I didn't think I'd have much to say on this topic, but once I got going I couldn't stop. I've tried to cull my material to things new and different from what other handlers might have to say, except for some background introduction on how often I train. Here goes:
I tell beginner students: "You can't learn agility in one hour a week". And that's the truth!
Yet each of my dogs attends class only 1 hour a week, gets maybe 4 or 5 turns, and I attend 1 or 2 seminars a year, and go to 7 or 8 trials per year where Maxie and Lucky Lucy go in the ring two times per day, XS and XJ for less than a minute each time. There are hardly any matches in our area. That's all the agility we would get unless we practice on our own.
Our dog club has a wonderful Field Use program where members can pay $50/year and have 24/7 access to our fenced field, which is lighted all night and 2-3 courses, plus practice drills, are usually set up with competition quality equipment. The club cuts the grass. It's an amazing bargain, but still you have to drive there, you're on 2 acres eeriely alone, and it's not as convenient as your own back yard. Plus neither my dogs nor I like hot or cold weather (above 85, below 50), so we pretty much only get out in spring and fall. It's amazing how well we do with so little practice.
Finding The Right Class: I can't always find a class that fits my dog's needs. This was true with Lucky Lucy, and now with Pepper at Beginners level. In Intro class he had no hesitation doing the obstacles, but the instructor had us working off leash right away, thus Pepper would do the short sequence (jump-tunnel-jump, jump/see saw/jump, etc.) then he'd run away exploring, visiting, sniffing. Papillons are very spunky that way, and hard to catch. Before working off leash, I think he should have learned to stay with me and run alongside me taking obstacles in class the way Maxie did (same teacher, but 4 years ago). We got promoted out of the class without enough handler focus. Now I have to fix this myself at home. No further agility training until we resolve this issue.
Resources: At home, I follow a few agility blogs or journals. I've read some agility books. I watch numerous YouTube videos. I appreciate every piece of input and try out some of it. But when I step away from that material, I don't always remember it like they said it, and I end up doing things my own way. In fact, I like making up my own exercises. To me, it's not all about training for the ring. I like to play with my dogs, see what I can get them to do, explore their intelligence (and mine), work out performance issues, invent exercises, and track improvements.
FOUNDATION SKILLS: I've long said, there's a lot more to agility than performing obstacles. Most of us are woefully undertrained in foundation skills. My newest puppy isn't fully bonded with me -- he's more independant than the others. I have bond-building to do.
I use feeding time, loading up in the car, sitting for leash attachments, crate games, no begging at mealtimes, jumping into my arms, standing for exam, sitting for grooming, waiting until their name is called before eating or leaving the room, etc., -- all good training opportunities that recur daily, sometimes hourly, that teach impulse control, focus, and discipline. We do the routine "parlor tricks" that wow company, are fun, and earn the dogs several mid-day snacks. They all apply to agility, but you have to keep this up. If you go slack, the behavior weakens. So we do it a lot. My wardrobe has changed to shirts, dresses and pants with pockets. I keep jars of treats and clickers everywhere I sit.
I have a large fenced yard, fully equipped, and set up some Backyard Dog exercises, boxes, double boxes, and pinwheels, and actually number and do them now and then. I set up and practice some of Steve's Jump Wraps and other handling exercises. I also run obstacles that are scattered about the yard, in un-numbered fashion, asking for tight wraps, sending, leaving, etc., whenever I see the dogs begging to do tricks. I allow myself to be spontaneous sometimes. It's exhilerating to interact freely with my pooches, without fear that I'll forget what comes next or that they will err.
I use Clean Run's Course Designer to draw parts of courses I find challenging and exercises I make up. Keeping a record of exercises I've worked on is part of why I keep this blog. I'm still refining my labels (key words) so one day I can find them all under Training Exercises. When I go back and read the problems I was working through 2 years ago, I can see how far I've come in my understanding. I find the process fascinating, and encouraging. And sometimes embarassing. If my blog was just about accuracy, I would delete or change these posts. But I've decided my blog isn't just about accuracy. It's the story of my development as a newbie handler, and all the struggles, heartaches and perseverance it takes to stay in the game.
