Whether you want to try it just for fun or you intend to compete in agility trials, you need to consider a few things before you jump into agility with your Terv.
First, make sure your Terv is physically able to run, jump, twist and turn without injuring himself. Have someone knowledgeable about structure (as it relates to agility) evaluate your dog for structural soundness. A dog with a poor front assembly or lacking adequate shoulder angulation (two common problems) will not withstand the rigors of repeated jumping and turning.
Assess your Terv’s weight. If he weighs more than 2.5 times his height at the withers, he may be too heavy for training or trialing. Keep in mind that most conformation ring dogs as well as most pets may tend toward the heavy side, so don’t be surprised if breeders, handlers, pet owners and even your veterinarian think that a dog in ideal condition for agility competition may be too thin in their opinions. Consult someone with extensive experience to determine the optimum weight for your agility prospect.
It’s also a good idea to get a veterinarian’s approval before starting any physically demanding regimen with your Terv. Your vet may want to x-ray your dog’s hips and elbows to make sure they show no signs of dysplasia. X-rays can also determine if a puppy’s growth plates have closed. Your vet may want to listen to the heart to make sure there are no abnormal sounds. She may also want to check the eyes for problems with the retina, lens, or cornea. Ideally, these exams should be performed by board-certified experts in their respective fields.
Next, consider your Terv’s socialization history. If he’s been properly exposed to novel environments, he should have little problem adapting to a class or trial situation. On the other hand, if he’s not comfortable in strange places or in the presence of unfamiliar dogs or people, you may be better off starting with some private lessons while you work on acclimating him to new environments. Agility can be a great confidence builder for some dogs but only if the dog is not adversely stressed as he is trying to learn the skills.
Finally, take some time to learn about how dogs learn. Click here for How Dogs Learn via Operant Conditioning. Experiment with different techniques to teach him a couple of tricks. Make note of what things motivate your Terv and what things tend to turn him off. Agility is a partnership between dog and handler, and part of that partnership involves finding out what works for your dog and what doesn’t. He’ll be your best teacher on that matter if you’ll only “listen” to what he’s telling you (via expression, body language, etc.).
Teach your dog how to play with you. At a trial, your game is the only legal ‘training aid’ that you are allowed to bring in to the agility ring. Carefully choose the game so that you are an integral part of it and the dog always returns to you to engage in the game. Be careful not to throw the dog away by allowing the rewards to go away from you.
When To Start Training
Most experts agree that puppies should not engage in forced strenuous physical activity until their joint bones growth plates have closed. In Tervuren, this may not happen until after 18 months of age. Your veterinarian can confirm growth plate closure via radiographs.
There are certain skills that you can teach your dog before he even sees agility equipment. First and foremost is a reliable recall. You cannot progress in agility if you can’t trust your dog off lead. Click here for Susan Garrett’s Recall article .
Since, most of your time on an agility course will be spent running (rather than performing the obstacles), teach your dog how to run with you (on both your right and left sides) on the flat (no obstacles) without crossing your path or jumping up on you. Incorporate turns and crossing maneuvers as you progress.
Teach your dog to send away to a target. In a way, agility is a series of directed sends to the target obstacles.
With a solid foundation of these three skills (recall, run with, and send), your Terv is well on his way to Independent Obstacle Performance, that is he will be better able to perform each obstacle with confidence and competence regardless of his handler’s position.
Other necessary skills that can be taught before introducing your Terv to agility equipment are sit, down, stand and release. The stand is useful because all dogs need to be measured to determine their jump heights. Sit and Down are the two control positions judges can ask for on the pause table. Your dog will need to remain in the assigned position for 5 seconds after which he can be released to the next obstacle. A dog who promptly responds to commands can save valuable seconds on course. A dog who will remain in position until released allows the handler time to get into position (such as in leading out at the start line) and will not incur faults for leaving a table or contact obstacle too early.
Choosing An Instructor
Look for classes that use positive, reward-based, and motivational training methods. Force and punishment have no place in teaching your sensitive Terv how to play the agility game. Often, force or punishment-based training methods will backfire and create a dog who shuts down on the agility field.
Good instructors and classes will spend more time in the lower levels building a strong foundation of skills. Beware of classes that are merely glorified ‘run-thrus’ (get through a course by any means possible – good, bad or ugly). Before you commit to a class, observe a session to see if the methods used are right for you and your dog.
Agility is a game that we, the trainers, choose to play with our dogs. Make sure that they have fun too! Go to the Agility Info Center and Cleanrun to find information on agility clubs and schools.
Most serious agility competitors have their own equipment, if not an entire set then at least a few key obstacles. There are several companies that sell agility equipment. Some agility organizations sell plans for obstacle construction.
If you do not yet have your own contact obstacles, you can get your dog used to running over wooden planks and platforms. Some can be flat on the ground. Some can be raised a few inches off of the ground. One could have a little bit of wobble to it. If you don’t have weave poles, you can stick a few wooden dowels or tomato stakes into the ground. Jumps can be as simple as sticks propped up on tin cans. Play tunnels sold by toy stores can accommodate most Tervs.
On the WWW:
- Rising Stars Dog Agility
- Clicker Dogs
- Power Paws Agility
- Jean Donaldson’s "The Culture Clash"
- Pam Reid’s "Excel-Erated Learning"
- Sheila Booth’s "Purely Positive"
- Jane Simmons-Moake 3 books: (obstacles, sequences, advanced…)
- Jane Simmons-Moake 3 videos
- Greg Derrett handling videos
- Ivan Balabanov video “The Game”