Friday, July 14, 2006

Why Agility

SUMMARY: What? How? Why? do agility

An acquaintance, unfamiliar with dog agility, asked me that (those) today. I gave him an answer, but really only answered "how did i get into doing agility" and "what benefits does it provide", not really everything that makes it appealing.

How Did I Start?

When Remington came to live with us, he was an insatiable learner. I taught him tricks, went through more and more detailed obedience training, went to "animal acting" classes (more tricks), went to tracking classes (but the practice for this was really tedious). When our obedience instructor told us about this new thing called agility, I knew that my dog-who-loved-to-climb-on-things would be perfect for it. We started classes solely with the intention of having something else to do with my dog one night a week. But then, of course, we started making and buying some rudimentary equipment to practice on at home--kludgy weave poles, play tunnels, flimsy PVC jumps, so we were starting to get invested in this sport.

And they finally convinced us to try a competition. Just once. Really. My life was already plenty full without spending money and weekends on something new. But, to be perverse, Remington did well at his first competition, won some ribbons, earned some Qualifying scores towards his first title. In the whole of 1996, we attended 6 agility trials. The next year--when I got Jake specifically as an agility dog--and when my food was broken for a good part of the year--we did seven. The next year, 10. In 1999, 11. In 2000, 14. Then 17 the next year, then 18 although with problems with Jake's foot and Remington's cancer, we missed 2 months of competition. We peaked (so far) in 2003 at 23 trials. Down to 21 the next year, 20 in 2005.

OK, the point being, we were hooked.

OK, so Why?

I discovered that I learned so much more about my dog by doing agility than I had ever learned about my previous dogs. I learned what really motivates him to become excited and driven. I learned what worries him or distracts him or turns him off. I learned what it takes to train a much wider variety of behaviors than simply shaking a paw or holding a biscuit on his nose. He was off leash, and we had to trust each other to each do our part out on the course, and we became much more than merely Owner and Dog; we became Teammates. It's a wonderful feeling of partnership with another species that I think would be hard to beat.

In addition, it gives my dogs both a mental and a physical workout, which keeps them satisfied and out of trouble. And it give ME a mental and physical workout, which keeps ME more or less satisfied and generally speaking out of trouble. I can use all the exercise I can get.

Plus we're out-of-doors, active, meeting and becoming friends with many wonderful people. It's just a good all-around thing.

But Doesn't Going Through Hoops Get Boring?

OK, this is the part that I didn't really answer (and he didn't really ask it, but I was thinking about it afterwards, that there's really much more than the preceding).

You might think that, after you've (finally) taught the dog how to do the weave poles and how to run across the dogwalk and how to go through the tire, that then it would get boring after a while. But it doesn't, because agility is SO much more than the dog simply being able to look at a piece of equipment and just do it.

For example, in the weave poles, we do drills all the time, even (and especially) with my experienced dog, trying to find ways to get her to drive as fast as she physcially can through the poles. Top dogs can do a set of 12 poles in just over 2 seconds; we're still not there, but I'm trying all the time to try to make doing the poles an exciting and rewarding thing for my dogs. And I also do drills so that they always make the correct entry no matter what direction they're coming from (they must always enter with the first pole to their left) and no matter how fast. Taking the poles from different approaches and at super rates of speed is critical; you don't know whether you'll have to make a 90-degree turn or even more to get into the poles, and the dog will then have to successfully wrap itself around to correctly weave the second and third poles, not skipping any and not losing any speed. And you can't always be right there with the dog to show him the correct entry.

For another example, with jumps, you'd think that the dog could either do them or not. But NOOOO--you want them driving over the jump, too, as fast as possible, and you want to be able to send them ahead of you full speed, or have them follow you full speed, and you want to be able to cross behind them as they go over, or in front of them before or after they go over, and you want to be able to have them wrap tightly around the side of the jump as they go over and reverse direction; you want them to be able to take the jump straight on or at any angle; you want to signal to them to go right while you go left or vice-versa. And all of this without causing the dog to knock the bar off the jump. We do drills and drills and drills for these. And my list of things here just scratches the surface. :-)

Furthermore, every course you run is different. In competition, your dog never runs the same course twice. When you walk onto the field for a walk-through, it'll be the first time you've ever seen the course, too. You do get a walk-through, along with everyone else competing, of sometimes as little as 7 or 8 minutes during which you figure out how to move yourself most efficiently and effectively around the course in such as way as to move your dog efficiently and correctly around the course.

See, dogs run a whole lot faster than people (you knew that, right?). At their peaks, my dogs can be covering more than 6 yards per second, which can be two or three obstacles in that one second. Think about it--That's dang fast. (View a video of me and Jake doing a Jumpers course--it's a fairly simple course without a lot of crosses or call-offs of trap obstacles, and I don't actually have to move very fast very often, but you can get a feel for how fast the dog is moving.) You don't have time to be thinking and strategizing on course with the dog; you'd better know every step that you're taking and where every piece of equipment is and in what order the dog has to do it.

You have to decide whether to leave your dog in a sit-stay at the start line and lead out forty or fifty or more feet to get yourself into a better position to handle the course opening. You have to decide where to cross behind your dog and where to cross in front. You have to choose whether to flip your dog to the left as he goes over a jump with a direction reversal or pull him towards you to the right. You need to decide whether you can send the dog out to a tunnel or the weaves and rely on him to complete that obstacle unmonitored while you race in another direction to get into position to direct him over the next obstacle. There are hundreds of little decisions that go into an experienced handler's eventual run with the dog--plus you have to store in the back of your mind some alternatives for places where the dog might, despite everything, start to go off course or make an error that you can recover from IF you do the right thing.

And the courses get harder and harder, not only as you progress from Novice through the various levels up to Masters and then on to National competitions and so on, but also as agility continues to mature as a sport, Novice courses get harder and harder and Masters courses get harder and harder.

In some ways, it appeals to my puzzle-solving brain parts, because I'm working in a (mostly) 2-dimensional maze through which I have to navigate both myself and my dog at top rates of speed. Events are often won or lost by hundredths of a second. Sometimes there have to be runoffs. You think it doesn't matter whether your dog takes an extra half a second in the weave poles? Boom, drop from 1st to 4th. You think it doesn't matter whether he takes an extra step after a jump before turning? Badda bim, drop another couple of places.

And in all of this, if you misjudge by a hair the timing of your command or the turning of your shoulders or the lifting of your arm, in an instant your rocket-speed dog is off course and then you've earned an Elimination and you're outa there. (Here's another video, of my instructor Nancy Gyes and her dog Riot--national champions and World Cup team competitors, doing a course with all the equipment. Watch how fast her dog is, how far ahead of and behind and laterally away from her dog she works, and how little wasted motion and space there is on course. (In fact, you can pick just about any videos in this directory and see some spectacular california dogs and handlers.)

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