How to Find the Right Agility Instructor for You and Your Dog
Finding the Right Agility Class for You
The fastest growing dog sport in the United States is far and away the exciting sport of dog agility. Agility involves a dog/handler team running through an obstacle course (see video above). Each course is uniquely different, and the course is timed and judged for errors such as knocked bars and stopping before an obstacle. The dog with the cleanest run and fastest time wins.
Because the sport of agility is becoming so popular, many dog trainers have begun teaching the sport although they know little about it. Agility is much more difficult than it looks, and it takes years to learn the intricate nature of the sport. This knowledge is important in teaching the basics as even the slightest incorrect shoulder placement when training the beginnings of a move to a dog can influence that dog's understanding of that move for the rest of his career, so finding an experienced agility trainer is a must for anyone considering competing at any of the higher levels of agility.
However, with the proliferation of dog trainers wanting to make a fast buck off of the agility craze, there are, unfortunately, a lot of bad agility classes out there. Here are seven hints to help the newbie agility enthusiast find their first agility trainer.
Hint #1: First of All - Dream
The first step necessary to finding the right agility trainer for you and your dog is to dream. And dream big. In most metro areas, different agility trainers cater to different segments of the agility population. Because of this, some trainers specialize in classes for the "just for fun" agility crowd while other trainers may specialize in the high-level competition only classes. A team interested in doing agility "just for fun" may get overwhelmed in a high-level beginning class, while someone seeking high-level competition will find themselves lacking almost all of the foundation skills necessary to excel at the upper levels of the sport if they have joined a "just for fun" or low-level competition class.
So dream. What do you want from agility? Do you just want to go have fun with your dog for a few classes and play "agility" in the backyard, or do you want to compete and become the best your team can be? Maybe your dream is to get some low-level titles on your dog, or perhaps your dream is to qualify to attend a Nationals agility competition or even represent the USA on the Agility World Team. No one dream is better than the next, but knowing what you hope to get out of the sport is a must before choosing a trainer.
Some trainers specialize in "just for fun" classes. Students in these classes want to take their dog to class once a week and dabble with agility at home in their backyards, but they don't have competition plans. This group will be happiest in a class that focuses less on foundation skills and more on running easy courses. The dogs are put on the equipment quickly, often in the first class, and while there should be training for safety, the emphasis on strong foundation skills that can be boring to the casual agility newbie isn't present. The social side of agility is encouraged in these classes and heavy "coaching" from the instructor is limited to non-existent.
A Quiz to Help You Begin to Think About Your Agility Dreams
Some people may want their dog to earn some low-level agility titles, but they know they won't want to compete very often or will only want to compete in a low-stress, low-competition venue. These people will be looking for a trainer who specializes in a mixture of "just for fun" and competition students. These classes will focus a bit more on foundation skills, but the dogs may get on the equipment much more quickly than in a competition-only inspired class. There is some more emphasis on coaching in these classes, but foundation skills are moderately stressed. These classes are a bit more instructive than the general "just for fun" class, but dogs entering competition through these classes may still lack many of the skills needed to excel at the higher levels of agility.
Students seeking to compete in agility at the higher levels, for instance those students looking to earn an agility Championship or compete Nationally or Internationally, will want to do heavy research into their trainer before signing up. The low-level competition classes or the "just for fun" classes won't give this team the foundation skills needed to compete at the higher levels.
Pure competition classes will focus strongly on foundation skills. Dogs shouldn't get on some of the pieces of equipment right away - in some cases it may take six months or more - as the groundwork and foundations are laid for a lifetime of agility success. Teams will spend time doing prep-work such as shadow handling (flat work), jump skill training, contact training on planks (verses working on the equipment itself) and much, much more. Instruction in these classes will come across more as "coaching," and while there is always the elements of fun, the emphasis during the class is on training. A student wanting to do agility "just for fun" would probably be both bored and overwhelmed in such a class environment, while a student seeking to potentially compete at a high-level would find this type of class thrilling, challenging and exciting.
Don't make the mistake of not dreaming big. If you enroll in a "just for fun" class and later decide you do want to compete at a high-level, your dog will have to be retrained. This retraining will cause his foundation skills to always remain much weaker than they would have been if you had chosen the right level trainer at the beginning. So dream big!
Hint #2: Look at the Agility Instructor's Experience
Once you have chosen which level of training you are seeking, start looking around at instructor/school choices in your area. If you are looking to do agility "just for fun," your choices will be much more accessible and numerous than if you are looking to compete at a high level. Those wishing to compete to be all they can be should be prepared to travel sometimes even hours one way to find an acceptable instructor, so cast your net of instructors in a wider area than you might first expect.
Once you have a list of instructors, schedule a time to visit their classes. Ideally, you should visit a beginning class and then visit an advanced class. This will give you a good idea of how the instructor starts the dogs and what the polished product looks like.
