A course that includes all of these obstacles is considered a “standard” or “regular” course. AKC offers a JWW (Jumpers with Weaves) class that only features jumps, tunnels and weaves, so it is very fast. NADAC’s “Jumpers” class is only jumps. USDAA offers fun strategy games like “Gamblers” and “Snooker” and pair relays. All courses are designed by a judge, and no matter how many trials you attend, you will never see the same course twice, even if you show under the same judge.
The judge’s role goes beyond course design. “Once the judge gets to the show, she must make sure that the course is set up correctly, and then she judges any faults incurred during the run,” says Elise Paffrath. “The judge is an observer, which is exhausting. In addition to travel [to the show site by car or plane], you’re on your feet all day, you have to keep things moving and there can be conflicts.”
Before your run, you have two ways to prepare your handling strategy. First, you can look at the course map, which shows you the location of each obstacle and how they are numbered. Second, you get a “walk-though” in which you and your fellow competitors walk the course. Sometimes it will differ slightly from what you read on the course map, so this is the time to review and/or rethink your strategy and memorize the course. Rather than try to remember it by number, it’s best to think of it in terms of obstacle sequences, such as “jump-jump-A-frame” to “tire-table-seesaw” and so on. (For more details about competition and the differences between venues, invest in a copy of Clean Run Production’s Competing in Agility: Entering Trials and What To Do When You Get There, by Cindy Buckholt. You can also check out the websites of each organization for rules, registration questions and more; see “Resources.”).
Old Dogs, New Tricks
Teaching a dog to do the obstacles is relatively easy and fun, though it should always be done under supervision. With expert instruction, positive training methods and patience, any healthy dog can learn how to do obstacles in three to four months.
Some pieces of equipment require more time and effort than others. For example, teaching the teeter-totter is a step-by-step process. First, encourage your dog to get used to movement under his feet by walking on a square wobble board on top of a small ball. Second, teach your dog rear-end awareness by walking him through the rungs of a horizontal mini-ladder on the ground—most dogs do not need to think about the position of their back legs, as they normally just follow the front legs. Third, slowly lead your dog across a long, narrow board flat on the ground so that all four paws walk the plank. You can raise the height of this board gradually as the dog’s confidence grows.
While your dog is learning the obstacles, your job is to learn handling skills so you can guide her from one obstacle to another. When you’re learning a new handling maneuver, it’s best to practice running without your dog and imagine her moving with you. That way, you can make many mistakes without punishing your dog with constant repetition.
“There is an art to handling,” says Bud Houston, who is a retired AKC judge and currently judges for USDAA and the Teacup Dogs Agility Association when not teaching with his wife at Dogwood Training Center in Ohio. “The [team aspect] is one of the overlooked elements of our game. Some people consider the dog to be 95 percent of the team. When you bring a young dog into the house, within months, the dog understands how you move. The same ‘laws of motion’ are applicable to agility. You must interpret how your dog interprets your movement. A lot of dogs do what I call ‘compensatory learning.’ Even though you might err in your movement, the dog is clever enough to figure out what you want of him.”
In general, our body language overrules verbal commands, so if you say, “A-frame” but your shoulders and outstretched hand face the direction of a tunnel, guess where your dog will go? (Editor’s note: See Patricia McConnell’s column for more on this subject.) The more seasoned the dog, the more weight he will give to verbal commands as your body moves ahead or laterally to prepare for the next obstacle.