Yes, In My Backyard!

by Doranna
This is a Dog Agility Blog Event

Ten years after my introduction to agility, I’ve managed to acquire some equipment–jumps, some contact equipment, some tunnels.

And I’ve got a space dedicated to practice, such as it is–as long as I keep clearing the prickly pear, the yucca, the stick-tight burrs, and the stubborn juniper saplings.  The piñons, I run around.

But it wasn’t always that way–and even now, given that this area has a significant winter, desert adobe clay soil, and enough of an ongoing drought to kill all the stabilizing grasses, there are plenty of months when the agility yard footing is an astonishingly slippery clay sort of quicksand.

(You want to know how desperate I am about this footing?  I’m currently spreading horse poo to stabilize the soil on the way out to the agility area.  Oh yes I am!  Because walking on dried horse poo is at least possible.)

I love my agility area, but let’s just say I’m always ready to work around its challenges, just as I used to work around not having equipment at all.  For me, it’s all about breaking things down in a modular way–into component behaviors that build the foundation for the final, complex behavior.

That sounds very fancy.  But when I started doing it, I couldn’t have put those words together to describe it.  I wasn’t familiar with clicker training and the only agility instructor within 3 hours had left.  Then, as now, I did most of my training at home.

Under challenging circumstances, it becomes a matter of thinking about the pieces a dog needs to understand as part of the big picture–and particularly with regards to how that individual dog thinks.  With backyard pieces, you can lay a decent foundation for agility long before a dog is old enough to take jumps, wriggle through weaves, or face a full-height contact obstacle.

When I got ConneryBeagle, I knew I couldn’t target on contacts–in fact, I don’t even want him to think about putting his nose down at contacts.  He needed concrete, stable, environmental cues–not facing cues, body patterning, or amorphous concepts.

I used a single step in my house to teach him “run and sit with your butt on one surface and your feet on another.”  By the time he saw a contact obstacle, he had a very strong understanding of his personalized contact zone behavior.

Dart Beagle came to me with no idea where his feet were at any given moment.  He learned about those feet on the railroad ties that stabilize our startlingly narrow back yard (there’s a young arroyo behind us)–not only running along them, but perching in a neat down–feet tucked up, or no clickie-cookie!  For the same reason, he learned to climb and sit an upturned bucket; he learned to fling himself down on planks in the living room.  He walks curbs when we’re out, as well as those cement parking bumpers.


All those feets are tucked away--cookie time!

To this day, I keep a batch of planks leaning against the book case.  They served to teach a straight front (in progress), and to run ahead to his down on contacts.  They helped him understand the concept of the moving down and a straight finish–and I’m certain we’re not done with those things.


Dart, still figuring out exactly where his body is relative to the rest of the world... But he readily cleared the jump, so all was well!

Both dogs learned their running contact behavior in the house, and took it whole cloth to the equipment. To prevent contact leapage, they use a diagonal motion on the downside of the equipment.  Connery learned this at age five; Dart learned it from the start.  (Frankly, I never did have to worry about what Belle and Jean-Luc Cardigans would do on a contact.  Short legs and “keep ’em moving” meant a natural running contact.)

We did Dart’s early weave poles on the tiny patio outside my office (and inside the house!).  In the strip of a back yard–with its single jump–he first learned rear crosses, funky weave entrances, and “send to jump.”  To introduce concepts that will layer understanding in body use, attention, and release, and I use the walls of the hall, the back of the couch, crate entry and exit…all the pieces of their normal environment.  Dart doesn’t get dinner without performing some randomly chosen behavior–he not only needs the self control, he needs the constant structure.  So I’m using his basic needs to develop a daily reinforcement of bottom-layer agility and obedience skills.

You see where I’m going with all this.  I hope!  We don’t all have convenient training facilities; we don’t all even have backyards, or have them available all seasons of the year.

But we have our brains.  We know our dogs and how they think and what they need–and in fact, now that I’ve learned to think this way, I’d do all these things as foundation work even if I had a full-size agility yard out my back patio.

The house and yard–or apartment, hallway, and surroundings–are teaming with objects and circumstances just waiting to be co-opted into use.

Eventually, of course, the dog needs to put it all together on a course, and on real equipment–generalizing and proofing are necessary steps.  But if all the pieces are there, it’s suddenly not a big deal after all.


ConneryBeagle! Photo by ByVine Design.

About Doranna

My books are SF/F, mystery, paranormal romance, and romantic suspense. My dogs are Beagles, my home is the Southwest, and the horse wants a cookie!
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3 Responses to Yes, In My Backyard!

  1. Mona Karel says:

    you make it sound so simple!

  2. Marilyn says:

    It sounds so easy… and I know that doing things a piece at a time is the way to build behaviors. My problem is breaking the behaviors into pieces.

    For instance, Miss Babette has suddenly decided she is terrified of the ramp into the mini-van. I don’t know why, but suspect it might have something to do with Sunny’s Passing.

    Shadow trots up the ramp into the car. Harper, being a pup, follows Shadow, no problem. Babette gets on the ramp, and then plants her feet. She will NOT walk the remain 18″ into the car… she wants me to pick her up and set her on the seat, where we have a lead fastened to the child seat bars to clip to her harness. (The other two also have leads for their harnesses.) We use leads because I’m not physically able to handle crates, plus when we first got Shadow & Sunny, we didn’t have a vehicle that two Standard Dachshund-length crates would fit in.

    I never actually “trained” Shadow and Sunny to use the ramp, as such. They knew the command, “Car!”, and would jump into the car on order. When we got the Grand Caravan following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, I didn’t want them jumping that high with their short legs and long backs, so got a ramp (the Sidekick from Dogramp.Com), put it in place, and used the same command. Sunny hesitated at first, but Shadow never had a problem with it — he understood that the command was to get into the car. Whether he got there by jumping, or up a ramp, really wasn’t relevant. And at age 8, with the distance to jump suddenly doubled, he LIKED the ramp.

    I suspect I need to take Babette back to the beginning, and work with her, but since she’s always just followed Shadow and Sunny, I’m not sure how I break it down for her.

  3. Elizabeth says:

    Doranna, you are a very smart woman. Just sayin’. The use of familiar spaces to both introduce and reinforce training is so, so right.

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