Dog agility – more jumping exercises

Recently I have felt that I’ve been lacking in inspiration for Rusty’s agility training, so it sort of ground to a bit of a halt for a while. We were working on improving her technique with the weave poles and tunnel, however she is an intelligent dog and as a result quickly becomes bored with simple repetitions of an obstacle. I can add in other things and create sequences but due to her inexperience with the weaves in particular I have to ensure that her approach to the weave poles is straight and easy for her to see – unfortunately this does limit what we can do, especially with our few pieces of equipment.

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Over the past couple of days I set up the weaves and some jumps with the intention of just having a play to keep her feeling enthusiastic about her training.

It’s actually quite amazing how versatile a set of three jumps can be: there is a huge number of different arrangements of varying difficulties that can be set out, and even when I think I have exhausted all of the standard sequences, there really is no harm in just making something up and then figuring out how to handle it.

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The diagram below shows one of the exercises we practised. The red route drawn on is the easier of the two options I have shown – although this did still require skills which take time to learn. These include 180 degree turns and rear crosses (both of which I have written about previously).

Agility layout for blog

The first jump is very simple: I can just direct Rusty to it – however then I have to curve my body away a bit and head along the line of jumps to encourage her to turn and come back across the second jump. For the third jump, things become even more complicated as I have to ask Rusty for another 180 degree turn, but I am on the wrong side of the jumps and on the wrong side of Rusty to be able to ask properly. Needless to say, we’ve been struggling a bit with this!

So far, the best I have managed to do is to perform a rear cross (where I cross Rusty’s path behind her as she runs) and then ask her to swing back to the third jump. As you will be able to see from the video at the end of this post, this isn’t particularly smooth but I feel that with practice it may become easier.

The blue route is even trickier… I ask Rusty to jump the first hurdle, then wrap round the jump and jump the second in the same direction. This is then repeated for the third jump. Again, I can’t seem to handle this in a way that makes it a smooth sequence. I have a feeling that this may be because Rusty is constantly looking at me for instruction at the moment, and I really need her to look at where she is going more.

In fact, the other day she was so fixated on me that she walked into a chair! I use a combination of treats and toys as rewards for agility, and I am wondering whether me carrying the tennis ball more frequently is the reason for her increased attention. Although I have been doing this for a while with no problems, I may experiment with using a different reward to see if that helps her – I really do need her to watch her step on the course as it could potentially be dangerous if she doesn’t.

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The video below shows our training recently – there are some other clips in there of the weaves and some other simple jumping exercises as well.

Thank you for reading today’s post on Wild Call, stay tuned for more!

 

A long walk with Max

On Monday I took Max for our last walk together before I headed home for Easter. The weather was incredible and we had a fantastic time, so much so that I just had to write about it!

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As Max now knows me better and is starting to take confidence from me, I decided that we would leave the park and venture out to a new place. However, this plan of mine involved crossing and walking along a couple of really busy roads, so I was a little worried that we might encounter some problems.

I meet Max’s owner near the park, so to begin with we just walked back through past the lake and along the quieter roads: due to the sunshine there were quite a lot of people around but Max was on his best behaviour, which made me feel more confident when we stepped out onto Oxford Road (one of the busiest bus routes in Europe!).

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At the traffic lights Max showed some signs of being anxious – he cowered away from people walking past and initially did not want to cross between the buses and cars that were waiting, however with a little encouragement he then leapt forward and proceeded to drag me until we had reached a quieter area again.

To be honest I was incredibly relieved that that was the worst he did – I had been wondering whether he might revert to his old trick of leaping up and twisting away from me (it is difficult to hold onto the lead when he does that). I do think however that he used to do that because he was afraid to be close to me, whereas now he comes bounding up to me when I collect him, and is happy for me to fuss him.

Once we were off the roads altogether, I let him have a bit more freedom on the lead and he really settled down. The path we were on is popular with cyclists, so I did have to keep bringing him back to me to get out of their way, but he was well behaved and didn’t do anything silly.

We were out walking for a couple of hours, and unfortunately on the way back we got caught up with a load of parents picking their children up from school.

As I walked past a particular group of people, I called out to let them know I was behind them. One woman turned around and instantly jumped away from Max; I could see that she was quite afraid of him. This really made me realise how much he feeds off the people that are around him – he in turn flinched away from her and began to really pull and lean on the lead again.

