I know that many of you would have read the title of this blog post and done a double take …. and could well be thinking “that Susan Garrett has gone a bit cray cray, she has spent years telling us that agility and dog training should be fun!”. You are right … well maybe not about the cray cray but about the fun!
Agility should be fun, but there absolutely are dangers in the “just-for-fun”. Stay with me on this. It’s a subject I went live with on Facebook recently. We have the recording of that below for you, and I explain exactly what I mean.
The three reasons that I think most of us started agility are to have fun, our peer group encouraged it, or to have something to do with our dog. Fun being the main reason and the reason we stay in agility. And that fun should be mutual for our dog.
Golfing, Knitting, Cliff Diving and Rattlesnake Catching
You could have a non-dog hobby that you do just for fun: knitting, golf, bowling, photography, hiking, biking, tennis … there are plenty! Some hobbies you can do “just-for-fun” with little to no experience, but for others you are going to need foundations for your safety …. chainsaw juggling, cliff diving, rattlesnake catching would be examples (not that I am recommending anyone jump into these for recreation, but hey, if that is your hobby, we want to hear from you in the comments!). Some hobbies have low risk, others have high risk and huge consequences if things don’t go right.
Dog Agility and Chainsaw Juggling
Consider for a moment everything a dog has to do in agility. Without care, many things in dog agility put this hobby out of the “just-for-fun” group and up into the “will have consequences” group of pastimes. But the risk in dog agility is often hidden and not perceivable if you don’t have experience. We can all easily imagine the consequence of juggling chainsaws.
And it is hard if you are just starting as there are facilities out there encouraging you to join up and do agility with your dog “just-for-fun”. These facilities might not have the dog training background or know the risk either! You want to avoid going anywhere where dogs are being dragged, pushed, pulled or lured over equipment with food or toys and where getting the dogs to do the obstacles is the main aim.
It’s Not About the Performance First
Agility training with a focus on performance over consistency is a risk. Sure, it would be cool to see your dog run over the Dog Walk in his first session, but that is risky for the dog. You may as well turn on the chainsaws and start juggling.
The performance needs to be broken down into layers. Every component can be shaped so there is joy and confidence for the dog. Then the layers can start to come together, and you will end up with an amazing performance that is mutual fun. Anything less than this risks physical or psychological damage to our dogs.
When there is only focus on performance, many dogs become scared of equipment and when this happens, the fear they have is always going to override anything that is used to lure them to perform. Always, always monitor your dogs T.E.M.P …. for more on the state you want your dog to be in, visit my vlog on the “Circle of Fun“.
A worried dog is not going to “get used to it” or “get over it” unless he is in a tiny percentage, no matter what you are told. And remember that our dogs can stress high or low … meaning they can either get more and more over the top or more and more shut down. If this is your dog, you might be told not do agility because “your dog does not ‘like agility'”.
What Dogs Can LOVE Agility?
It’s my experience over the past 30 years of teaching dog agility, that there is not one physically sound dog on this planet who can not LOVE agility when agility is trained correctly. I’ll repeat that.
There is not one physically sound dog on this planet who can not LOVE agility when agility is trained correctly.
Because many people start agility with a focus on performance, the overwhelm is almost instant, generally first for the dog and then for the person. There are two things to always consider when training agility:
- Are you growing your dog’s confidence?
- Are you and your dog having mutual fun?
If there is neither of these two things, you might see dogs running off and getting kookie, or shutting down completely, or somewhere in-between.
Grow Your Dog’s Confidence
Our goal should be to always grow and protect our dog’s confidence in agility (and everything we do). The significant danger of “just-for-fun” agility is that the dog’s psychological safety is not considered and the “mutual fun” is overlooked.
Changing the phrase “just-for-fun” to “I want to have fun with the dog I love” leads you to bring out the best in your dog and grow his confidence. Having fun with the dog you love will see your dog LOVE agility and LOVE showing his skills off to you.
Let your motivation be to have mutual fun with the dog you love!
Protect Your Dog’s Confidence
All of my agility training is based on the layers in the 5C Formula of Success. You can read more on my blog post “Protect Your Dog’s Confidence“.
#1 Awaken Consciousness
Be conscious of what you want to see your dog doing in agility ….. you want to see him running fast, following you, having a great time and performing the obstacles with ease and skill. All of this starts with your dog wanting to work with you.
#2 Create Clarity
Give your dog clarity for what it is you want him to do through fun planned layered training. Shape your dog and reward with things your dog values to transfer the value of the rewards to what you want him to do AND to you.
#3 Build Confidence
The clarity you create is going to build your dog’s confidence and joy as he will have understanding from your strong foundations.