When visiting class, ask questions. One of the areas you will need to research is the instructor's experience. Agility is a very difficult sport to master, which is why it is so popular. In agility, a team's mastery of the sport is measured in "titles," which are letters placed before and after a dog's name to signify what level achievements that dog has earned. You may wish to check out the article, "Deciphering AKC Agility Titles: What Do the Letters After a Dog's Name Mean?" to understand some of these titles. As you do research into instructors, examine the titles they have earned with their dogs. Are they high level titles? Are they low level titles? Have they competed at all? Even for the "just for fun" level, you will want to avoid instructors who have never successfully competed.
There is a thought that an instructor cannot help a student reach a goal if the instructor hasn't reached that goal themselves. In many cases, this is true. However, don't completely rule out an instructor who doesn't have high level competition accomplishments. I know of one such instructor who is very good yet doesn't compete very often. Because of this, her titles are not very high level, but her students do nicely.
With this in mind, next check on the titles of the student teams. Are the students achieving what you dream to achieve, or do the students have no titles or only low level titles? Also remember, an instructor might be a great dog trainer, but not a great human trainer. You could find an instructor with impressive personal accomplishments, but who has students with only low-level titles.
Ask other experience questions. How long has the instructor been doing agility? How long have they been teaching? Do they have experience teaching the breed of dog - or mix of dog - that you own?
Whether you are looking to join a "just for fun" class or a high-level foundation class, knowing the instructor's experience and their ability to pass that information along to the students is vital.
Hint #3: Match the Trainer's Philosophy and Methods to Your Own
Almost all agility instructors use positive reinforcement methods to train agility now. In the early years of agility, it was discovered that dogs trained using punishment based methods ran more slowly than those trained using rewards. This, of course, makes sense. A dog afraid of punishment will be more likely to slow down to avoid mistakes and thus punishment. A dog trained with positive rewards will be more likely to speed up, run with abandon and view agility as the fun game it is.
Although most trainers use positive reinforcement, or positive reinforcement with only mild punishment in agility training, there are still some trainers who use quite a bit of punishment. During your class visit, watch the training. Are the dogs forced onto equipment or are they encouraged to find their way with treats or toys and praise? Are dogs punished for unwanted behavior or are they redirected, shown which behavior is proper and rewarded for that behavior? Are there a lot of verbal corrections?
After watching class, ask yourself if you would be comfortable with the amount of reward verses punishment you saw exhibited in the class? You do not want to take classes from a trainer who uses heavy punishment when your training philosophy will be mostly positive.
Also look at the trainer's personality and training style. Would you be a fit in that class? Would you enjoy spending one evening a week with that instructor?
Hint #4: Safety, Safety, Safety
When visiting class, pay attention to safety. Agility, if taught improperly, can actually be dangerous to the dog. The instructor and facility should do everything to minimize safety risks of the sport during training.
Look at the facility. Whether an outdoor facility or indoor facility, is it fully fenced or contained? Does the equipment appear sound and safe? Are the tunnels bagged and without tears and rips? What is the running surface like? Unacceptable surfaces would include flooring that lack proper traction for fast moving dogs or any hard surface such as concrete or thin mats over concrete. Good surfaces would include grass, mats with adequate cushioning and very good traction, dirt that offers good traction and some cushioning, etc. A dog's training surface will play a large role in the dog's ability to carry speed into competition. If a dog learns to run agility slowly because of a slick training surface, that will affect their speed, even on other surfaces.
Look at the classroom management as well. Are lots of dogs left off lead at the same time? Agility is an off lead sport, but all efforts should be made to minimize the numbers of dogs off lead. Ideally, only one dog should be off lead at any given time, except in a few instances. How about class size? Larger classes will mean less time spent actually training on equipment. A rule of thumb is that classes stay around 6 - 8 dogs. If an instructor has an assistant or the class is longer than an hour, this number may increase.
How big is the training environment? An average competition agility ring is generally 100 feet by 100 feet. Training in a smaller space will mean the inability to train full, trial-like courses. This issue can be overcome with a talented instructor, but it must be considered. Is the space so small the dogs seemed cramped and are unable to run freely when working sequences?
And how about temperature control? If indoors, is the area climate controlled? If not or if outdoors, does the instructor continue to have classes regardless of excessive extremes?
Safety of any agility competitor's dog comes first, and knowing some of the safety issues to look for can help you find the right trainer.
Hint #5: Clubs verses Schools
In the United States, there are generally two different type of organizations offering agility training. Agility "clubs" are groups of people who love dog sports and have organized themselves legally into a club. These clubs often offer agility training classes. There are upsides and downsides to taking classes with an agility club. The biggest upside is the ability to meet and learn from a wide variety of people and the ability to partake in the varied dog activities of the club. The downside is that the training may be inconsistent. Clubs generally (but not always) have different members teaching different levels. While one member-instructor may be absolutely fantastic, another may be seriously lacking skills. So as your team progresses through the ranks from foundation class to beginning class to intermediate class and so forth, the quality of training can be vastly different. In addition, there can be changes in methodology from one instructor to the next.
