Epic is finally back in agility trials, almost ten months after his caudal cruciate ligament tear at the beginning of February. His recovery has gone great, but I’ve progressed slowly through the summer and fall. He’s eight years old now and recovery and rehab can be slower than in a younger dog. We’ve mostly worked on walks in the woods, strengthening exercises and some jump grids. I’ve been afraid of letting him go back to “real” agility but finally decided that I just had to do it and entered him in a competition. We ran three jumping courses on Saturday and it felt so much better than I expected! After the first run, I could relax and just enjoy the moment. Epic was so incredibly happy to be back in competition – it was stunning to see how he really enjoyed everything about it.
The first run. He dropped a bar and then took an off-course jump.
The second run was my favorite. He took the wrong tunnel entry on #4 – I did suspect that what works for Bud doesn’t for Epic right now. He turned into me when I was behind instead of staying on the narrow, straight line to the left tunnel entry. The rest of the run was really nice. I love how he nailed the independent part into the weaves.
The third run was clean, but I think he lost some time in the last tunnel. It’s almost not discernible in the video, but in real life, I felt that he got stuck and I had time to think all kinds of terrible thoughts on how he would come out of it on three legs, or not come out at all…
Bud also competed and won the first class. We had so much fun and I’m looking forward to competing again on Sunday!
The second trend that we saw quite a lot of at Norwegian Open is the discrimination between a tunnel straight ahead and a backside jump close to the tunnel entry. It’s not the first time we’ve encountered this during 2018 and it’s been one of my focuses in training all year. If you’ve been to a handling seminar with me this year, you’ve probably seen it too. There were a few discriminations like this in Nicolas Renaud’s world championship courses for medium dogs. I couldn’t find the course maps from NO that I was thinking of, but here are Renaud’s courses from AWC.
This jumping course started with a discrimination between the backside jump of 3 and tunnel #11. More teams than I would have thought fell in that trap and were eliminated at the beginning of the run.
This epic final course for medium dogs had a difficult discrimination after the dogwalk. These types of discriminations are so much more difficult when you have to run fast as a handler and keep moving without showing deceleration. We saw some very impressive handling and verbal control in this course, but also a lot of dogs choosing to go straight into the tunnel. At Norwegian Open, we had a similar sequence in Vittorio Pappavero’s A3 course on Sunday. Unfortunately, I haven’t found the course map. Bud and I nailed the discrimination and handling, but unfortunately, he went back onto the dogwalk when he came out of the tunnel, like many other dogs.
Some examples from NO that I’ve tried to recreate:
This situation from a jumping course gave us some trouble. We were clean in this run but lost a lot of time around this discrimination. Bud was looking at the off-course tunnel and I got scared and slowed down to get him to the correct jump, which put me behind for the next obstacle where I had to pull him off another tunnel and into the weaves because I was behind and not clear. I think we’ve trained on this a lot, but obviously not enough. I tried to cue the backside before Bud even took off at 12, and told him even before that that he wouldn’t be going straight into the tunnel – he needs very early information – but he still looked at it. We’ve done a lot of training on verbal discrimination, but what I think is missing is me running fast towards the tunnel and him coming with more speed than when we’re training on just a few obstacles.
This start was tricky! Not so much because of the discrimination at 5 – although I saw quite a few dogs take the tunnel – but because it was difficult to make it to #5 at all as a handler. Rear crossing #4 is very difficult as it turns the dog to the wrong side of #5. Getting two blind crosses in between 2-3 and 3-4 was doable, but difficult to get right as the dog came so fast over the long jump. I decided to run this sequence with dog on left all the way from 1-5 and just stay ahead and be in serpentine position at the landing side of 3. I think it worked really well, but he touched the end of the long jump and was faulted as it fell down. We really need to train (soft) long jumps!
How do you feel about this challenge? How do you train it?
One course design trend that kept popping up at Norwegian Open was the tunnel under the dogwalk leading to a jump that the dog had to find on his own. A surprising number of dogs had trouble with finding the jump and ran past it or took another jump. Here are some examples from NO:
Jocke Tangfelt’s open agility course for large dogs were one of my favorites to run. The ending was tricky for a lot of dogs. They’d either run past #20 or take the wall jump instead. I was confident that Bud would do it nicely, and he did. Partly because he is good at finding jumps and listening to his “jump” cue, and partly because I was placed well. Trusting the A-frame contact means that I could just run and be in a good position for the ending.
