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The Answer is Agility

By Jill Hendrickson

White Lake, MI

The questions are: What is the most fun you can have with your dog outside of hunting season? What is a great way for your dog (and you) to stay in shape? What helps reinforce basic obedience commands when your dog is excited and going full speed? What boosts your dogís self confidence?

I have been intrigued by Agility ever since the "new" sport appeared on my horizon over ten years ago. I had occasionally run my dogs over some of the obstacles but had never found time to begin a full training program. Competitive agility is similar to a horse jumping event, with the dog negotiating a maze of obstacles and jumps under the direction of its handler. Obstacles include an A-frame, raised dog walk, seesaw, open tunnel, closed tunnel or chute, weave poles and pause table. Four years ago I was asked to be the Agility Trial Secretary for the English Springer Spaniel Club of Michigan when they hosted the national specialty. There I gained a new respect for the difficulties involved in running a trial, and the challenges it provided to the competitors. I realized that while it is fun, it is also not easy to pass. I was also determined to eventually get my young AWS, Rose, into competitive agility.

Well, eventually has come. I knew that Rose would make an outstanding agility dog. She and I had taken a beginner agility class when she was young, so she was familiar with the obstacles and I knew that she had no fear. Late last year I carved out time for another agility class. She took to it immediately. For anyone who has seen Rose out in the field, it should come as no surprise that she adores flying around the obstacles as fast as she can. Control was what we needed to work on. The biggest problem is what is referred to as contact zones. For safety, the raised obstacles (A frame, dog walk, and seesaw) have zones painted on them that the dog must touch as she comes down off the obstacles. This prevents her from simply flying off from as much as 5 feet high, which is her preferred method of getting on to the next jump at full speed. We used the "easy" or "wait" command as she was coming down the obstacles to make her slow down, even stop, to make sure she hit those contact zones. She is also learning "left" and "right" to direct her to the next obstacle, and we use "here" to bring her back in to me when she gets off course or so far in front of me that I canít direct her. This, of course, is a big problem for me and the most challenging part of agility. My dog can cover the course much more quickly than I can, so I need to analyze the course to see where I can cut corners, switch sides, or direct her ahead. I need to train her to work away from me and recognize the names of the obstacles so she knows where to go. I have also relearned just how much my dog is paying attention to my body language, and how to use that to my advantage, and how not to send the wrong signals.

Iím trying not to feel like an old dog learning new tricks, but there is a good bit of agility handling that is very new to me, especially the fast pace. I canít think that fast!

After several months of classes, we decided it was time to enter our first trials. o prepare, we ran in two agility matches, which are fun events designed to let you run a course as if you were at a trial. By the time we ran the second match, the weekend before the trials, I was feeling fairly confident. But I had never actually competed at a trial, and I had an education coming... It is very hard to put together a clean run. I knew the rules, but knowing them and then seeing them in operation are two different things. At the Novice level, you are allowed two "course faults" plus you can get deductions for going over the course time limit. There are some mandatory non-qualifications (NQís) for certain mistakes, like knocking a bar off a jump, or jumping off a contact obstacle without hitting the contact zone. What I learned at our trials was that even if your dog is ready you still donít seem to have very good odds of finishing your 60 seconds cleanly. I watched some beautiful performances, but the dog would hit a bar (one bar!) and not qualify. I didnít do the math at the end of the day, but the percentage of qualifiers was clearly very low. Rose had her own problems, but for our first trials I felt we did pretty good. She had put together some beautiful sequences within the courses and I knew what I needed to work on. If you havenít guessed by now, we didnít qualify either day of the event. Iíll run you through our course on Saturday to give you an idea what it was like (see Novice course map).

We started with a series of two bar jumps leading to the A-frame, after which we needed to turn slightly to take the tire jump, then another bar jump to the pause table. Rose was going beautifully until the bar jump, which she ran by (one course fault). I made my first handler error by calling her back when she was on the opposite side of the jump from me, causing her to come back over the jump towards me (second course fault - taking the jump in the wrong direction). She then cleared the jump the right way, did a great sit on the pause table, which was the part I was most concerned about, then took a broad jump and raced through the tunnel to the see- aw, which was my other concern, but she was looking good. We had another turn over a bar jump to the dog walk, and Rose ran by the bar again (third course fault, NQ). After we corrected that, she balked at going up onto the dog walk (fourth course fault). Finally she got over it, took one more solid jump and finished through the chute. I think most of her problems came from inexperience (hers and mine) and when she and I could put it all together it was really thrilling. Sunday was better, with one course fault (due to a distraction from a couple little kids hanging on the ring gating), but she inexplicably hopped off the side of the see-saw, which is an NQ. The end of the story is that now I am hooked. I was lying in bed that night dreaming up training drills. Agility truly provides a challenge for the trainer and the dog, but what really gets to me is the level of teamwork that exists between the two of us. Whenís the next trial? 

Jill and Rose are pursuing agility titles in Michigan.