I can guess, with uncanny accuracy, what a team’s performance will look like in agility. This has nothing to do with the breed, or the experiences I have had with the handler. I can do it in a state I have never visited. I can do it in another country. I have. How do I know? Because the stuff that happens outside the ring, the behaviors that fill the gap from crate to gate, are where the real trophies are won.
From crate to gate really starts with your dog’s crate time at the trial. If your dog won’t eat or drink, won’t enjoy a chew they normally devour, or–worst of all–does not sleep, this is a serious concern and should be treated as such. Doing the legwork to find what works best for your dog’s downtime will pay off in ways you can’t imagine. If your dog is only ever crated at trials and barks all day long from his crate between runs it should come as no surprise that your ring performances look nothing like class or the backyard. Happy crating is so important to me and to my clients that I have two hours of content all about only this, which you can find here if you are so inclined.
I expect pushback on this one. I expect a mountain of “yeah, but…”s. I expect to be told about so-and-so’s dogs who drag them everywhere and still wind up on the podium. The fact remains: loose leash walking will change your dog sport life in such ways you can’t imagine until you commit to training it. Think of it as walking in connection from the crate to the gate. Think of it not as obedience but as enjoying each step, together. Think of it as starting as a team all the way back at your car. Think of it a vital skill as important as any other skill you commit hours to training. I promise you will not regret it.
Waiting is a Human Concept
So the dog is relaxed in the crate and walking with you on a loose leash to the ring area. Now what? What you do with that time matters. How you occupy your dog’s mind and body while you wait your turn weighs heavily on your success (or lack thereof). The options range from stuffing the dog with food to letting the dog watch agility, and include everything in between. Not each of these options is a good idea. Dogs do not understand the concept of waiting; they have no idea they must enter the ring in a specific order and they are anticipating the ring entrance with no concept of when it will happen. Training a reliable “placeholder” behavior for this time is not only going to help you on course, it is a kindness you can afford your teammate who can’t understand why they are being made to hang out ringside. Placeholder behaviors include down stays, stationing, and even clever mind games. What will work for you depends on you both, but none of them work if they are not adequately trained ahead of time.
Of course a dog that rests in the crate, walks nicely to the ring and waits her turn patiently still needs to know how to enter the ring and set up, and as this is a highly charged moment for handlers (and many dogs) I suggest training it down to the very last detail. Entering on that loose leash, removing it early, and setting up in such a ritualized manner that your dog has no questions about what is expected will go a long way toward your success on that course. Everyone knows to teach a start line stay or starting position, but few people put the time into training leash off or motion-toward-setup rituals. This stuff matters, and it is an easy place to put some time and save yourself (and your dog) the frustration of a confusing entry routine.
Before You Fill Out That Form…
Of course, if your dog has not been exercised, enriched, and fed well every regular day of her life the best training in the world will not support you as it could on trial days. Get to the trial with plenty of time for these things if you are traveling and do not see them as pieces you can cut out of the schedule. Wellness first, always.
For more information hacks, and training tips to improve your crate to gate game, please join me February 21st at 6pm Pacific for the webinar, Success from Crate to Gate. Register HERE.