Petr Pupík’s open agility course for large dogs had two instances of layering the dogwalk that caused trouble for dogs and handlers. Many dogs ran past #12 or #21. I’m still very sad that we had so many mistakes in this run that I didn’t get to run it properly. We had a misunderstanding before the weaves (costing time) and then three bars down, which just made me give up at the end so that I sent Bud into the wrong tunnel. I wish I had another chance at it because I really loved the course. Number #12 was very nice though.
This third example is also from Petr Pupík, but for small dogs so I didn’t run it. It looks like #13 after the tunnel under the dogwalk is a big challenge and I’d love to run this course as well. Having an independent seesaw and being able to send the dog through the tunnels from a distance seems to be an advantage, as well as being able to handle 13-14 while staying on the exit side of the weaves. I’d love to see a video of someone executing this nicely! To me, it’s not so much about being able to run as it is a challenge in training and independence.
Teaching the dog a good jump cue and making sure it’s working at a distance is one big part of managing these kinds of courses. It’s also important that the dog knows when to come out of a tunnel looking ahead and when to come out looking for the handler. It’s good to get the dog used to that you’re sometimes on the other side of a dogwalk or set of weaves, but mostly it’s about that very basic training that you can do with one tunnel and one jump.
We’re back from six days in Norway. It’s been rough finding energy for a huge trial like this right after AWC in Sweden, but I’m so happy that I went. NO is probably the best competition we enter in a year. The organizers go out of their way to find the best judges, use high-quality obstacles and get the best competitors to come. The arena is also one of the very best to run in. It fits four big rings and the footing is perfect for agility. This year we saw competitors from all over the world thanks to it being close to AWC in both time and space.
We kicked our week off on Wednesday by running in a workshop with agility superstars Tereza Kralova and Max Sprintz. We had a few sessions with each of them and although it’s a bit short time to really get to understand their way of training and handling, it’s a great way to get tuned up before an event like this. I felt like I hadn’t run Bud on courses in a long time, and the workshop really helped us get used to the footing, the obstacles and each other. Here are some clips from the training:
We got to sleep in on Thursday and went on a walk in the forest with our friends. It was a perfect fall day and we had the forest to ourselves, Much needed recovery time for us all. We didn’t have to be in the arena until evening, where we had two open runs. Open classes are unofficial and open to dogs of all levels. These are the classes where you collect points for the big final on Sunday, and there were six of them during NO. We also ran four official classes on Saturday and Sunday (J3 + A3). I’m very pleased with Bud’s and my performance on almost every course. The courses were generally hard and required independence, discrimination, obstacle skills and fast running. We nailed almost every difficult handling part and I felt like he really understood my cues and that I could just run as fast as I can without having to wait and help him.
Although we had some bars down – something that has been our big problem in the past 6 months – I felt like he really tried and he jumped some very difficult sequences without touching a single bar. He’s really making progress and I think this year has been a year where he’s been figuring out his jumping. He’s only three years old and has added speed considerably. It’s like we’ve been through every type of knocked bar there is this summer. Sometimes it’s been S-turns, sometimes wraps from the backside, sometimes fast and almost straight lines, sometimes the first jump… This weekend it was the long jump that caused us the most problems. I don’t think he’s been faulted on the long jump before, but he is mostly running in the Swedish large category, so it’s usually shorter. Didn’t have any problems at tryouts or championships before though. This weekend he did have problems. We had faults on the long jump in three runs. The long jump used was the Smart-99 soft long jump, and it’s the first time we’ve tried it. He has jumped the Galican version with no issues. Twice, he just touched the last section and dropped it. Once, he really took off too early and made a mess out of it. I wish I had a soft long jump to train on – partly to get him used to it, but even more to make training more safe for him.
We also had some weave entry issues. This is a hard nut to crack as he is usually very good on the second try but seems to get too frustrated/excited to do it right the first time. We’ve been focusing a lot on weaves this summer and it’s something that I’ll have to keep working on until he’s doing it as nicely in competition as he is in training. Generally, I feel like we’re so very close to being able to handle almost any course. But considering that there’s always that small mistake that keeps us away from the podium, I also feel like we’re very far from it. I’m excited about next season and I have a lot on my list of things to train better. Here’s a video from some of our runs:
I found some common threads in the courses set by some of the worlds most appreciated judges. I’ll get back to that topic later this week. Until then: Can you guess which two common challenges I noted and will write about?
