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Sirius Agility Foundation Skills

by John Muehlberg

Among the participants at agility trials, there are many handlers that pine for killer contacts, dream about awesome weave pole entries, and ache for incredible distance work that is exhibited by dogs and their handlers who always walk away with the ribbons. Regardless of which handling system you choose, it is extremely important to start your training Rover with solid foundation skills (SFS). SFS will ensure that Rover fully understands what is expected of him each time he executes an obstacle. Rover will be able to go out and perform his job without you being right next to them. And not if, but when, Rover suddenly forgets how to perform an obstacle; you will have a way to quickly refresh that "forgotten" skill with ease.

SFS training begins by shaping Rover's behaviors beginning with the most basic level of the exercise. For example, with contact execution, many times a dog's training will begin with running them over a low A-frame, dog-walk, or seesaw, eventually, the contact obstacle is raised to its full height and this is then labeled as being able to successfully execute the contact. In reality, this is nothing more than going over the contact with no criteria established for ensuring that the dogs pass through the contact zone.
While in a trial setting, Novice dogs tend to be less confident. Some dogs will pass through the contact zones during their first few runs and sometimes even into the Open class but very often it doesn't last this long. Once a dog trained in this way begins to gain their confidence in the ring, the contact zone execution tends to evaporate very quickly.

With strong foundation skills, Rover will completely understand the criteria of execution for the contact obstacle. With A-frame, dog-walk, or see-saw execution, it is absolutely imperative that Rover passes through the contact zone each and every time the obstacle is executed whether in a training or trial setting. There are many methods for training contacts; 2 paws on 2 paws off (2 on 2 off), targeted touch, one rear toe on (ORTO) just to name a few. It is critical that Rover understands that the exercise is not the obstacle itself, but the execution of the contact zone each and every time.

During the process of shaping Rover's, skills it is crucial to work these skills at a distance. For example, when you work the bar jump, you should begin shaping Rover's behavior right next to the jump. Eventually expand your lateral distance to a minimum of six feet, with ten to twelve feet being much more desirable. Repeat the same process for all of the obstacles. Once you have obstacle execution with lateral distance return to the obstacle and then start to work all clock positions, slowly increasing your lateral distance towards each clock position. The further you can work away from Rover at this point will directly affect the distance that Rover will be able to comfortably work away from you while sequencing in training and when working that 20 foot "get out" in the ring.

As happens with all dogs you will someday go out to work a sequence and the dog will have forgotten how to do something. Typically the handler says to themselves, "Hmm my dog has never done that before". The handler will then repeat the sequence with the same bad outcome while getting frustrated with their dog. The handler asks their dog "Why are you doing this to me, didn't I play with you enough yesterday"? Now the handler really starts to stress out; "Oh my gosh, I have a trial next weekend and all of our runs will be a train wreck"! By now the dog is starting to pick up on all of the tension and with his ears down and tail tucked, he's out of there.

Whether it is the tire, tunnel, contacts or any obstacle on the course you have a "secret" weapon in your bag of tricks. With good foundations you have no need to panic; you can retrain those lost or forgotten skills with ease. Simply go back to the initial exercise that you started the unsuccessful obstacle with. In short order, the light bulb will switch on in your dog's head and they will say "oh, that's what you want me to do"! Your dog will then understand what it is you want him to do and the skill will return. Most of the time that unsuccessful obstacle will become even more reliable.

In short, training good foundation skills will allow Rover to be much more successful with each and every obstacle because he will clearly understand what is expected of him. You will be able to perform that handler restriction or distance layer because Rover won't need you to be with him to go over that jump, even if it is twenty feet away. And when Rover's skills suddenly evaporate, you will be able to fix the problem in very short order. With good foundation skills, you will be one of the handlers going home with the pretty ribbons. And by the way, don't forget to stop on the trip home to get Rover an extra special treat for working so hard for you. After all, is said and done, all that our dogs want is to be loved and to please us; we're the ones who care about the ribbons.

John Muehlberg
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