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On our way back, I decided to stop by at my flat to drop my coat off (I hadn’t really needed it in the first place so had carried it for most of the walk). I’m not technically supposed to take animals into halls, but there weren’t any people around who would have reported me so I snuck him in…

Max had also become quite warm, so sitting him in the kitchen for a few minutes allowed him to cool down.

A couple of my flatmates came in while I was there and they immediately came over to see Max, stretching their hands out to touch him. At first he flinched and tried to back away, but it only took him a couple of minutes and then he was fine – he actually ended up really enjoying all of the fuss he got!

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This was amazing to watch, as when I first met him in November he wouldn’t come near for me ages, and our first walks together were really stressful because he didn’t want to be near me or any other people that we passed. I couldn’t even walk in parts of the park that were close to the road without him becoming anxious.

It is true what people say, building a bond with a rescue dog is incredibly rewarding.

Introducing Max

I really miss spending time with Rusty when I am in Manchester but I can’t keep my own dog here, so a couple of months ago I decided to look for an alternative. There is a website called ‘BorrowMyDoggy’, which is a great way for busy dog owners to meet people who would like a dog, but aren’t able to have one.

I joined, and after browsing through many potential canine friends I contacted the owner of a young Siberian husky. So… let me introduce Max!

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He is about a year and half old, and is a rescue dog – as a result of this he can be quite nervous of people (the first time I met him he wouldn’t let me touch him for the first half hour) so his owner would like him to have more time socialising with different humans.

I realised when I began walking him on my own that he was going to be a challenge to handle at times, but I am becoming increasingly interested in the behaviour and training of animals so this is a fantastic opportunity for me to get hands on!

Our first few walks were pretty difficult and a couple of times it crossed my mind that I may have bitten off more than I could chew, as he was basically just dragging me around the park and not showing any signs of responding to what I was saying. He is on an extendable lead as his recall isn’t that great, but if I had to bring him closer to me when passing other people and dogs he would leap and twist away. I went home with aching arms! (He is on a harness to spare his neck).

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Upon arriving back in Manchester after the Christmas break, I decided to buy a few dog treats and took a small number in my pocket on our walk. When I first presented one to him he showed no interest whatsoever, however with a bit of patience he eventually tried it and discovered that he actually quite enjoyed it.

This was a bit of a turning point for me. Whilst I didn’t want to completely rely on treats, it really helped me that he knew I had them – amazingly the next time I called him he came running! The video below shows me repeating this (this was taken on my phone, hopefully soon I’ll have some better footage). As you can see, he was still slightly wary of me touching him.

His owner usually leaves him with me for a couple of hours at a time, so I have begun to spend some of it trying to use up his energy before attempting to gain his attention. With a bit of encouragement I found I could actually get him to run circles around me – this was much better as it avoided him launching himself against the lead and wrenching my arms. After a considerable amount of time he really showed signs of calming down and this proved to be the best time for me to attempt to interact with him.

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However, after seeing a few tasty treats appearing from my pockets, Max’s behaviour changed slightly and he started to pester me, even leaping on me at one point… He is not an aggressive dog in any way, but I think that he was testing me to see if I would tolerate him invading my personal space like that!

All it took to deter him was for me to be little bit more assertive: I stood up tall, looked at him and told him no. He tried this trick a few times but soon realised that it wasn’t going to have any effect.

This really highlighted the importance of only giving treats when they are deserved – Max always has to do something good to earn one.

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I haven’t walked Max for a little while now as his owner and I have been a bit too busy to find a time that suits both of us, but hopefully I will see him tomorrow afternoon. If everything goes according to plan, I should have some more videos to share; these will be uploaded to my YouTube channel, the link to which can be found using the menu at the top of the page.

‘Dangerous’ dogs – the problem with dog stereotypes

Recently in Manchester there was an incident with a Staffordshire bull terrier attacking a puppy in a park. Sadly the puppy died at the scene.

I was in the park when this happened, but I wasn’t actually aware of what was going on – some other dog owners informed me afterwards.

The likely outcome of this is that the staffy will be put down.

I am a strong believer that a dog’s breed should not be used to determine its temperament and I am all for trying to break the staffy stereotype, but it is this kind of incident that reinforces people’s fear of particular dog breeds and it only takes one experience of this kind to completely destroy confidence around our canine friends.

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Unfortunately the staffy is caught up in what is known as the ‘staffy status cycle’: following an incident involving a staffy, the media publicise it and this generates fear. Some people then buy staffies for the status – unfortunately in many cases this results in poor training, which leads to the dogs ending up in rescue centres due to them being abandoned, or it leads to serious incidents occurring (which then reinforce the status).