I encourage handlers to go through some raw experiences of making up challenges from scratch, to identify one small problem and "think dog" to resolve it, to "own" the training process, not just follow the finished material of other handlers. When someone else hands you a solution, you tend to take it for granted that the exercise they devised is "simple", "true", and "obvious", not realizing how many steps it took for them to work out the kinks. And their solution might not be a universal fix that applies to your dog. If "guessing games" are good for our dogs, they are just as good for us, and for the same reasons. They keep you agile, and engaged.
Distance Handling: I've been injured so often (sciatica, hip bursitis, strained knee, pulled calf muscle) the past 4 years, I'm intrigued with the concept of training from a chair. Also, I'm such a slow runner, I feel the need to build distance handling skills. There's a lady (Kathy somebody) who competes along the Gulf Coast area who can't run at all, walks in the ring with a cane, dragging one foot behind her, and directs her fast border collie around the course, moving her shoulders too and fro and taking a few steps along what I call the "Handler's Corridor". It's amazing to watch her walk the course and plan her strategy so differently from the rest of us, and her dog often Q's. She shows that extreme distance handling is possible. I told her once, "I'd love to watch you train. If you'd like, I'll help you write your story". She looked at me like I was crazy then said "I haven't trained a puppy in years, but it starts out from the very beginning. I'm not sure I remember how I did it." She did not refer me to a book, a system, or a trainer. Apparently she invented her own system!
Handler's Corridor vs Game Of Chase: I often look at course maps and try to identify the "Handler's Corridor", the minimal space a handler needs to move through to support every obstacle at a distance. It's a real fun way to look at any sequence (not at a trial when a Q is on the line, but at home). One day I'll blog about the Handler's Corridor. It is the exact antithesis to my most recent understanding of agility being a "game of chase" where handler runs fast, supports each obstacle closely, and dog gleefully chases the handler along. I got this latest insight from researching 2012's top ranked AKC agility dog, an 8" Papillon named Tigger with 35 MACHs and over 55,000 MACH points, and searching on YouTube for videos of his runs. You can astound yourself by reading my Tigger report here. Watch the video links at the bottom. I've since discovered from Susan Garrett's blog that today's world champion teams are playing agility as a game of chase. View a few of these videos here, and gasp!
Jumping Practice From My Chair: I have a 25' x 25' vegetable garden in my training yard, with a 2' picket fence all around it. I discovered I could toss a ball into the garden, Lucky jumps in to fetch it, then jumps out and brings it back to me. Here's a short video of this exercise, showing her lovely extension and powerful, accurate jumping style, easy to see because of her short hair.
Oh my, how she loves this game, and it keeps her in shape! This has come in handy when an injury has kept me from exercising her, or when my husband comes home from work too exhausted to tug with her. I have a 30" high wrought iron fence dividing my front yard, too, and she jumps that back and forth several times a day as well. She has a natural eye for judging height and distance, and at trials, she has only ever knocked one bar that I can remember. The higher the jump, the better she likes it.
I train from my chair indoors too. Here's a recent blog post I did on Hassock Drills, which really taxes their brains and requires focus, coordination and cooperation. Great for developing body awareness.
Distance handling with tunnel: My latest distance exercise is to send either Maxie, Lucky or Pepper to my 9' tunnel from my porch chair, starting about 6' away. My goal is to have the tunnel at least 40' away, and use minimal motion. The learning process for them and me is unfolding slowly. There are lots of issues to work out. I'm documenting the steps on video to post someday on this blog. I'm calling it: "Evolution Of A Training Exercise".
Relays: I don't know anybody else who does relays, but they are loads of fun. Here's a video I posted last year of Maxie and Lucky doing Weave Relays. And another of Pepper at 4 months old doing his first Tunnel Relays. (His nicknames back then were Winnie and Honey Bear).
