Regardless of your dog’s speed or natural agility, all dogs deserve to be handled in a way that makes them confident on the agility course. This is the second of the 2-part article by OneMind Dogs Coach Jenni Leino. You can read the first part here.
Teaching the dog skills
Have you ever heard yourself say, “I can run with him because he's not faster than me”. When you have a slower dog it’s easy to think they don’t need much training, why would the dog need any specific skills?
I think the most important reason to teach the dog skills, is to build up their confidence. I have seen so many dogs light up when they are asked, (or you could say are allowed), to do something all by themselves! For example offering a behavior, such as a jump, requires that the dog really uses his brain and focuses on the task at hand. The dog's focus is switched from the handler to an obstacle, and it might be something that the dog finds as an interesting challenge.
Teaching the dog skills is especially important when the handler is not able to run fast. The dog needs to be able to perform obstacles independently so that the handler is able to move from one place to another on the shortest lines possible.
Handlers of slower dogs often handle their dogs by being ahead of the dog on the course. Try practicing Rear Crosses with your dog for a change, and see what happens. Sometimes letting the dog lead can actually speed him up. Let your dog shine by challenging him in new ways!
One of the things that can slow a dog down is a missing connection. Because the dogs are actively seeking connection with the handler, the dog is not able to read the course if the handler is just running ahead while disconnected from the dog. If you are running ahead of your dog, facing forward, the dog has two choices: to come on your right side or your left side. If the connection is not there, the dog actually has to slow down and wait for that critical information to know which side you want him to come to. Make sure that the connection is there, so the dog does not have to spend any extra time waiting for the directions he needs.
Finding the rhythm
The rhythm on the course can often be more difficult to find with a slower dog, compared to a fast dog. The handler of the slow dog needs to learn to find the places on the course where he can wait for the dog without slowing the dog down. When you run ahead of your dog, you might end up very close to an obstacle where you are planning to cue a turn. If you are too far ahead, you will need to slow down before the dog is committed to the obstacle.
I find it easiest to wait for a slower dog on tunnels, so that I can let the dog get ahead of me first and I will be able to run a bit longer before we reach the next obstacle. I also like letting slower dogs go to the contact obstacles and weaves being ahead of me, so I will be able to support them with my movement from behind, and I won't be in the end of the obstacle before my dog.
Am I really helping my dog?
Handlers of slower, less motivated dogs, often feel that they need to help their dogs a lot. This ‘helping’ usually consists of running with them to each obstacle, and even past the obstacles, trying to be ahead of the dog at all times.
I find that running on very long, wide lines is very unfair to the dog. You are actually cheating your dog all the time. First you are telling him that we are going to go straight forward after a jump, and then you suddenly change your mind, "Now I want us to go that way!"
Think about this from your own perspective: You are walking in a strange city with your friend, who assures you that he knows the shortest route to the hotel. You are really looking forward to getting there: dinner (your reward) will be served soon. Your friend starts walking straight, and when he has just passed a junction, he says that actually you should have turned left. He does this a few times. How do you feel? Do you still trust the information your friend is giving you? Are you still walking at a fast pace ahead? I don't think you are. You are probably slowing down, just in case he changes his mind and you'll need to turn around again.
Let your dog teach you
One of the dogs that I have learned the most from, is a dog that was not that easy to motivate and not that fast in agility. With her, I had to pay attention to different kind of details than with my faster dogs, and she taught me to see the moment of commitment on obstacles by looking at her eyes. When training with her, it was very important that I got it right on the first try, so I had to learn to make a very clear handling plan without taking my dog on the course.
Not all agility dogs are meant to be stars of high level competitions. Even if they don't end up winning competitions, agility with them can be a lot of fun. These dogs enjoy spending quality time with their owners, just like the faster dogs.