Other potential dog owners then overlook the breed because they believe it to be dangerous, or because they do not want to be associated with the stereotypical staffy owners.

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To break this cycle, we need more responsible owners to adopt staffies from rescue centres, or even to buy staffy puppies (although the latter also fuels the excessive breeding of these dogs, which is another contributing factor to the huge number of unwanted dogs).

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However even with sensible owners and good training, there are some people who still believe that the Staffordshire bull terrier is a dangerous dog. The truth is that more people go to hospital each year in the UK with labrador bites than any other dog breed – the reason that staffies make it into the papers is because they tend to bite the upper parts of the body – particularly the face – and hold on, causing more injuries that are more severe.

The staffy isn’t the first dog to have gone through this process and have developed a bad name – rottweilers, dobermans and German shepherds have all fallen victim to it in the past. Whilst people are still wary of these dogs, their place in the status cycle has now been filled by the staffy.

(As you might be able to tell I don’t actually have any photographs of staffies, however I do have one of me having a cuddle with a very soft rottweiler! She is a perfect example of why you should never judge a dog’s character based on its breed.)

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We have had a couple of incidents where dogs have gone for Rusty, and neither of them involved breeds which are generally considered to be ‘dangerous’…

The first was when I was only about fourteen; there was a labradoodle in our village that had been poorly trained and had no respect for his owner. Gradually over several weeks the situation between him and Rusty escalated – it began with him following us on our walks and then lead onto him becoming quite dominant, which was followed by him leaping up and biting Rusty.

I say ‘leaping up’, because I had made a bit of a mistake… in seeing this dog heading towards us, I had lifted Rusty up into my arms. It didn’t take me long to realise why that was not such a good idea!

Luckily he didn’t seem to be too intent in his attack and Rusty walked away unharmed. Unfortunately however his behaviour did worsen and he badly injured my friend’s whippet a few weeks later.

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The second time Rusty was attacked was by a small Patterdale terrier which was also out of control – this time things became a little bit more vicious. I managed to separate the dogs using my foot and when the owner finally appeared to help (kicking the terrier in the ribs as punishment!) we walked away a little shaken but uninjured.

Neither of these incidents was due to the breed of dog – both were results of poor training and the owners not bothering to put their dogs on leads. The point I am trying to make here is that staffies, rottweilers, and other dogs marked with the ‘dangerous’ label are no more of a risk than any other breed – it is all about how disciplined they are.

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I hope that one day I can work with rescue dogs to provide more evidence for this – there are so many staffies in rescue centres; they deserve more of a chance!

Winter agility training

Over the Christmas break, Rusty and I had a few agility training sessions in the garden. She hadn’t practised in about six weeks but still amazed me with how much she could remember!

I thought that I would set up a few different types of jumps for a bit of fun – normally we just have straight jumps as these are quick and easy to set up, however in competitions a variety of obstacles can be found so it only makes sense to incorporate them. (I had to improvise a bit when building these jumps as we are quite limited with equipment!)

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Straight jumps – these are the most common found on an agility course and are often placed in sequences with tight angles and complex manoeuvres. They can have wings or may be without – both options can present problems to the handler.

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With wingless jumps it is very easy for the dog to ‘half jump’ it, where they sort of hop over the very edge and leave the handler wondering whether that counted or if they should be taken back to do it again! In particular this occurs when the dog has come into the jump on a tight turn, or can see that they will be expected to make one after landing.

In a competition there are three other types of jumps that are usually found just once in a course; these add a bit more interest to jumping as they require the dog to think a little more about how they are tackling the obstacles (instead of just treating each one as the same).

Spread jumps are the same height as straights, but have an added factor of length as well – this means that the dog has to make quite a big leap in order to clear the jump. A straight approach is favourable with this jump as coming into it on too much of an angle could result in the highest pole being caught by their back legs.

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Long jumps are low to the ground but have a much greater length than any other jumps in the course (the clue is in the name!). When training this jump it is advisable to begin with a short distance and gradually extend it so that the dog learns not to put any paws down in the middle. Normally this type of jump would consist of wooden or plastic planks lined up next to each other, but I had to make do with what you can see in the pictures below…

The final jump type is the tyre jump – this is quite a fun one although it is common place for run-outs. (Tyre jumps found in competitions are raised quite high off the ground which allows room for the dog to run underneath – Rusty was guilty of this when we used to go to agility classes!)

