Building the right foundation by Peter by Peter Lewis

Created: 09/05/2012

So much of sport is about speed. Much of the Olympics are about speed, but there are many events where quality of performance is the determining factor deciding who will win and who will not. An obvious speed sport is Formula 1 car racing where the fastest car over the whole race wins, with everyone else desperately trying to catch up with that car’s performance. Yes the driver does matter, but that driver usually has to be driving the right car and have the right back-up team.
With agility, speed figured from the beginning. There were a minority who did not want speed to be the determining factor when there was otherwise equality. Some of us fought hard to ensure that their view did not prevail, and thank goodness we did for one or more clear rounds needs a factor to separate those that are equally accurate. The best will find quick methods of usually ensuring accuracy but others will take longer therefore speed allows further separation of possible equality.
From that came ever increasing methods of training that could not only maintain speed and accuracy but often increase speed as well. To watch the top modern handler effortlessly steer their dog through an agility manoeuvre that may have taken much time to perfect is quite something to watch. To see them do so at extremely fast speeds is definitely something else!
Some may ask, "how does the dog learn to do something that is possibly unnatural for them as the natural way generally takes much longer?” Well it comes back to that main factor of dog training, and that is establishing a habit combined with circumstantial learning. For example, getting the dog to touch the contacts while running is taught by habit and the contact obstacles becomes a main circumstance associated with running contacts.
I have not stopped proclaiming for the last 50 years that if the dog never makes a mistake he never learns the wrong thing by habit. At dog training’s beginning (incidentally I was not around then, neither was I even a twinkle) dog training was all about letting a dog make a mistake then correcting that mistake. It did work. Not as well as more modern methods but it was possible to get results. Often that correction often bordered upon cruelty and it was surprising that few dogs looked cowed.
As time went by others came along, starting in the 1960s with methods that did away with correction as a method and instead started using encouragement and praise. A progression was to teach everything by a game. Even police patrol dogs were taught pursuit and detention as a game, but the criminals they chased were not told it was a game and it looked and often felt real enough to them.

Reward based

If agility had started when the training regime was still mistake and correction then the sport would never have worked, but it came much later with many taking it up during the early 80s when all training was reward based with either food or toy as the incentive or lure. In effect agility was a by-product of reward based training. Having written that, a cross section of ability to train dogs took part.
At first much time was wasted with sweeping arcs around obstacles when a sequence was jump and turn back. Dogs were stopped on the top of the ‘A’ ramp and/or dog walk then inched down to touch the contact before being allowed to run again. Body language was non-existent for many, and indeed the words as commands were foreign to them. For many their training had a lack of sufficient finesse to guide their dog through the shortest route.
Weave poles were executed at the speed which the dogs were taught at. For example, with the knee to push the dog through the gap between two poles, encourage him forward with the lead then draw him through the next gap towards the handler was so laborious it would often take as much time to get the dog to go in and out once as it does for a quick weaving dog to complete 12 poles on his own these days. Apart from the laborious method, the funny run some handlers had to do along the weaving poles as an effort to reproduce the habit used in training was quite hilarious.
Leaving the dog at the start and then moving up the course for a recall start was an impossibility, for many who really had no ‘wait’ or ‘stay’ factor. Many of them would try it at the agility training class without prior training of the dog and, of course, it would go wrong. So what were such handlers doing? Yes, you have guessed it, allowing the dog to make a mistake therefore building the wrong habit. You will still see it with a minority today, and that is the creeping start by the dog anxious to start or be called back closer to the person handling him.
So how are all these crazy points avoided? By initially creating a foundation for subsequent building work. That building starts with teaching the puppy to play. If possible, teaching the dog to bring a thrown toy back on command. Ensuring the dog has been taught basic control skills such as a solid wait. Teaching fast exciting recalls. Combining a recall with subsequent parallel running together. This should utilise both right and left sides of the body. The dog running ahead of the handler chasing a thrown ball, or toy. Learning hand signals and the combination of commands. This can be achieved using a wait with two balls in front but to the sides of the dog. Teaching obstacle discrimination by naming the obstacle each time the dog negotiates it. There are many more, and good instructors should be sought after so that nothing is forgotten for all of this is foundation work and should come prior to obstacle training.


No matter how good an agility dog’s training has been, inevitably there will be times when he misreads his handler’s instructions. Such instructions may just be the handler’s body language at the time transmitting the wrong information to the dog. That is a handler fault of course. When it occurs and he is heading towards the wrong obstacle then a good ‘call off’ command is necessary. My advice would be not to practise it with an obstacle for he may learn the wrong thing but use whatever is suitable to teach him a call off for I can assure you at some time you will need it. So this article does not seek to get as far as obstacle training but just ask handlers to give thought to building a foundation that will make subsequent training much easier for both dog and handler.
So there we have it, our main foundation has been about speed but speed quickly has to be combined with accuracy for that is how prizes are won. Do find the right instructor and listen to them for there are many excellent teachers of agility in the UK.