What and how much physical activity should you do with your puppy? This is a common source of discussion and disagreement in the dog training world. I don’t know a definite answer, but I do have thoughts and opinions. As I’m preparing for a puppy agility seminar tomorrow, I thought I’d write down some of my experiences with puppy training. In general, I think that I wait longer with some things than others, but I’m definitely not afraid to let my puppies use their bodies a lot. I don’t think that there is much evidence to back up any standpoint on this issue. If you know of relevant studies or other evidence – please let me know. One study that I do know about is a Norwegian study looking at the incidence of hip dysplasia in four large breeds. This study indicates that puppies under three months benefit from outdoor exercise on soft ground in moderately rough terrain. The study also indicates that young puppies might develop more hip dysplasia if allowed to walk on stairs. Since one is always more inclined to believe evidence that supports your previous beliefs, I’m not sure if the stair thing is real or if stair walking is something that simply correlates with living in a city and not being allowed exercise in moderately rough terrain… Anyway – these are the things that I consider when raising a puppy:
Surface. From the moment puppies are born, I think it’s important that they are raised on a good surface. I think it’s really sad to see puppies raised on slippery floors, and I really do think it affects their development. A good surface provides good traction so that the puppy can move about, play and run without slipping. It’s really difficult to find a perfect indoors surface for young puppies – especially if you also want to be able to keep it clean. We try our best with indoors footing for the puppies that we breed, but I still think it’s best if they run and play outdoors on grass as much as possible when growing up. Spring and summer puppies have an obvious advantage here, being able to spend more time outdoors. Fortunately, I’ve rarely had trouble with border collie litters in the winter. They’re definitely okay with playing outdoors in the snow as long as they have a warm place to sleep in when they get tired.If you have slippery floors in your house, I’d definitely suggest that you put some good carpets in before you get a puppy. Place carpets where the puppy moves the most and especially where he’s likely to be in a hurry. And most importantly – make sure that you have a good surface for training. Having reviewed a lot of training videos in our online classes, it’s unfortunately very common for people to train on slippery floors. Please, make sure that you’re always on good footing when playing or training with your dog. I don’t think it’s fair to play or train anything that requires fast movements if the floor is slippery and the dog has to struggle to keep his balance.
Free exercise in moderately rough terrain. The best way for a puppy to find strength, balance, and proprioception is by free movement in terrain. When puppies are really small, they have a lot of fun just exploring our garden. I let the puppies we breed spend as much time outdoors as possible from 3-4 weeks of age. With an older puppy, I take them to the forest for exploring and moving about. At 2-4 months of age I usually just stay in roughly the same area and let the puppy just explore, do some recalls and slow walking by my side for short periods of time. When they’re older I let them join the grown-up dogs for walks, but keep an eye on them to make sure they don’t get too tired. I also want to avoid too much running with older dogs, herding other dogs and especially getting tackled by larger dogs. Fortunately, my older dogs are good at keeping a relaxed attitude on our forest walks, so the puppy quickly learns that drill. Here’s a really nice video showing some exercises and play done with a puppy in our woods. I think Wilco was about 4 months old when we made this.
Learning balanced positions. Puppies often lack the muscle that allows for a proper sit, stand or down. They often sit and lie down on one hip because it’s tiring to sit or lie straight for more than a few seconds at a time. In a stand, the puppy will often move feet often and might stick them out to the side as “training wheels” to keep their balance. In addition to slow walking in moderately rough terrain, I think working positions with the puppy is the most efficient way to give them the core strength needed for future exercise. I help the puppy into a good stand, sit or down and just feed them there for a few seconds before releasing. I gradually add duration to the position as well as shaping for the puppy to find the correct position on his own. I don’t see any point in putting the puppy on unstable surfaces like balance discs before he can show me a nice, balanced, and strong position on even ground. When the puppy has developed muscles and technique to hold positions nicely, I’ll introduce some light pressure from my hands pushing to the side at his hips or shoulders so that he needs to push back a little bit to keep the position. I’ll also introduce shifting from one position to another, for example sit to stand so sit with his front feet still.
Shaping some tricks for body awareness. I also like to teach the puppy some tricks for body awareness. I don’t think this is as important as the three points mentioned above, but it definitely helps the puppy be more aware of his body and how he can use it to get rewarded when we start some more agility related exercises like contacts and jumping. It also gets him using muscles that might not be used much when he’s moving freely. I prioritize quality over quantity here. I’d rather have four really nice steps backing up with good hind leg movements and a straight back than have a puppy throw himself backward for many meters. Things that I teach include:
Lifting hind legs to a target (backing up onto something).