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Another exercise we had a play around with was the pinwheel. This is sometimes seen on competition courses, but is also a useful activity for general training: I have worked on this multiple times with Rusty before and have seen noticeable improvements in her ability to find and ‘lock onto’ her next jump, as well as her trusting that she can run further from my side but still understand where she is going.

On top of that, she seems to find the whole thing quite exciting so it definitely brings a lot to our training sessions (not that I need Rusty to have any more energy than she already does!)

Unfortunately the videos I have of this were taken in the afternoon when it was getting dark, so the stills were just a blur, however there is a video at the bottom of this post showing the exercise. The diagram below shows an example of a pinwheel with four jumps – this can vary but the handler should bear in mind that fewer jumps will increase the angle between each one, which will make it more challenging for the dog.

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The best place for the handler to be is in the middle of the wheel, as it keeps the dog turning on the circle. If the handler were to attempt this by running around the outside of the pinwheel, they would not be able to keep up with their dog and this would lead to mistakes being made (it is common for other jumps to be placed near a pinwheel so as to confuse the dog).

The video below shows some short clips from our most recent training sessions – this includes a clip with a set of weave poles and the tunnel. I thought I would include this because it shows how much Rusty’s understanding of the weaves has improved – she almost skipped the final pole but when I paused her she took a few steps back and corrected it – such a clever little dog!

 

Agility training after a long break

Due to my A-level exams, I had to give up agility for a couple of months as there wasn’t enough time to fit it in. During that time I popped Rusty over a couple of jumps but we didn’t do much else, so today I began to re-familiarise her with the training we had done before.

Basics

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To get her listening to me and paying attention (her little head seemed to be into everything except my voice!) we went back to basics and practised sit, lie down, stay and come. Then we did a bit of heeling through changes of speed – her usual reaction to me speeding up is to blast ahead of me so I was pleasantly surprised when she managed to contain her energy.

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The next stage in our session was to set up a small jump and warm her up over it a few times.

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I then asked her for a slightly more challenging manoeuvre where I wanted her to wrap the jump and then re-jump it (almost creating a figure of eight shape).

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I also practised handling her from a greater distance and she still flew over the jump as if we had never had a break!

The final thing with the single jump was to remind her that she must have confidence to move ahead of me, so I stood back from the jump and sent her over it from behind.

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After this I added another jump and we worked through some 90º, 180º and 270º turns – to be entirely honest this was more beneficial to my handling skills than to her, as she seemed to remember everything I had previously taught her!

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Lastly, we worked through some easy weave poles – this is still our weakest area so it gives us something to focus on through the summer.

Weaves

 

The video below shows some short clips from our training session.

Agility training: the tunnel

Rusty was taught the basic tunnel command about a year ago when we were attending agility classes during the autumn, and then after the classes stopped I received a tunnel as a Christmas present so was able to continue practising with her.

Over this past summer Rusty and I have put a lot of work into our jumping skills, but I decided recently that the tunnel had been neglected a bit, so brought it out again at the weekend. It is fair to say that Rusty was a little rusty (if you’ll forgive the pun) and we had a few slip-ups in our session, most of which have been included in the video at the end of this post.

To begin with I calmly walked her to the tunnel entrance – this was just to refresh her memory and get her used to running through the tunnel again.

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Then I added a jump directly in front of the tunnel, which encouraged her to gain speed towards the tunnel. As Rusty is less confident with the tunnel she hasn’t quite begun to ‘lock’ onto it in the same way that she does with jumps, so this exercise was also intended to help her with that.

Straight line tunnel

Once Rusty had got the hang of running to the entrance in a straight line, I added a bit more challenge to the sequence by placing two jumps curving around towards the tunnel. She still found this relatively easy although I found that I had to be much closer to her to guide her to the tunnel entrance (when we are just working over jumps I can handle her from a greater distance which makes our routine much smoother).

Jumps and tunnel

From here I added a jump next to the tunnel with a sharp turn into it – I like including sharp turns in our training as it teaches her that whilst I want her to be independent and to work away from me at speed, she must also continue to listen to what I am telling her to do and not just zoom off in the direction that she wants to go in!

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My final exercise was asking a much greater question of her – I incooperated a 180 degree turn between a jump and the tunnel, linking in our previous training sessions (see my blog post from October on this subject). As she prefers to stick nearer to me when the tunnel is involved, this was tricky for her to complete and I really had to lead her round to it.

180 into tunnel

Her lack of confidence here resulted in some moments of confusion where she skips along next to me unsure of where to go next, but we figured it out in the end!

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There are some clips from our training session in the video below.