Agility Offers Fun for Thinking Dogs

lost in the tunnelCali and Alberta started taking agility classes a few weeks ago. Watching Cali puzzle through things and figure out what we want has been fun. I can almost see the wheels turning in her little head.

Alberta is more experienced with dog sports and classes, having nearly completed her Rally Advanced Excellent title. She catches on very quickly, but knowing what we want her to do doesn’t keep Alberta from showing her silly side in class sometimes.

In the first couple of classes, we worked on targeting a small piece of foam on the floor. Both girls are proficient at hand targeting and were able to touch our hands, on cue, no matter whether we placed them high, low, on our backs, or anywhere else. Getting them to touch the foam mat was easy, too, but … both Cali and Alberta quickly went from simply touching it to retrieving it. Alberta, in particular, has a great working retrieve and has often been rewarded for bringing Deni items that Deni didn’t even know she had dropped.

I’ve been working on teaching Cali to bring my shoes, and, like Jana and Oriel before her, she has shown some entrepreneurial spirit, bringing things that I don’t even know that I need (or want) — in hopes of exchanging them for a small cookie.

So it’s not surprising that both Cali and Alberta think that we want them to retrieve the small mat, rather than simply touch it. Or perhaps they know that we want them to touch it but prefer to retrieve it.

They both are eager to jump onto the agility equipment, out of turn or when we’re waiting for our turn at a different piece of equipment. No fear from either of them; just eagerness to learn more and try out new challenges.

Practicing at home is also fun (and can become a three-dog circus pretty quickly). Jana wants in on the action, and when I was guiding Cali through some fake weave poles, Jana knocked one over with a swish of her tail — while grabbing another and running off with it in her mouth. Meanwhile, Alberta knocked over the other two! Poor Cali never had a chance. With more practice, though, we have managed to get all three girls to walk between the poles, though we still occasionally lose a pole or two to a swishing tail.

Out of the tunnelNone of our girls has any trouble with tunnels, though Cali did try to circumvent the tunnel once, taking a shortcut to where I was standing. She has always loved tunnels. Cali had a wonderful little play tunnel when she was a puppy, and Jana had plenty of exposure to tunnels before her first agility class. So neither of them hesitates, even when the tunnels are curved or have a piece of fabric covering one end, though many dogs resist entering a tunnel if they cannot see through to the end of it.

I thought about this last week as I was working with a neighbor’s dog, an adolescent golden retriever who is unwilling to use her dog door. The door flap makes her nervous. I rigged up a tunnel using a small table and a towel, and after a couple of sessions, she was willing (though still not exactly eager) to go through it for cookies. She’s uncomfortable with the small space, the towel brushing her back, and her inability to see what is coming. She’s improving, but she reminded me of how important it is to expose dogs to all sorts of tactile experiences, starting at a very young age.

Even that is not foolproof, though; this dog did use the door flap when she was younger, until she had a scary head-to-head confrontation with the cat as she went through the flap. My jerry-rigged tunnel will (I hope) help build her confidence in the same way that agility classes are boosting Cali’s confidence and awareness of where her body is. Classes in agility or other dog sports are a lot of fun — and they improve the dog’s focus on you and your communication with each other. Besides, they provide plenty of mental challenges to your thinking dog!