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.