Not all clubs have these issues, however, and knowing how the club operates and learning the backgrounds and experience of the club's instructors is a must.
Schools, on the other hand, are owned and operated by one or two instructors. These schools have more control over the experience level of their instructors and over the content taught in the classes. In most schools, all classes are taught by the owner, but some larger schools may have multiple trainers. The advantage to training with a one trainer only school is the training systems will not change from class to class. The disadvantage is the student will only get ideas and concepts from one person. If the trainer is excellent, then the instruction will be excellent. If the instruction is poor and has holes in it, those holes will continue to be present throughout the class levels. A good sole instructor will realize no instructor is perfect and will encourage their students to attend and seek private lessons and seminars with other like-minded, well-known agility instructors. Schools with multiple instructors have the advantage of giving students different training ideas through the different instructors, however if the instructors' training methodologies and experience vary too greatly, then the inconsistency problem that some clubs experience will again occur.
Do understand that some schools and clubs may offer classes that cater to the "just for fun" student while offering other classes that cater to the high-level trainer. This mix of classes is a benefit to the instructor, allowing them the advantage of the income from both sides of the spectrum. Don't be wary of such schools as the options they thus provide are a benefit.
Hint #6: Visit Agility Trials Before Finding a Trainer
Before getting into agility, find some agility trials near you. Don't limit yourself to only one "type" of trial, but visit several. For instance, visit an American Kennel Club (AKC) trial and then visit a North American Dog Agility Council (NADAC) trial. Talk with many of the competitors and gather a list of potential local instructors. Many of the best instructors don't advertise with fancy websites or in newspapers as they don't need students. These instructors can only be found by "plugging into" the agility community, so do visit several local agility trials to gain information before deciding on your trainer.
Hint #7: Buyer Beware
With the rise in the popularity of agility has come the proliferation of dog training schools offering agility classes. Be very wary when searching out a trainer. Schools that are looking to make a fast buck on agility often have instructors with little to no agility experience running the class. They may claim to offer competition agility, but the "competition" is between their own students or students from another school. True competition agility exists within an official agility titling organization like the American Kennel Club (AKC), the United States Dog Agility Association (USDAA), Teacup Dog Agility Association (TDAA) or Canine Performance Events (CPE) to name a few.
Some agility schools simply lack instructors with the knowledge to teach the sport at a high level. Ideally, these schools should be upfront with their potential students, letting them know that the class they are offering is for "just for fun" students or those students who might want to compete at a lower level. It is then up to the student to learn about agility and what to look for in a future agility instructor before signing on the dotted line.
Some signs to look for in a school that claims they can prepare a dog for high level competition but indeed cannot would be:
- Excessive use of the leash during early agility training. With the exception of a few behaviors, dogs should be off lead when training agility. The leash ties the dog to the speed of the handler, and as agility is a game of speed, this is unacceptable. Jump training and sequencing two or more obstacles together should be taught off lead. If a school is sequencing obstacles with dogs on lead and claiming anything more than "just for fun" agility or low-level agility competition, reconsider your interest in that school.
- Dogs gaining access to the contact equipment immediately. A good high-level competition school will have students training ground work on planks, tippy boards, lowered equipment and more before gaining access to full height agility equipment. It should take weeks to even months before dogs are allowed on full height equipment.
- Little detailed instruction. Agility is all about the details. Even teaching dogs how to jump properly involves several weeks to months of instruction. Just pointing to a jump and telling the dog to jump no longer is acceptable for the high-level competitor. Dogs need to learn to move their bodies for both extension and collection. This detail extends through all agility behaviors. A trainer who quickly shows students how to teach a behavior without specific detail like hand signal placement, treat/reward placement, criteria expected, handler body placement and direction, etc. is not training for competition.
- Overemphasis on the social aspect. Each class should have a time of instruction. If students are spending an inordinate amount of time on the sides chatting with little attention to instruction, then the class isn't going to deliver enough information for a team seeking high-level competition.
For the "just for fun" crowd and even possibly the low-level title crowd, these above signs may not be a hindrance, but for those seeking higher level instruction, these signs need to be heeded.
And in the End, It's All About the Fun
Finding a good agility trainer that fits your needs and dreams can be a difficult task. As you look for trainers in your area, be honest with yourself about your commitment to agility. Trialing in agility is expensive, and going to the higher-level trainers may be more costly. However don't sell your team short either. If your dream is to reach to be the best team you both can become, find the trainer with the sharpest skill set to take you there.
But most importantly, whether your dream is to play "agility" in the backyard with your dog or to win a spot on the USA World Team, the whole idea of agility is about having fun with your best furred friend. Enjoy every step of your agility journey together from the first class to your last trial!!