This post is part of the Dog Agility Bloggers network theme “Outside the Ring.” To see other bloggers’ points-of-view, please click on this link.
I spent a long time just thinking about what “outside the ring” meant to me and finally decided that it meant all the activities I do, with and without my dogs, that in some way affect what happens when I’m doing agility–training or trialing–with my dogs. It ended up being a long list!
*Work (gotta pay for dog food).
*Vacations with the dogs (because I like having them with me), and vacations without the dogs (because sometimes it’s nice to sleep late).
*Everyday cuddling and games with my dogs (yes, they’re allowed on the couch and on the bed) (of course they are).
*Running for fitness, speed, stamina (I don’t think that needs more explanation).
*Bicycling (because it’s a fun way to get around, because my husband loves to cycle, and I value my marriage).
*Trick training with the dogs (just for fun).
*Stay training (with the dogs) (because it really helps keep that start-line-stay solid if I train it everywhere I can, often).
*Control Unleashed classes (which helped me read subtle aspects of my dogs’ behaviors).
*Regular vet checks and appropriate vaccinations.
*Grooming and training grooming behaviors (just part of owning poodles).
*Regular neighborhood walks with the dogs, sometimes with my husband and the dogs (there are social advantages for both the dogs and for the people in this, although I never allow the dogs to play with other dogs when they’re on leash).
*Conversations with friends, in-real-life and on Facebook and on Yahoo groups, about dog behavior and training.
*Attendance at seminars on dog training.
I think most of this list is obvious to everyone of us that does agility. That said, I’d like to call out two things I do regularly with my dogs that I think have made the most difference to our in-ring performances.
First is running with the dogs. I’ve worked for years at keeping my dogs fit and sound, but Rush made me totally rethink my own fitness. I simply could not keep up with my fast, powerful, big-strided dog. I started by losing weight (and I’m still working on that) and then added running to the mix. I have found running with Rush keeps him fit, builds an awareness of our mutual teamwork (over time, he’s learned to keep the leash at just the right tension regardless of my speed), and has improved my ability to run with him in the ring. The running has also improved my ability to get through a trialing weekend without slowing down.
I spent six months doing the couch-to-5K program and gradually built to running two or three miles at a time at a very slow pace; I’ve now restarted couch-to-5K and this time I’m doing the running intervals as fast as I can. My hope is that this will translate in higher speed, now that I’ve built the stamina and endurance. I compare it to the dog training circle where you build duration and distance separately, rather than increasing both at once.
Second is playing with the dogs. I take agility pretty seriously. I like the competition and I care about the Q. I make no apologies about this; I want my dogs to love agility and love doing agility with me, but I do consider a Q a reward for my training efforts! I love walking a course and discovering a challenge that I’ve been training and then testing my training when I run the course. Agility is my sport of choice. But… if my dogs don’t want to be there, or they’re not having fun? It’s no fun for me, either.
I spend time at agility practice and in the backyard and in the house playing with my dogs and finding ways to make them want to play with me. I ask Dancer to do tunnel games–do a tunnel and run to my tug toy–instead of full sequences. I play chase-me games and throw a ball for Rush when he catches up to me, then turn and run the other way as soon as he gets the ball. I ask for ten quick sits and throw ten tiny pieces of steak, one for each sit. I try to make sure that I spend as much time just playing with my dogs as I do “training agility.” For example, if I’m working on weave entries with Rush, I might do five or six tough weave entries, then throw the ball for him or play tug for three or four minutes. Or I’ll throw the ball for him two or three times, then run a long sequence, then go outside and play “high five” and “mug me” for a while.
It’s important to me to pay attention to the rewards my dogs like. Dancer loves to snuggle with me and go for a walk, just her. She thinks rotisserie chicken is the best food in the world. Tug toys with rabbit fur? Excellent things. Rush? his favorite reward for doing agility is more agility. If we’re practicing heeling, heeling him to a tunnel entrance and telling him to do the tunnel is a great reward. He also likes steak and leaping to catch a treat. Balls are magic things. Chasing a ball? Great fun. Playing tug with anything? Great fun. A frisbee? So much fun he can’t control himself. (I limit frisbees to large open fields with no other dogs.)
After an agility run in the arena? What happens then? If at all possible, I walk around with the dog, then do a light massage, then play a few quiet games, before the dog goes back in the crate. I want agility arenas to be places that predict pleasure for the dog, not just the excitement (and stress) of twenty obstacles in sequence at top speed.