Now that you’ve been introduced to the idea of dog agility, you may be curious as to how you can get started. As with most new things you want to start learning, the first thing to do is sign up for a class. However, there are a few things you want to look for when picking out an agility class to make sure that it suits your needs.
1.What Methods Do the Trainers Use?
Agility has evolved a lot since its creation, and the methods of training have evolved just as much. There are two main ways of training your dog: shaping behavior and bribing/forcing your dog. Some teachers may ask you to put your dog on a leash before you take them over the equipment. This is categorized as forceful training. While that may work, agility has started leaning away from this kind of training because it decreases your dog’s drive and accuracy. Just like with people, it’s less fun to do something when you are being forced to do it.
You may be wondering what “shaping behavior” means. Shaping behavior is when you teach them a behavior by rewarding them when they voluntarily perform it. For example, if you are potty-training your two-year-old, and they go to the bathroom on the actual toilet, you don’t want to ignore that behavior or scold them. It would be much more effective to give them an M&M each time they use the bathroom. They’ll learn much faster that way! On a more serious note, there are a lot of parallels between teaching children and teaching dogs. It may be helpful for you to think about training your dog similarly to teaching a young child because they learn in similar ways.
Shaping behavior is a method that takes a little bit longer for your dog to pick up on, but they understand both the task and criteria for the task more precisely. It sounds simple, but it makes a big difference in the dog’s foundational training.
2.Talk to the Trainers!
Let’s be real: we’re all human. Making sure the instructor is someone you’re comfortable learning from is an important—if neglected—part of the learning process. Before signing up for an agility class, chat with the instructor for a little bit and ask if you can watch a class or two before you sign up. This way you can interact with the other students, see what the instructor’s teaching style is like, and whether it will work well for your and your dog’s needs. For example, do you like very detailed explanations, or do you prefer a brisk pace and focused critique? Do you learn by watching or doing? Finding an instructor more tailored to your preferences can make learning even more enjoyable.
3.How Are Trainer’s Dogs and Accomplishments?
If you’re not entirely sure what to look for in an instructor, what I will always look at first is how the instructor runs their dog, and what they have done in the past with agility. While years of experience doesn’t necessarily mean that they are a good teacher, it’s a relatively good indicator of their knowledge. I also like to see what an instructor’s past accomplishment are. Do they compete? How long have they competed for? Have they gone to any regional or national competitions? Have they placed? Did they ever get a Masters Agility Championship title on their dog?The last thing I look at is how they handle their dog on a course. If their dog is fast and accurate while running, I know that they understand how to train and reinforce that behavior. On the other hand, if their dog isn’t so great, then I don’t trust them to give me the kind of instruction that I desire. Basically, if you want to be good at what you do, learn from someone who is good at what they do. At life and at agility.
4.Do You Want to Compete, or Just Have Fun?
When starting agility, everyone has different goals. Some people don’t ever want to compete – they just want to have fun running with their dog and building their relationship. Others want to compete but aren’t necessarily looking for that blue ribbon. They just enjoy showing; there’s an excitement in the atmosphere and a certain pressure that comes along with competing. The super competitive people want to go on to big competitions, whether that be the national show or an international show. It is important to choose a class based on how competitive you want to be. The instructor will push you and your dog based on your aspirations. If you are more competitive, then it is important that you are training with like-minded people. However, if you simply want to enjoy your hobby and have fun with people who enjoy the same thing, then you probably don’t want to be interrogated by the instructor as to why you haven’t been practicing at home every single day. It’s important that people choose a class suited to how much time they are willing to practice. If a student is in a class where homework is assigned, and they do not complete that homework, they will take away from other students’ class time.
The bottom line is that agility should be fun, regardless of the level you aspire to reach. Joining a class means expanding your community, meeting new friends and enjoying yourself with your dog. While at times, the training itself can be frustrating, you should never feel like not going to class because you don’t have fun. Agility is a welcoming community, in which there should be a place for everyone. As we like to say, “if you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong!”
Erika Newcomb has been playing agility for over 10 years. She has been teaching agility classes since 2015, and currently works at Saint Paul Dog Training Club in Saint Paul, Minnesota.