Rear end awareness with front feet on a platform and hind feet circling around the front.
Walking around an object with a bent spine and deliberate paw placements. Not fast, slow and controlled.
Stretching out hind legs from a down.
Lifting front feet from a sit and a stand.
Crawling with hind feet under the body alternating left and right feet going forward.
Stepping into and out of a box or over cavalettis. Slow and deliberate once again.
I am not afraid to let my puppies use their bodies, join on walks and build muscle. I think it’s probably worse to do too little with a puppy that is going to be an active adult than to do too much. I just try to do more of what I think builds the right muscle and strength for the future, and I don’t like to see any dog work in bad form or do things that they’re not strong enough to handle.
It’s so exciting that we’re finally just a week away from the event that we’ve been waiting for for so long. It’s the first FCI World Championships held in Sweden and I think it will be one of the best ever. Swedes are good at organizing and I know that the committee has put a lot of both thought and work into the event. I’m excited to once again see some of the best agility in the world, get inspired and find new challenges for my training, and to meet friends from near and far that have come together to experience the championship live.
I’ve visited many world championships. My first was in Norway in 2007 when I lived there, and it was such an amazing experience that I wanted to do it every year. My trips to the AWC has not only been an agility experience – it’s also been a way for me to discover Europe and get a few days of vacation with good food and friends. I’ve been to Finland, Austria, Germany, France, Spain, and twice to the Czech Republic. One of the things that I really love about agility is that it is such an international sport. At the AWC, you’ll find competitors and fans from countries like Japan, China, Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, South Africa, Canada, the US and this year even Australia. The championship is not only big and international when it comes to competitors, it also draws more spectators than championships in other sports. There’s something very special in watching your favorite sport in an arena with thousands of other fans.
There is, however, something that makes the decision to go harder every year. It’s both time-consuming and expensive to travel to another country to experience agility and you can actually experience the championship from home. Some years I’ve stayed home and watched the live stream instead. I still take the weekend off and immerse myself completely in the competition. But I can still hang out with my dogs and do some training with them or take a walk during course building and course walk. I think this is what I’ll do next year unless I get the honor of running in the Swedish team with one of my dogs.
This year, I’ll definitely be in Kristianstad for the big event. But I’ll still be part of the live stream. I will be one of four commentators on the live stream and work every other class. It’s an important job and I’m actually quite nervous about it. I’ll try to get all the facts right, not mispronounce names terribly, and give you a feeling of excitement and drama. So if you can’t make it to Sweden this time – make sure you purchase the live stream and hang out with me next week! Here’s the link to the live stream page. And if you are coming to Kristianstad next week – please say hi! I’m looking forward to seeing both old and new friends at the event.
A good, steady sit is a wonderful thing to have when you’re training or competing with a dog. It’s one of the first things I teach my puppies and something I keep working on for my dog’s entire career. It makes so many things clearer and easier in training and gives you an advantage in competition when you know that your dog will sit perfectly still until you give a verbal release. It is actually a quite simple behavior to teach. Problems that arise are usually because of either lack of clear criteria or lack of a clear verbal release.
I think the clearest criteria for a sit is that not feet move. The dog is allowed to move his head, but not lift any feet off the ground or shuffle them around. This criterion applies all the time, even when I’m close by and about to reward. Many dogs will start to lift their feet as we get close in anticipation of the reward. When we then reward, we reward the foot movement and muddy criteria. To make sure this doesn’t happen, I do all of my initial training at an arm-lengths distance to make sure that the dog will keep still when I reward. I use a very high rate of reinforcement, which gives the dog very clear information on what you like – and what you don’t like. Since I reward so often, it’s obvious to the dog when reinforcement stops and he will quickly realize what doesn’t work even if I don’t comment on it.
It’s easy to progress once the dog is perfect at a close distance. I’d like to say that 90% of the work is done there, so don’t try to get distance or duration at this stage. You should be able to reward from any angle and at any speed, without the dog moving his feet, before you move on. I don’t use any cues at this stage. The dog will make mistakes, so I don’t think it’s useful to use a “sit” cue, and I don’t think it’s necessary to use any verbal feedback on right or wrong since the rewards to the talking for you. You can add some praise in later to make increase difficulty in staying when the reward is presented, and you should definitely praise when the dog releases on cue.