#4 Introduce Challenges
When your dog has clarity and confidence, you can introduce challenges to the small pieces of behaviour with planned distractions to boost understanding. Your dog is not worried about failing as you have given him so much confidence!
#5 Grow Capability
You and your dog are going to have capability and mutual fun from the layers of training that see you confident to take on any challenge.
The 5C model is a template for joy and can be used for anything!
We ALL Want to Have Fun
We all want to have fun with our dogs. It should be a priority for everybody! But, we need to be aware that dog agility can have risk if it’s done “just-for-fun” instead of wanting to have fun with the dog we love.
Unless agility is broken down and trained correctly the risk is to your dog and also to the relationship your dog has with you.
And if your dog has been worried in agility or the relationship with you damaged …. do not give up. Use the layers of training to rebuild confidence and trust! Keep in mind the 5C model and let mutual fun and growing your dog’s confidence be your goal.
2 Key Elements to Agility Success
In my vlog on “2 Key Elements to Agility Success” I covered that it does not matter if you are training your first ever agility dog or you’re working to compete at the world championships of agility, the two key elements of agility success are the same.
Obstacle Performance: The elements for obstacle performance include our dog’s fitness, criteria breakdown (weaves, tunnels, contacts, the different jumps, tyre and start line), understanding and speed.
Handling Execution: The elements of our handling execution include knowing our dog’s line, knowing our best handling line, proper appreciation of motion, cueing lines for our dog well in advance to allow him to prepare his body and know what path to take, keeping the connection with our dog throughout, and our fitness.
The Masterclass I mention in the video above is over now, but you can get news when we next run a free training series for dog agility or open one of our agility programs to join. Register on our Agility Nation and Handling360 notification lists to be kept up to date. Agility Nation covers the key element of obstacle performance along with supporting skills and insights, and Handling360 covers the key element of handling execution.
What is the reason you started agility with your dog? Let me know in the comments! And if you have not started agility, but have been thinking about it, let me know why.
Today I am grateful to be home with my dogs after a great week or so away, and grateful to have caught up with friends and family when I was away.
I started agility to have fun and build a stronger bond with my dog who is a very exuberant Golden Doodle. In NZ clubs are very sparce. I feel sad after watching this that Jimmy has been put thru exactly what you spoke about, however i do Canine fitness with him so he is very aware and confident on most equipment so I don’t think his optimism has been affected much . One instructor wrapped the lead around his mouth and made him heel, by popping the lead. He ran back to me and was very worried 😭.
He does take off and do the zoomies so I have had to put him back on lead and just do some work on our own in a distracting environment. I wasn’t aware that this was him showing me he was worried.
The club is not supportive and I feel a bit like a fish out of water amongst rows of border collies🤣
Jimmy is a beautiful soul who wants to play with everyone ❤️
We started learning to herd sheep when my boy was a pup. Then took a break to move across the country. Found a great herding teacher in our new state but my boy had lost interest. Our trainer is also an agility trainer so we decided to see if he had interest in that sport. He loved it!!! He loves the movement and all the positives. I’ve learned so much about shaping and how to give him the choice to do the behaviors. His confidence is soaring. I have so much to learn about handling. He is picking things up so much faster than I am. Luckily our trainer is supportive and positive toward me too! Thank you for all you share with us Susan! I look forward to every post.
So, so many reasons why I want to do agility. During my late teens, twenties and early 30s, I was a proffesional horse trainer working with hunters, jumpers and combined training. I’ve always loved working with animals and building a great relationship with them. I retired from that to raise my family. After the kids moved out, I lucked out by finding a lovely red and white BC puppy at a local shelter. I thought, “perfect, I’ll transfer my horse skills and do agility!” Boy, was I wrong! Not a lot transfered. But, I loved learning a new set of skills with my wonderful Maggie girl. I made quite a few mistakes, but learned from them.
When she was about 5, I started to compete with her. But life is fickle and my agility dog had to quickly change carreers. She became my full time ESA / Therapy Dog / nurse as I was diagnosed with Ovarian Cancer. A year of treatments and four years of ongoing, associated medical issues, stole agility from us. When I finally started getting my life back, my wonderful dog was too old with her own health issues.
At 12 years old, at the begining of the pandemic, she suddenly got very ill and I had to say good bye to her.
If cancer taught me one thing, it’s not to wait. So two weeks after Maggie passed, I was on a 1200 mile road trip to look at a BC puppy on an Oregon cattle ranch.
I had three requirements for a puppy;
1) female (hubby’s choice)
2) enough white I could find her in the dark.
3) enough brains to do a little agility and reclaim what cancer had stolen from me.
What I got was:
A gorgeous, long legged, athletic, genius, tri-color, smooth coat, snuggle bug, soul mate, agility rock star, with white angel wing markings on her shoulders, that’s leaving me in the dust…litterally.
