Learning Dog Agility on a Dime According to Joe

Ike and Joe learning dog agilityThis is a letter from a blog member named Joe Wilmore of Annadale, VA, which wrote in response to a woman’s question as to how she can start agility training from a book (because she didn’t know if she could afford to take a class). Though this letter was initially shared back in 2009, the truth and wisdom remains the same. One notable difference is the influx of online opportunities for learning. Though some are quite pricey, it is possible now to get a good understanding of training and handling techniques through watching videos on top trainer’s YouTube channels. (The picture shown here is of him training his dog Ike on an Affordable Agiliy’s Economy Jump!) Thanks Joe!

“Dear Beth, I’m not that far from a beginner so I can relate to your desire for more information outside of class. That said….I think it’s very difficult to try and learn agility as a beginner from books. Try learning a martial art or dance from a book–not impossible but extremely difficult.

Agility, martial arts (especially ones like Aikido) and many forms of dance are very much about footwork, timing and teamwork. And trying to learn how to do those things via book would be somewhat learning to play the piano without being on the piano (but reading or having someone tell you what you needed to do than you’d go off by yourself and try it on a piano). Not impossible but really difficult for a beginner.

That caveat acknowledged, here would be my advice: –For a beginner, you can never spend too much time on foundation skills, focus, games and tricks. If I had to start over again, I would have spent a lot more time on behavior shaping, circle work/shadow work and tricks before we ever ventured into an agility course (but then, I was a complete beginner and didn’t even know about operant conditioning and clicker training!). All of the work you do in these areas (games, behavior shaping, tricks, circle work) builds foundation skills that then make the translation to the course much less painful.

I know that the temptation is to get on the equipment as soon as possible–I was absolutely guilty of that. But I read some professional’s blogs who advise working on tricks than actual agility, I see what works with my dog and I realize how wrong I was to try and push to get on obstacles rather than focus on the foundation work.

There are a ton of great books and videos that deal with foundation issues (or subsets–like Crate Games or the One Jump videos with Susan Garrett). –There are a couple of good books out there for beginning agility but the one I’ve been the most impressed by is Joe and Ali Canova’s “Agility Training For You and Your Dog.”

Once you’ve invested a lot of time on games and tricks and behavior shaping, then I’d start watching some of video “system” series out there. With Linda M. it would be a combination of her book, the article series the past two years in CR and video. With Greg Derrett, his video series plus the recent CR articles. Jenny Damm has two DVD’s out plus the recent CR articles. You’ve got various advocates of each but as a beginner with limited access to instructors, I’d suggest that you just pick one and use it to get started.

Attend trials to watch…with a grain of salt. You watch to help apply the techniques and handling you’re reading about or watching in the videos but you don’t seek to just blindly copy. I saw veteran handlers or instructors doing lead-outs and spend a year trying to make those work before I got real clear that I needed to do running starts with my dog.

I also want to throw out another curve ball for you: find a local instructor (or serious competitor, or club or school) and offer to do some in-kind trade. If you get to audit a course you’ll do setup and breakdown. Or you’ll water, fertilize and cut the lawn for the outdoor course (or conversely, vacuum and mop the floor of the indoor classroom) every week. Or you’ll trade some services you have expertise in (set up website for instructor, prepare and printout course handouts of courses and lessons). During tough economic times, believe me, instructors get that some people have got a lot less money or are out of work so as long as it doesn’t come off as “let me see if I can take advantage of a desperate instructor who will jump at anything” I think you might be able to work something out for at least one class series.

Ultimately, nothing beats having a knowledgeable observer who knows what to look for, has seen you and your dog repeatedly, and is a good teacher. Feedback at trials or from friends (or self-instruction with video of yourself) is all good, but it’s just not the same as someone who has learned how to give feedback that instructs. So please don’t rule out the use of classes and instructors for the future.”

Good luck! Joe

Remember, when in doubt always consult a professional. You and your dog’s sanity and safety should always come first.