole, then give him fuss and a reward.
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3
Tunnels
Polythene dogs tunnels are cheaply available on the internet or in pet superstores. Set the tunnel up so that it is straight and the dog can see a clear path from one end to the other. Have the dog sit at the entrance. The trainer stands at the exit and calls the dog through. When the dog runs through the tunnel, praise and reward him. If the dog is reluctant to enter the tunnel, lure him by holding a treat just inside the exit where he can see it.
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4
Weaving poles
Line poles up in two parallel lines, half a foot apart. Align the poles so they are offset, one against the other. Have the dog sit at the far end and then call him to you, such that he runs down between the two parallel lines of poles. Now move the poles incrementally closer together. As the gap narrows, the dog is forced to wiggle his body from side to side in order to pass along the line. Once the poles are close, the dog then has to take a zig-zag line to reach you and has learned to weave.
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5
Pause table
Use a low table or platform. Have the dog lie down and then "Stay". Have him pause for a few seconds at first, and gradually build the length of time he's expected to stay still, before releasing him to jump down.
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Balance bar
Start with a plank either on the ground or resting on bricks to make a low raised walkway. Use a treat held in front of the dog's nose to lure him along the plank. At this stage, aim for a slow walk so the dog learns how to keep his footing on a narrow walkway. As he becomes more accomplished, raise the plank higher off the ground. (Always make sure it provides a stable platform, to reduce the risk of injury.)
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The Basic Obedience Method

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Step
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Understand the idea
To run an agility course, the dog must master basic obedience commands such as "Sit", "Down", "Come", and "Stay." The alternative is to work with a friend who holds the dog until you are ready to call him, and indeed, to work using a longline to stop the dog running off. Good obedience skills also helps you to guide the dog through a full agility course, once he has mastered the individual elements.
Step
2
"Sit"
Hold a treat in front of the dog's nose. Raise the treat in an arc over and behind the dog's head. As his nose follows the treat his butt will drop to the ground. Label this action as "Sit", and practice, practice, practice.
Step
3
"Stay"
With the dog in a sit, take a step away. Hold your hand in the "stop" position or whichever gesture you've chosen to indicate stay. Say "Stay". Wait one or two seconds then step back to the dog and reward him. Gradually increase the distance you move from the dog before you expect him to stay. Once you have mastered this, you can then extend the length of each stay as needed.
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4
"Down"
With the dog sitting, hold a treat in front of his nose. Travel the treat to the ground, keeping it fairly close to the dog. In order the reach the treat, the dog will drop to the ground. Label this action with the "Down" command, and practice with and without treats.
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5
"Come"
Whenever the dog moves towards you across the room, clap your hands and say an excited "Come". When he runs to you make a big fuss and reward him. Practice in different places, and also call the dog when he's not looking at you, so he learns when he hears "Come", he's to move toward you.
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The Cues and Lures Method

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Step
1
Understand the idea
Now your dog is happy with each individual obstacle, you want him to run a course. He will rely on your directions in order to know which obstacle to move to next. Since dogs run faster than people, this requires a combination of you running to guide the dog, hand signals, and using toys to send him in the right direction.
Step
2
Pay attention to you
A combination of basic training and watching you enables you to guide the dog through the course. For example, have the dog sit at the start line while you stand three jumps away. By getting the dog to come to you, he tackles the first three elements successfully.
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3
Clear line of vision
When calling the dog, make sure he has a clean line of vision to your hand. Thus, draw an imaginary straight line from the dog to your hand, passing over the jumps and make ensure the hand is at the center of the jump. This encourages the dog to run the shortest and most direct line over the obstacles.
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4
Hand and voice
Holding a treat in the hand teaches the dog to watch your hand. At first, he'll rely on your hand signals but as his experience grows, start labeling the elements such as "Jump" or "Tunnel". Once he gets the hang of things, you will be able to give voice commands and he will look for the nearest obstacle of that description.
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5
Lure toys
For the final jump or obstacle, the chances are the dog is by now running well ahead of you. In order to keep the dog's forward momentum and to guide him, toss a much-loved toy or a lure toy over the final obstacle for him to follow. Lure toys include clam-shell type toys inside which you put a treat. The dog chases the clam-shell to retrieve the treat.
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Success Stories and Training Questions

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