Downeast Dog News

Training Your Performance Dog

Agility, Obedience, Tracking
By Carolyn Fuhrer | Sep 01, 2018

Agility – The Importance of Foundation Skills

Many people will watch agility on TV or at a local trial and make the comment, “my dog could do that”. This is probably true – most dogs like to run and jump and climb over things and dive through obstacles. It’s fun and play to them. Agility is a fun, exciting activity, but it is also a physically and mentally demanding sport.

If you want to do agility, make sure you teach your dog the proper fundamentals and gradually build its physical and mental stamina for performance.

A lot of people bring out of control dogs to agility hoping they may “burn off some steam.” Dogs that are out of control in agility can get scared by loud noises or falling off an obstacle or can get hurt by not negotiating an obstacle or jump properly. Proper foundation work and handling skills will greatly reduce the chances of your dog getting scared or hurt or shutting down because it is overwhelmed with the task.

Introduction to equipment and progression on equipment needs to be individualized to each dog and handler team. Some will progress more rapidly than others, but all can find fun and good times in agility.

Some dogs are not natural jumpers and need help in jumping skills. They also need a handler who, by proper directional cues, will help it land safely and increase the dog’s confidence

because it knows where it is going next. Proper matting and footing are important for agility dogs to avoid injuries from slipping and long-term shock absorbing injuries to joints.

As with any sport, warm up stretches and cool down time is important to your dog athlete.

As with any training, skills should be taught in a logical progression both physically and mentally. Some dogs start out really well in agility but slow down or seem to become disinterested because the handler puts too much pressure on them by increasing course difficulty or length too soon.

It is always better to spend your cookies (rewards) on the course for work well done than to pay them all at the end. Paying for work well done and marking the behaviors you want to encourage will help the dog learn and build confidence. Variably reinforce a good start, a good contact, a response to a turn cue or a send. This builds your dog’s agility vocabulary and its confidence and allows you to chain together sequences which will become a course.

Agility run through are beneficial, but only if they have a goal in mind. Just running a course with your dog will not improve your agility skills as a team. Run throughs should have a purpose, so you can work on building skills and communication with your dog. Learning how to practice is as important as the practice itself.

A good handler will learn when to mark a desired behavior, when to stretch and ask for more, and when to release and celebrate. A little thought and planning before a practice run will make the run so much more worthwhile!


Carolyn Fuhrer has earned over 100 AKC titles with her Golden Retrievers, including 2 Champion Tracker titles. Carolyn has over 20 years’ experience helping people and their dogs..

You can contact her with questions, suggestions, and ideas for her column by e-mailing