Movin’ on Up – Ready for the Next Class Level?

Written By: Jean Emery - January• 14•13

You’ve just finished your first beginner’s agility class and it’s time to sign up for the next session. You might think it is a no-brainer to advance yourself to the next level: Beginner 1 to Beginner 2, Beginner to Novice 1, or whatever labels your training program uses.

But agility training isn’t a lockstep process that necessarily progresses in a systematic or predictable upward trend.

Before you write that check for the next class level, take the following self-assessment to determine whether moving up too soon could actually hold you back in the long run.

1.  Rate your Dog’s Engagement Level

 With the foundational training program that a friend and I developed this past year for Contact Zonies Agility Club, we organized the training plan on a pyramid structure, reflecting the relative importance of what we identified as the core components of a sound training program.

 

 

For the brand new agility dog/handler team, the most important skill to be nurtured is engagement–the dog’s engagement with the handler and engagement with the game of learning.  Although folks typically come to the sport for the first time wanting to get their dog on equipment and start running courses as quickly as possible like they first saw on TV or in the park, those performances came after considerable work and patience.  And the essential component to such achievement starts with engagement.

Without engagement, it is virtually impossible to teach the many complex skills and behaviors needed for even the most minimal proficiency needed for agility.

 

So consider:

  • In class is your dog (a) all eyes on you or (b) more interested in keeping an eye on the surrounding environment?
  • Is your dog more interested (a) in the exercise you are learning or (b) in sniffing the ground, checking out other dogs, zooming around the facility or keeping a safe bubble around itself?
  • What’s your dog’s general demeanor: (a) relaxed and confident or (b) anxious, hypervigilent, anxious, or even aggressive towards other dogs or people?
  • Is your dog’s energy level in class (a) high and enthusiastic or (b) low, reserved, cautious and tentative?  Is this consistent with the dog’s energy level at home or in more familiar settings?
  • When introduced to new objects in class, is your dog (a) curious and eager to figure out how to make interacting with the object produce treats or toys or (b) disinterested, reticent or even reluctant to engage with the obstacle?

If you answered more (a)s than (b)s, sounds like your dog is demonstrating a high level of engagement and could be ready to move on to the next class level, although it is worth considering a few other factors before proceeding (see below).

If your answers tended to fall to the (b) side of the list, you may do well to think a bit harder about whether moving to the next class level is a good idea at this point.  This is a tough decision.  Here in the US, we’ve all been programmed by the public education system of yearly promotion to the next grade level (which generally occurs based on chronological age rather than readiness for advancement), to feel that being “held back” or “repeating a grade” is a stigma and reflects badly on a child’s intellectual ability.  It’s very common to unconsciously apply this emotional baggage to even very novel activities like dog training and agility and feel that an 8-week or 16-week class establishes some objective measure of what our dog’s learning progress should be.  And student’s feathers are easily ruffled by the unintended suggestion that our canine child is not a superstar and might be better served by repeating an introductory agility class.

Yet the length of agility classes is more a matter of creating a predictable class offering regime that maximizes fees over an annual calendar than a commentary on how much dogs should learn in that time period.

Try to shed yourself of any presumed expectations.  Because your dog may not yet have a high level of engagement with you or the activity does not mean your dog is intellectually challenged, lazy, willful, spiteful or contrary.

How engaged are you?

 When I first ventured into the sport almost twenty years ago, I was just looking for something do with my dog after moving from the mountains of Montana to the big city.  Since I didn’t anymore have access to miles of mountain trails where my dog could run free, I thought I would give agility a try.  For at least the first year, I basically showed up for class and went through the motions, but I wasn’t yet sure if this game was for me and my dog.  I practiced minimally between classes, did not dedicate much time to working on exercises outside of class and did not purchase any equipment or training aids during this time.  As you might expect, our progress was slow, although at that time, nearly 20 years ago, the sport was still in its infancy and our training approach then was pretty basic and rudimentary.

If you are not yet sure whether you are completely sold on making agility a part of your life, don’t be in a rush to advance to class levels where it will become more critical to invest in pricey equipment, like weave poles.

Ask yourself too whether you were attracted to agility for the opportunity to share valuable time with your dog–in other words, the journey–or you are being drawn more by outcome, like winning ribbons or big events.  I have had more than one beginner student over the years (sorry, these were usually young, competitive males) who wanted to know how soon they could get into the competition ring.  When I told them it could take over a year or more depending on their dog, they quickly lost interest and dropped out of the beginner classes within a few weeks.  Since agility is all about the journey with your dog, your dog needs to set the pace and the dog may be telling you that they want to go slower than your ego would like.

What are you and your dog’s proficiencies?

 If you are an experienced dog trainer or agility competitor taking your third or fourth dog through agility class, your proficiencies will naturally be higher than the person who comes to agility without any dog training experience and little knowledge about the intricacies of the sport.  As an experienced trainer or competitor, you will have your past experience to draw on in considering whether your dog is ready to move to the next level.  Those of us who have been through it before with new dogs have all learned one hard lesson: slower is better.  Getting the foundation right the first time always turns out to be preferable over rushing ahead and later finding a hole in our training that then needs fixing.

If you are new to agility and maybe even dog training, you don’t have this baseline against which to measure your progress.  You may not even have a very good idea of what the sport looks like at its highest level (have you attended an actual trial?).  And even if you have watched the sport in action, you may not yet recognize the subtleties and nuances of the witnessed performances.  In such a case, talk with your instructor.  Ask whether you are ready to move on or whether you and your dog could benefit from repeating the class.  A second time through might also give you a chance to pick up on some of the finer points of the exercises that might have gotten lost in waterfall of new material the first time through.

Proceed at your own pace

Don’t get me wrong.  Not all beginning students need to repeat their first agility class.  I just offer the above thoughts to give you something to chew on and to let you know you have permission to do what’s best for you and your dog.

 

 

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