Dog agility is one of those places where the old adage, “Never judge a man until you have walked a mile in his moccasins,” rings true. It is easy to sit on the sidelines and pass judgement on teams on what you see at that moment. Many times those “bad runs” you see are folks who are in need of help not criticism. Here is a question posed by a viewer who was one of those competitors.
“Twister, the demolition dog, really makes the pole setters work. They see my screaming collie on the start line and roll their eyes. I don’t know how to teach her to stop knocking the poles. She is a young and inexperienced dog, but we can’t go on like this. Please help me to help her.”
Anyone who has this problem; and it is a common one with fast, young dogs; will know the feeling of frustration it can cause. First you have to understand why your dog is knocking down poles. The place to start is an evaluation of you and your dog on course. Yes, this means you need to find a way to get either an experienced eye to watch you or someone to video tape your runs.
With a video you will be able to see if your dog is knocking poles because they are excited, taking off for the jump too early, dropping a hind leg on a turn and catch the bar, or do they not know their spacing between obstacles. All of these are signs of inexperience, and have training exercises to work at home.
Here are some tips to evaluate for both dog and handler issues that could be causing those dropped poles.
When you have a fast dog, remember that it’s not a race and you need to let your dog take the lead. It may be that your dog is anxious to stay ahead of you and is trying to “beat” you. You need to learn how to guide your dog from behind when possible, remember that the timer stops when your dog crosses the line, not you.
Watch your body cues and be sure you are staying upright when you are running your courses. Watch to see if you are bending your knees or dropping your cue arm. Your dog could be mimicking your dips at the fence and knocking down the bars as a result. Keep your body movement to a minimum and see if your dog isn’t able to focus better with your quieter, neater cues.
Wean yourself from redundant verbal cues. Your dog knows to jump the jump in front of them if that is the way you are moving. You could cause an early takeoff if your dog listens to your verbal cue as a takeoff point. Let your dog do their job that you have spent so much time teaching them. They will surprise you.
Make use of jump chutes and jump bumps. Start low if you use hurdles and practice send outs over a line of jumps as well as recalls. Set proper distances and then modify them to teach your dog to extend or collect and rate their distances. Send outs are great for you to practice running behind your dog and letting your dog do their job without excessive signals from you.
We want to caution you in the thoughts of respect for the poles. Using fear or pain in training ALWAYS has bad side effects, ALWAYS! If your dog continues to drop poles, they either need more work on correctness in jumping or you are causing them to make mistakes with your handling. Simply not rewarding for dropped poles or ending the session when your dog gets careless, are both great ways to get your point across.
We also want to take a minute to state that these tips are useful for any team, but are intended to address the young or inexperienced dog that is dropping poles due to lack of focus or carelessness. If your dog has trouble clearing poles as you reach their competition height, or suddenly stop clearing them, you need to have them evaluated by your veterinarian. Injury, bad joints, or even illness can cause your dog pain and thus poor performance or even avoidance to jumping.
When physical issues are ruled out, get back to practice for both your dog’s correctness in jumping and your correctness in handling.