I’m frantically trying to learn as much as I can, as fast as I can, to try and do her justice!
Cancer is the fast track to poverty, so thank you for all of the help, information and inspiration you offer to the public. I know part of it is promotion, and rightly so. But, you share way more than is necessary for promotion.
To have fun with my dog. I wanted to engage in something that gave me quality time for my dog but I quickly came bored with most things I tried. On this site I have found so many ways to engage and have fun. Thanks for having so much available.
I took an intro to Agility class with my maltese/poodle a couple of years ago. She struggled with a lack of confidence and lots of reactivity and fearfulness (still does, to some extent, but she is much better now!) and I was looking for a way to build confidence and work on our relationship. I’m pretty sure the instructors thought we were crazy to be attempting agility after our first class and wouldn’t continue, since she was afraid of every obstacle, every other dog, and basically every thing…but by the end of the lessons, we were able to compete a whole agility course!. She’d go slowly and cautiously over the dog walk and A-frame, but seemed to LOVE the jumps, weave poles and tunnels. And I sure had a happy dog at the end of the course – because the whole focus for us was building confidence in her and building our relationship. And based on those goals – I believe the class was a success!
I am 71 and spend a lot of time at my easel as a full time artist/gallery owner. Decided I need to move more and now have a young border collie and took all three class levels with an agility club in the area. Brook loves it and I am definitely the main thing holding her back. Due to the 110 mile round trip to the club facilities and the Covid virus, I have been filling the back yard with simple equipment. Don’t really care if we ever do a trial, but want to learn how to work/play with her even better, she is a great dog!
I started Agility Training with my pup. But it isn’t about the items on the coarse. Sure it is neat when she trust me and goes over them when asked. It is about the T R A I N I N G. I’ve learned to not say “I want to do Agility with my dog for the fun”, instead I just say “We’re learning Agility. We are not competing.” Right now she is sidelined because of her hips and weight. We may never get back to anything more than low impact “team building”.
Count cross stitch….
Well, I read all the comments and it seems that I am the first to comment that has the hobby of catching rattlesnakes. Have caught hundreds if them over 30+ years. Haven’t done any cliff diving, but have jumped off of many bridges. But that is neither here nor there as far as why I was reading your post.
I have a 2 year old Aussie and have wanted to do agility with him from the beginning. Between waiting for his growth plates to finish growing, and searching for the right trainer, I think we are finally ready. I had a Canaan dog a few years ago that I did agility with and it hooked me. Looking forward to starting this new journey with my little buddy. I know I will be the weakest link in his training, so I aim to be putty in the hands of “my” trainer and let her teach me how to work with him properly.
I started agility after watching many classes and seeing the strength of the bond between the handler and the dog. That was my goal, to build a strong and trusting relationship. Yes, it is fun, but do any of us form strong relationships with people that are not fun (or are difficult). There is a lot of joy when I am working with my dog and I see small signs of growth consistently. It makes me feel confident in the abilities of myself and my dog. My trainer follows your school of training, and we are blessed with a positive, supportive attitude that makes us want to keep coming back. Thank you!!
I was involved in agility 10-15 years ago. My youngest dog is just over a year old and we start basic training at the end of the month at a club whose training beliefs align with your teaching. A number of our instructors have been to Say Yes and you have taught at our club. I am so excited to begin again and learn again right from the start!
My first SFT literally drug me into agility. He insisted he had to know what it was all about. That was 23 years ago. Training was so different. Thankfully we have come a long way. Well, some of us have. I agree with all you say and teach foundation skills. My pup was started on flat work at an early age and is now doing contacts. However, many people who are students at good clubs aren’t willing to invest the time to lay the foundations. They just want to know when they can “run courses” or “enter my first trial”. Thanks for this blog. I’m going to share it.
My friends were doing it. I am a little competitive and wanted to challenge myself and I am almost 79 and was looking for something to do to get more exercise. I love quilting, gardening, reading, playing bridge, bird watching, etc. but all sort sedentary. And I thought it would be fun, lol.
I’ve never done agility, but I’ve always wanted to do something with my dogs to get them more active, and to get us out more. However, I don’t think I’d be able to devote a lot of time and money into it right now, and I don’t think my dogs are truly right for it – maybe someday!
I unsubscibed awhile ago by pushing the wrong button so I think I found a way to redo it.Please keep me in.
I started Agility to allow my dog to use his brain, enjoy himself, builds our bond and above all for us both to have fun together.
This blog caught my eye. I have a border collie who loves agility. I’m brand new to the sport and love it. I have yet to compete and may never due to my dog’s reactiveness to people and other dogs. I still love the bond that has developed between us both and hope to continue to learn and grow together.
