Before agility competitions there were confidence courses. These courses were outfitted with many of the jumps, catwalks and climbing steps that are familiar today at various dog events. In the day as well as now, training on these courses was mandatory for most police and military canine teams. This kind of instruction prepares working dogs for their potential duties by assisting them in the development of agility and by building their confidence.
The self-assurance and dexterity this kind of training cultivates is good for dogs in all walks of life, even the relaxed family pet. The key to turning this type of training into a positive experience is the effective use of the leash and collar. Effective in this scenario means utilizing the leash as a guiding, restraining and encouraging tool. When a handler insists on a slow, controlled approach (by smart use of the leash) to obstacle conditioning, his dog is afforded a calm and secure opportunity to learn how to manage an otherwise unnerving challenge.
Over the years, I’ve found that many handlers are reluctant to use their leash when working their dogs on obstacles for fear it will sour their companion on the whole experience. In truth, just the opposite can be true. If a dog is allowed to balk too long when encouraged to climb or jump for example, the dog’s building anxiety will turn the management of an impediment into an unnaturally frightening event. The flip side of this coin is allowing a dog to crash and sloppily race through or over an encumbrance. Not only is this approach to obstacles potentially injurious to both dog and handler, it can also foster unpleasantness in association with the experience. It’s truly a handler obligation to regulate the approach and the pace in this kind of training by using the leash to slow and steer his companion through or over a selected obstacle; as with human skills, speed accompanies proficiency.
Of course the indispensable dog training tools of verbal encouragement and calming touch are as beneficial in this kind of instruction as they are in all aspects of canine training. So I feel, establishing a pace early on that allows for soothing and praise is paramount to successful obstacle training. It’s also a good idea to begin obstacle instruction with a very manageable challenge. My choices are wide stairways (not terribly steep) and low solid (no space underneath) jumps. With these impediments handlers can easily work side by side with their dog, controlling all aspects of the exercise while offering encouragement along the way. Remember to make the training as fun as possible so that your dog will gradually develop a sense of excitement over the prospects of climbing, crawling or jumping, rather than a sense of dread. Do some good!