Weave Poles: Maxie did channel weaves in class but never got it. He was actually banished from Advanced Beginners class for 3 months until he could do 6 weave poles successfully. It wasn't until I put peanut butter on a long wooden spoon to lure him through at home, that he got it. I did Susan Garrett's 2x2's with Lucky because she fetches and tugs, and she's got it. But I'm trying a new way with Pepper - my own method. Here's the diagram I drew before I even tried it on him and so far my thought experiment is working pretty well, though it's hard to throw the treat in exactly the right place. Another evolutionary process.
I don't claim this works better than any other method. But it illustrates my point. I like inventing my own exercises, observing the results. I'm a pioneer at heart.
See Saw Entries: I have my own method for that too. I don't ever want my dogs entering the see saw from the side. From the beginning, I put wings on either side of the low end. Dog has to run around the wing and enter head on. After awhile this becomes routine. Wings turn into flower pots. Pots disappear. Max and Lucky both have great see saw entries - always straight on, from any angle. They translate this skill to dog walk and A-frame entries too, all by themselves.
See Saw Exits: I have my own method for that, too. I am always surprised how many dogs fly off the see saw at trials. I never want to see that or a bail off. Never. They can be dangerous. I also marvel at dogs who creep across the see-saw, or won't run out to the end. From day one, I require a 4 on contact, a halt, and wait for release before leaving. I encourage a lowered head to lower my little papillons' center of gravity in preparation for the bounce, and get it by delivering the treat at board level, 2" from the end of the board, never up in the air like most everyone else does. Alas, treating like this requires bending over. The only time I release from the see-saw immediately is at a trial, which they do with no problem.
Making up your own exercises is fun. It becomes a necessity when nobody has a solution to your problem. Following other people's exercises, or making up your own, either way, requires you to become a better observer. Is it working? If not, you must be willing to swallow your pride, abandon your bright idea, and try something else. That gets your humility up, your brain cells jumping!
Treadmill Training: I've long known that agility requires running, but long excused myself that I don't know how to run, don't even have the muscles in my legs for running, they attrophied in my 20's, and distance handling is possible. I'm great at excuses. At 66, I've never in my life had to run anywhere -- except maybe to the bathroom once in a blue moon. I've prayed for a running coach, not yet forthcoming, not my fault. I've yearned for long legs. What I've not done until recently is pull my treadmill out of the corner, dust it off, and begun using it 30 minutes a day to walk at faster and faster speeds. Get my heart rate up. Increase my stride. I was finally inspired to do this at a recent agility seminar where the instructor pointed out how poorly I run, then informed the whole class how poorly we all run (like old ladies), and that she treadmills at least 30 minutes a day, raising and lowering her speed to simulate the sprint of an agility run. And then the next weekend, at a trial I was attending, she MACHIIed her dog! She's not a thin gal, but moved along quite fast. Faster than her YouTube videos of yesteryear. I was inspired by her increased skills!
Training Partners/Students: My biggest stumbling block in practicing is that I'm more motivated to train when someone trains with me. I'm more likely to spiff up the yard, set sequences, clean/repair equipment, think through problems, run well, when someone is coming over. I've never been able to acquire a steady training partner, though.
Videos: Of course, taking videos of trial runs and training sessions and studying them, is a must! If you can't see yourself moving, it's like a ballet dancer trying to learn graceful postures without a mirror. Agility is as much about training ourselves to handle as training our dogs. I've heard people say they can't stand to watch themselves in videos. I know, I've gotten almost sick watching my arms flap around like a wounded bird, me yelling the name of every obstacle as though my dogs were deaf, causing faults by my confusion, poor timing or clumsy actions. But I learn more from watching my and other people's videos as from any other teacher or training tool. Setting up and videoing lessons for this blog is almost as motivating as having a training partner -- I feel like I'm sharing the experience with someone else. It pushes me toward improvement in a way nothing else can do.
Well, there are a hundred variations on each theme. I've read all the other posts, and here are my favorite take-aways.
Upwards and onward!