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From the Ground Up: Agility Foundation Training for Puppies and Beginner Dogs

The first of a multi-part series featuring a chapter from the book, "From the Ground Up: Agility Foundation Training for Puppies and Beginner Dogs."


In the first part of a multi-part series, we are featuring a chapter from Kim Collins' book, "From the Ground Up: Agility Foundation Training for Puppies and Beginner Dogs." The chapter focuses on flatwork training with puppies.

Part 1

Someone once said, "Agility is won or lost on the ground between the obstacles." How fast and smoothly you get your dog from one obstacle to the other is what will make the difference between first place and second place. Flatwork is all about transitions. How well you transition your dog from one obstacle to the next depends on how much work you actually do on the ground without equipment. Many people watch agility and all they can see is the equipment performance. What they don't see is all the work it takes to keep the dog off the equipment when he isn't supposed to be on it! Think about how much reinforcement you use to get your dog to perform equipment. There will be lots of value built into the equipment and your dog will naturally gravitate to where he gets reinforced. Flatwork is about making sure your dog finds not taking equipment as reinforcing as taking it. Running with you can be as much fun as jumping or weaving. 

Try running with your dog beside you. Does he run out in front and try to stop you? Does he run behind you and try to nip your feet? Does he jump up and try to grab your arm? Does he run out in front looking for a toy or sniffing? These are all behaviours that are completely natural for the dogs to do but will not help you on an agility course. Flatwork training will help your dog learn to run beside you in control on both your right and left sides, turn towards and away from you, and drive out in front. When your dog can run a full course on the ground with no equipment, complete with turns, crosses, stops and starts, doing a course with equipment will be no problem at all.

Side or Close

The first skill required is a "side" or "close." This simply means that the dog can run along beside the handler, on cue, and not take any other equip­ment, jump up, bite or grab at the handler in any way. The dog is com­pletely focused on the handler. Many dogs cannot run beside their owners. What is the sport of agility all about? It is running with the dog!

Start teaching "side" by having the dog sit and wait. Walk out to stand approximately six feet directly in front of the dog. With a piece of food in both hands, hold both hands up around your waist. Drop one hand only - it doesn't matter which one - and say side or close or whatever you choose to use for the command. The dog may require a release word like "okay" to come out of the wait.

The dog should come to the hand that is dropped by your side. Keep the other hand up by your waist. Click and treat. To get the click and treat, the dog should end up beside you, facing the same direction as you are. The goal is to teach the dog to run beside you, not in front of you. Many dogs try to cut off their handlers, but we want to teach them that the best place to be is beside us. To help the dog understand this, feed where you want him to be - beside you and with the hand closest to the dog. 

Once the dog is succeeding on one side, repeat the steps on the other side using the other hand. The dog will quickly figure out the food is only available from the hand that is down by your side. 

I recommend that you require a super high-drive dog to bring himself under control and sit when he is learning this exercise. As the dog begins to come in reliably, start to induce a sit, simply by lifting your hand up slightly. No verbal sit command is required, as most dogs will offer the sit if the food is lifted up and back slightly. I don't ask all dogs to do the sit, especially dogs that are tentative or less confident. 

On course, I personally use a hand signal for the "side" command, although some people prefer a verbal only and use a different word for the right side and left side. I teach the exercise with a verbal "side" command but later I prefer to proof it using body language alone whenever possible. I want my dog to be able to see me across the field running away and know to come to the hand that is down by my side. Therefore it is important to remember not to allow your other hand to drop or flap when teaching this. It is beneficial to work with someone else to watch you and remind you about the other hand. 

Once your dog is performing the "side" exercise reliably from a stationary position, add some movement. Drop your hand, give your command, and start walking forward. The second the dog catches up to you, click and stop moving, and give him the treat. Remember to feed the dog beside you, not in front. Then try it on the other side. 

Your next step is to do it at a jog, then at a run. 

Finally, try sending your dog to a curved tunnel, and as he comes out, run away, drop a hand with the treat in it, and see if he figures out to go to that dropped hand. Click and treat, and have a big play! This is a great exercise for less motivated dogs that are food driven. It can help them to drive out of tunnels faster. 

To read additional parts in this series go to:

This chapter is reprinted with kind permission of Dogwise Publications. Dogwise has provided a discount code for USDAA! Use code USDAA for 10% of this book and others.

Kim Collins has lived with dogs all her life and has been training dogs professionally since 1992. After starting with competitive obedience, Kim quickly discovered the growing sport of agility in 1995. Kim went on to win the 2000 USDAA National Agility Championship with her Shetland Sheepdog, Piper, and three Canadian National Agility Championships, two with Piper and one with her Border Collie, Feyd. Kim has also won seven Regional Agility Championships with three different dogs. Kim and her two Border Collies, Bryn and Feyd, were members of the Agility Association of Canada's 2004 IFCS Canadian World Team and traveled to Valencia, Spain to compete.

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