Add a verbal release cue from the very beginning. A verbal release means that the dog moves out of the sit on a word from you. The word should not be depending on any motion from you to work. It’s so much easier to add with a puppy or dog that has no concept of a wait, because you know that the dog will move before long if the reinforcement stops. If your dog is already dependent on your motion to get out of the sit, you need to stop that immediately and find a way to get the behavior without any movement from you. Usually, it works to just give the verbal release and wait for the dog to get up – even if it takes a few seconds. As soon as the dog moves, you can move and reward. For the more extreme cases, I’ve sometimes just worked on getting an offered release – without rewarding the sit at all – and rewarded that until the dog offers the behavior from a sit repeatedly. Then I’ve added the cue just like I would to any new behavior I’ve captured or shaped.
The most difficult part of this is usually handler mechanics. A lot of trainers are not aware that they move every time they give a verbal release. Since dogs are so much better at reading our bodies than they are listening to what we say, they usually just respond to the motion and never really learn to release on a verbal cue. This does not only lead to a lack of response to the cue but also leads to the dog guessing when to get up based on movements from you, which leads to broken startlines in agility and other problems with stays. Using a video camera to check your own mechanics is a great tool. Are you moving when you give the release word or do you wait until the dog moves before you initiate the reward?
Here’s a video where I work with a bouncy, enthusiastic miniature pinscher that doesn’t know a stay or a release. I do some talking in Swedish, but there are English subtitles – click the CC button at the bottom of the video if they don’t launch automatically.
Let me know if you have any questions on this topic!
I’m at home for a few days in between Norway trips. Last week, Bud flew with me to Tromsø to teach for a couple of days. We had a great time. From there, we flew to Oslo and traveled south to Fredrikstad, where there was a trial with some interesting judges. Bud won A3 on Saturday and became Norwegian Agility Trial Champion. He also qualified for finals but popped out of the weaves in the final run. Tomorrow, I head for Stavanger on the Norwegian west coast. No dog with me this time, so I’ve tried to spend a lot of time training and conditioning my dogs while I’ve been home. We made a video where you can see some of the skills taught in the Agility Handling Foundations Online class starting on September 3rd. Let me know if you have any questions about the class. And please leave a comment and tell me what you’d like to see a video on next.
Someone asked me to write a blog post on how I got interested in dogs and how my dog training career started. The short answer is – I don’t know. I’m born this way, probably. We didn’t have a dog in the house when I was a small child. Both my parents had grown up with dogs, but they weren’t very interested. My aunt was more interested in dogs and bred cairn terriers. Every time we went there, I spent time with the dogs and cried when we had to leave them to go home. My parents decided to get a dog when I was 8 years old. Since my aunt was a breeder, it was natural to get one of her puppies – a cairn terrier named Bamse. My parents took responsibility for caring for and training him as I was so young. I would accompany my mother to puppy class and I think I read all the dog books available in the library and all the magazines I could get my hands on – many times.
Bamse was a very difficult dog to train in many ways. He as dog aggressive (did not like other male dogs), did not play with me at all, liked to sniff the ground and bit me if we had different opinions on something. I still trained him a lot and waited to turn 12 when I would finally be allowed to start in my first obedience competition. I also wrote my on dog training magazine, held training classes for my friends (often with dogs that we would borrow from families in the neighborhood) and their dogs and dreamed about my future home and all the dogs I would have there. I also remember refusing to draw anything other than dogs in art class. Bamse and I went to a few dog shows, but I really wanted to compete in obedience and in the Swedish working dog program. I would spend many evenings, at all times of the year, at the dog training club. Often on my own. My father would drive me there and then pick me up later at night.
I also dreamed of another dog that would be more willing to train with me. For a while, I was very set on getting a toller, but my parents said no. When I was 13, I found an ad for a border collie litter related to a friend’s nice dog. To my great surprise, my parents told me to call the breeder when I showed it to them. This is how Twiggy came into my life. She was the perfect companion and training friend. She was friendly to everybody, loved to play, always stayed with me, and I could not have asked for a better dog as a teenage dog trainer. Twiggy and I mostly competed in obedience, but also some tracking, agility, and freestyle. I had other interests for a few years as a teenager and didn’t train much, but got back to training and competing a few years later. Twiggy became obedience trial champion and qualified for the Swedish national championships in obedience a couple of times.
Summer has been very hot and very busy. Last week I published a video where I show how I teach a jump cue for agility (and why it’s important). I hope to find the time to do more instructional videos and that you enjoy it! We’ve also published two online classes this fall – Foundation Class and Agility Handling Foundations. Both start on September 3rd, so sign up now if you want a spot!