To complete your dog’s training, add the three Ds – duration, distance and distraction – to each of his tasks:
Duration: How long can your dog stay? Can he hold a contact? Can he wait on the pause table? These are good tests for the dog’s ability to “hurry up and wait.” In agility training, we want the dog to be patient, but we also want an explosion of energy the instant we release him. Toward that end, you may want to backchain the elements of difficulty when duration is involved, teaching the release cue before the “don’t do anything” cue.
In the context of obstacle performance skills, introduce challenges of duration, meaning holding position, before you introduce challenges of distance, simply because you can isolate duration and make it reliable before adding another complication. Any job involving a lead-out necessarily involves duration as well as distance, so teach the element of duration early on.
The challenge in training duration is to keep your dog’s enthusiasm high; using a clicker helps. You can lengthen duration by simply delaying the click. You can also use your voice to keep your dog’s energy level high as you delay the click, and these happy voice games become important conditioned reinforcers that we can use anytime on the agility course.
Distance: All of the “send” games you play are a testament to how important it is to be able to handle from a distance, because dogs can run faster than humans. In agility training, it’s important that the dog be able to perform his obstacles without our babysitting every detail; the dog’s ability to do each job with the handler at a distance is a good test of this. This also serves to remind us that relative handler position is one of the things we need to vary in order to make our dogs self-reliant in their obstacle performance, so be sure to vary the position from which you send your dog to the obstacle. Also remember that distance on individual obstacles comes before distance sequencing.
Distraction: Agility is a very noisy sport, full of ambient activity close to the ring. Dogs must learn to ignore the stray food, toys and commotion. Stick to the rule from clicker-training icon Karen Pryor: Put your dog’s strongest distractions on cue. Rather than pretending that “nice dogs don’t do that,” we can control the behavior while keeping the dog joyous.
Once again, the clicker comes through as a perfect marker to signify when the treat is earned. At first that might be on leash, consisting only of one jump or tunnel with a pick-up such that the dog earns the click while facing away from the distraction. Click the finger touch and then immediately front cross and send your dog to the bait bag on the floor. Soon your dog is ready for a bit more. A moderate sequence, for example, might consist of a short doable wait, cue to jump, front cross, pick-up with finger touch (click that touch) and send your dog.
Excerpt from the book Enjoying Dog Agility by Julie Daniels with permission from its publisher, Kennel Club Books, an imprint of BowTie Press. Purchase Enjoying Dog Agility here.