Have to say that your title startled me — but not for the reason you might think.
I thought the argument was going to be in opposition to what a number of my friends do, namely take class after class but never compete in trials. Ribbons and titles mean nothing to them because indeed, they “do it just for fun.”
But they do take classes because they love their dogs enough to know that much of agility is about “steering your dog” along the best/optimal path and that means learning best handling skills.
So I was delighted to find — as I read the whole blog — that I am on the same wave length. We are both talking about the importance of doing agility with a continual awareness of safety for the dog (and of course the handler).
Started agility as something to do with my dog, to increase our bond and get a bit of exercise during bad weather. Seemed more fun than obedience and had no intention of ever competing. Thankfully, my instructors emphasized good foundation and technique because one day I watched my first agility, said “My dog can do that “. Entered a trial the next month and we were hooked! MACH 3 PACH2 from starting competition when my dog was 6, just retired at 13. Dog 2 coming up on MACH, and dog 3 is joining the pack next month! I always make sure it is fun for us. If it gets too intense, we take a break. But for me, this is our life sport!
I started training agility with my first Dobe after she shut down in obedience. She was a soft dog and the traditional type training I’d been taught 10 years ago was too harsh (learned to do it a better way). I trained her for 3 years before she bought into it and really started to enjoy it. Started trialing her at age 8. my instructor wasn’t certain she’d ever be ready to trial but she finally was. Never did standard as she had arthritic knees and couldn’t go up narrow planks, but she had a blast with the rest. Even managed a PCDX in obedience due to agility.
My current Dobe is hard and high drive, so once she got some self control (2 years of agility training) we started trialing at age 4. She’s gotten to masters level in just over a year and loves the sport. She’s also gotten her RACH title in Rally in July.
So we look for fun and joy, but not at the cost of safety. We spend a lot of time on foundation and obedience.
Started agility to have fun with my dog and give us an activity to do together as a team after we finished conformation shows and hunt training/tests. Had fun until we achieved the Masters levels…now we are too focused on points and double Qs. Thinking about stopping agility altogether as it is not fun anymore…
I had a similar experience. I now really enjoy training each week without trialling.
This may be the best overall analysis of agility I have read yet. I got started in agility because I got an Aussie pup who sailed off the back porch into the yard – on day 1 I knew this little girl needed a job where she could run & jump – a lot. I am fairly new to the sport and am fortunate to have an instructor that advised me to spend plenty of time training before we started competing – 1-2 years. I went to trials alone and volunteered, then brought my dogs to just hang out and get familiar with the environment. It is a sport that definitely requires regular and consistent training and conditioning for both team members and we are learning and growing together. We just earned our first Novice titles, so we have a very long way to go, but we are taking our time and making sure that we have fun and do things where we are building our bond and skills together. Thanks for all the great information you share!
Hi Susan, love your Vlogs! I am an H360 student, and am so pleased that you pointed out straight away that we must protect our dog’s confidence. I have 2 collies who have benefited amazingly since I took a step back to actually watch them properly. I know now not to rush things with my youngster as he absolutely needs to be sure and confident about something before we can move on. When he is not ‘sure’, he is very slow and doesn’t seem able to concentrate. I know when to move on because his speed and motivation just appear! You have taught me to be patient! Thanks so much!
Hobbies: reading, energetic healing technics
I do not do agility as I think my dogs are to heavy for it and it would not be healthy for them thinking of a long happy healthy life. All in all I have had five dogs one had severe hip displasia, one spinal problems, one elbow displasia and two were all healthy but about 38kg working retrievers.
I have alwaysed loved training my dogs in a variety of disciplines. When I adopted my border collie, I started looking for a training group and the only reasonably local group was an Agility Club. The first trainer just let us jump (excuse the pun) right in. However, the second trainer was much more conservative and took us through the layers much more carefully. That has meant more confidence in both mt dog and myself. However, I wish I had taken the leap into the H360 program 4 years ago when I first got my dog…but now I have and I am excited to get started .
Awesome blog. Thank you so much.
I started agility with Cocoa, because I wanted to do something that would build off leash skills. Focus was on obstacles and once we started trialling I realized that I needed handling skills. I worked thru all 3 titles in each class and earned superior level titles in Novice classes before moving up to open, and then earning open superior titles before moving up to elite. I also watched handlers and asked them questions. Eventually we went to Champs and earned our NATCH.
With my young dog, I worked on handling skills first with buckets, hoops, and barrels. Then have moved on to other obstacles. We are just starting weaves now. All a new beginning.
It looks very fun. Also, I have a very energetic dog that loves running and jumping.
Reading, knitting, gardening