I mentioned Lee Gibson's new DVD last week, and it was while we were working with Lee that Buddy did one of the funniest things he's ever done. We were completely new to agility, and so we started where Julie Andrews recommended starting - at the very beginning. Lee believes in getting the basics right; of teaching your dog the commands for each piece of equipment, teaching a right and left command, teaching a pause on the contact points, and a priority is learning to trust your dog, and giving him the space to let him get it right.
It's an approach that pays dividends. You simply can't outpace your dog, so you need commands to tell your dog which way to go and which piece to use, for example, "left jump" or "right weave". If you instill in your dog from day one that they have to get the contact points right, you won't be forced to race to the end of the piece to remind them of this. In the photo you can see us right at the start of out contact training. Buddy had been placed on the contact point in the correct position, two on two off (front paws on the floor, back feet on the contact point) and we were teaching to wait to be released onto the next obstacle.
We spent many happy - and strenuous - hours with Lee over the weeks, and though Buddy enjoyed it, he's never going to be a serious competitor, but I think I knew that from the start. The thing is it's fun. It's something I always fancied having a go at, and it was something healthy we could share - so why not? He had a funny attitude to agility though. He made it look like such hard work going over the jumps, that we lowered them to the middle position. He is a sturdy Lab after all, not a streamlined Border Collie. But after completing a row of jumps in this lowered position as if it was taking all the energy he could muster, he would run off and cleared with ease a jump in the high position and run up to us all enthusiasm.
I suppose he was like a kid in a playground. If you took your child to the park and instructed them to swing for thirty seconds, do ten complete revolutions on the round-about, come down the slide twice, and so on, it might cramp their style a little. Buddy loved the look of the agility equipment, and I have to say nothing threw him as we introduced it to him. He leapt fearlessly through the tyre, he scaled the high dogwalk with no hesitation, and he hurtled through the tunnels, even the flat ones. But what he really wanted was to just be left alone to explore in his own time on his own schedule. He did what we asked him - albeit sometimes eventually! - but at the end of most runs, he veered away and added one more piece on, just for the heck of it.
Which was fine until one day it backfired on him. We were building up to some quite long runs, and it was hard mental work for both of us. I found agility handling to be very much like working a puzzle out - where do I stand, which arm do I use, do I lean back or forwards, at what point do I move, can I swap sides and so on. There are so many variables, and I never expected that it would be as much an intellectual workout as a physical one, but it is. So we had practised for a while, and Bud was probably feeling a bit fed up, so he trotted off to explore a new piece. By this time in out training he had been on most of the equipment, but never the teeter-totter, or see-saw. All the equipment he had encountered that had a white contact point then a green main piece had stayed still beneath his feet and supported him as he had expected.
He had no concept of a see-saw. And that was probably why he chose to run at it full tilt. Before Lee or I could even try to command him not to he had reached the piece at top speed. All was well to begin with as his weight kept the side he was on down. However once he passed the fulcrum, his rapidly advancing weight began to tip the see-saw down away from him. He was going way too fast to do anything about it though, and so he hurtled on. The see-saw tipped down, and Buddy carried on into thin air.
I promise you that for one glorious second he hung in the air, legs flailing cartoon style, with a very surprised look on his face. Of course he quickly realised he was in thin air, gravity reasserted itself, and he cam to earth, luckily not with too much of a bang. He came to a stop, and shook himself, then he stood mouth open tongue out in a cheeky grin, as if to say, "I meant to that you know." Lee and I doubled over laughing, and I only wish I had captured it on video to preserve the moment forever. We recovered ourselves and carried on with the session, and funnily enough, Buddy went nowhere near that see-saw ever again.
I'm so grateful to Lee for his patience with us, the insights he gave me into communicating with my dog, and of course the benefit of his agility experience. And also for the near death experience of me trying to handle his brilliantly trained, superfit, ultra-fast dog over an agility course. It didn't kill me so it must have made me stronger! I can recommend Lee's methods, and of course his success competing, judging and lecturing internationally are recommendation enough in themselves. If you've always thought "one day" you might try agility, what's stopping you? Find a local trainer or club and give it a go. You'll learn a lot, you'll develop your relationship with your dog, you'll make new friends - and you might have one of the best laughs of your life.