My Dog Has Learned the Fundamental Agility Skills – What's Next?

By Ann Decker (June 2012)

Editor's note: This article was originally published in the Saint Paul Dog Training Club Newsletter. It is reprinted here with the author's permission.

It is so gratifying when the "light goes on" and you feel like you and your dog have mastered the fundamental skills of agility. But agility training is a process of constantly reinforcing those skills, adding new elements and testing your own and your dog's competence and understanding. Sometimes retraining is even required when chronic issues arise.

There is much discussion in the literature about setting criteria for skills—namely, what you expect in performing a given skill—and the consistency in applying those criteria. Why? Because if you let your dog get away with not meeting the criteria you have established, you may eventually lose the performance you want.

The challenge of agility is not only mastering the fundamental skills, but improving them over the many years you and your dog may be lucky enough to perform in the sport. Everyone has to reinforce skills and most have, at some point in their career, needed to retrain. There is no perfect way to reinforce skills. The best methods of reinforcement depend on the dog. Handlers need to think creatively about what might work best.

The purpose of this article is to highlight some of the issues to work on once you and your dog have mastered the fundamental skills. Simplifying and rewarding consistently go a long way to achieving the performance you want.

1. Having your dog find and perform the weave poles independently and fast is a skill that is so invaluable to maintain. Keep working on your dog finding the entrance to the weaves—from any angle. Go back to the round the clock exercise. Change the obstacles before the weave poles because coming from the chute or a triple jump to the weaves is a different picture for your dog than coming from a single jump.
2. Reinforce fast performance of the weaves by adding wires or going back to channels on occasion. Take away the difficulty and stress and just make the weaves fun. Rewarding at the end of the weaves may also help.
3. Gradually work to get more lateral distance from your dog in the weave poles. Many times when dogs pull out of the weaves, it is because the handler is moving away to get in position for another obstacle. Lateral distance allows the handler the ability to get to the next obstacle more easily.

1. Too often handlers stop right next to their dogs at the bottom of a contact obstacle. If your dog has a 2 on/2 off contact position, vary your position relative to the position of the dog. Run past the obstacle or stay behind. If your dog understands the concept, he will stop no matter where the handler stops.
2. Work on releasing your dog, THEN moving. Oftentimes, a handler does both simultaneously. The dog then thinks he is released not only on a verbal command but also when the handler moves.
3. No matter how you train contacts, keep your dog driving to the bottom of the obstacle, instead of slowing down to find the down contact. You can reinforce this with targets (2 on/2 off) or a hoop on the floor (running).
4. Reward only when your criteria are met, not for any performance of the contact. If your criteria are not met, work on the skill until they are and then reward.

1. Work on getting your dog to drive ahead of you or away from you. Lateral and forward sends help you get where you need to be and can be practiced with one jump.
2. Perfect serpentines, 270s, 180s and other common jump sequences. Try different options for handling them so your team is proficient in performing them many ways.
3. Continue with jump chutes and circles to keep your dog's jumping form efficient.
4. Agility is all about jumping. Reward good performance when your dog executes a difficult sequence of jumps or responds with a tight turn.

1. Keep reinforcing different handler positions by starting with your dog, leading out on both sides and varying the length of the lead out.
2. If your dog has trouble staying, add distractions in the form of noise, movement or anything else you might encounter at a trial. When your dog does stay, go back and reward.
3. If your dog has a slow start, do one or two obstacles then give your dog a reward.

Agility is a continual learning process. Think about what will benefit you and your dog. Whether you have run 100 trials or one, there are always opportunities to reinforce, improve or even teach new skills to you and your dog. Most importantly, HAVE FUN!!!