As lucky as I am to be doing something I love for a living and as much as I sincerely enjoy instructing dog training and agility classes there comes a point where it can become frustrating.  No so much frustrating for me but for the students and for the dogs.  One of the things I enjoy so much about my job is coming back to class each week and seeing the improvement in both dog and handler as they work towards accomplishing their own goals, but there are days where this does not always seem to happen…  Now I realize that everyone is not as fortunate as me and is not able to spend all day/every day training their dogs, I know people have jobs and families and other commitments but this post is about what I believe is 99% of most agility peoples weakness, and that is training efficiency. 

Most serious agility enthusiasts seem to go to some form of organized practice or class 2-3 times per week.  By the time you drive home, load up the dogs, drive to practice, set up, train, tear down and drive home it is basically your entire evening.  I would say that if I combined the time that I trained my four dogs in a week which is a before or after classes and one morning a week my weekly training time would not come close to that of most of my students…and I have four dogs.  So this blog entry is to share some tips on improving your training efficiency.

Test Your Training

Use your classes, seminars and competitions as purely a test of you and your dogs abilities.  From every class or trial I will always walk away with three things that each dog needs to work on.  Learn to prioritize your training goals as I find tackling three issues is much easier than a page long list of your dogs weaknesses.  Also make note of the things your dog did very well, not only as positive reinforcementfor you but as trainers we tend to train the things our dogs are good at, so if your dog tends to do the same things brilliantly you likely don’t need to focus your training time there.

Know What you Have and Know What you Want

I can tell you what each of my dogs performances on each piece of equipment look like and what each of their weaknesses and strengths are.  I can also tell you my idea of what a perfectly trained agility dog looks like and what I would like each obstacle, each skill and each handling maneuver to look like.  You can’t make training plans if you don’t know what your end result should look like.

“Be a Splitter not a Lumper”

Just like when training behavior Bob Bailey reminds us to split the overall end goal into smaller, more manageable pieces.  So if you know what you have and know what you want, this is where you devise your training plan.  In each training session you do whether it be 20 seconds or 5 minutes you should know exactly what you want to accomplish.  By setting a goal for each individual session you can ensure you progress and if you don’t accomplish your goal at the end of the session make sure to evaluate your timing, criteria and reinforcement then devise a new plan.

“Think, Plan, Do, Review”

Most people skip the thinking, planning and go straight to the doing.  Even though the thinking and planning does take time, the overall training time you will save is well worth the effort.  By splitting the overall goal into pieces and devising a plan you will become more aware of your progress and your dog will thank you for the clarity in your communication during each session.  After you do the doing remember to review and always ask the question ” am I better off now than I was before” don’t be afraid to change your plan if things aren’t going well.

Foundation, Foundation, Foundation…

When you have a training issue try to always go back to your foundation and fill in any and all hole in your dogs training.  I would bet that there isn’t a training issue that could not be fixed with a set of stairs, 4 weave poles, one jump, a crate and an open feild.  Going back and fixing your training issue away from the equipment will be faster, easier and better on your dogs body and mind.  I try as much as possible to avoid drilling exercises on the equipment not only for motivational reasons for for physical stress on the dog’s body.

Focus on the Small Stuff

Rather than going to your weekly practice and running courses or handling sequences use that time to focus on those three things that you aim to improve that week.  I believe most students would be better off only working handling drills in class and at seminars where they have someone watching them.  It is too easy to execute your handling in an inconsistent manner and teach and reinforce behavior that are counter productive to your dogs understanding.  Even when handling and running drills successfully your dog does not receive near enough reinforcement for the things they do well because it is so hard to stop mid sequence to reward that tight turn or their response to a threadle arm.   If you really want to run sequences I suggest you plan the drills to reflect those three things you have been working to improve.  This is a good way to test your training progress thus far and a good opportunity to build more reinforcement for the things you aim to improve.

Condition

I strongly believe that any agility dog should be in great condition as it is so important for the health and motivation level of the dog.  After a long winter off I would not work my oldest sheltie Bounder on any equipment until she had slimmed down and built back up her endurance and muscle mass.  It was just this week that she started to work some jump grids.  I have seen so many dogs whose careers have ended far too soon and it is really not fair to a dog to ask them to do things that they are not physically capable of.  For all those handlers who tell their dogs to “hurry up, run faster!” I would really like to see them run through the course at full speed for an entire evening after sitting at their office desk all week.    Rather than doing agility three times a week use one of those nights to take your dog for a run.  I am trying to keep up to Silvia Trkman’s 2 hour off leash run a day and even if I am very busy I will get them out for 15 minutes of fetch or recalls.  Use your off leash walk to train some startlines while you throw the ball for the other dogs or work on your circle throughout your walk.

Every Day Life

Since we don’t have all the time in the world to train dogsports make those other hours your dog is around you at home proactive to your agility training.  By teaching your dog to show self control before being released to go outside or out of the kennel you can strengthen your control behaviors on course.  Work on your loose leash walking, does your dog respond to your decel cues when you stop walking or do they continue to lunge forward?  Does your dog rehearse behaviors that are counter productive to your handling system when you are away from the agility field?  Does your dog respond to their recall every single time you call?  You never know when that recall may save an agility run or more importantly the dogs life.  Always remember that you spend far more time at home than you do on the agility Field and your dog is always learning. 

Here is a video of Riot’s last training session from Sunday night.  Circle work is almost always on Riot’s list of things to work on since she has a history of ignoring my body.

So for the next month I challenge you all to become more aware of your training efficiency.

Have Fun!

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