About the Authors: Jim Norris has owned one or more dogs for 45 out of the last 50 years. He bought his first pure bred dog, a Sheltie, in 1955 and until 1970 was quite active in Shelties, being one of the founders of the first Sheltie specialty club in Texas. Jim met his wife, Carole, as a direct result of their mutual interest in dogs. After rescuing a GSD male and keeping him until he died, the Norrises bought their first GSD in 1982. While Neewa was only the product of back yard breeders, they were sufficiently impressed to make GSDs their breed of choice. Neewa died of metastatic breast cancer in 1991, and after a 5-year hiatus, the Norrises purchased Keena, their GSD from German working lines, in 1996. She is a high drive dog; thus she needs and deserves training in some activity. The Norrises believe that she will be very successful in whatever working activity they choose. Following is their report about discovering the joys and challenges of training Keena for the sport of agility.
For a very long time, we have had nothing but couch potato dogs. When we started looking for another GSD, we decided to change our ways and get into some kind of competition. We have long felt that we wanted a dog from exclusively German lines, and we found just the dog for us in Qena v Germelhaus (aka Keena).
At first, we were interested in Schutzhund, but it soon became clear that that sport is not for us because we both lack the physical ability to perform either the training or the exhibiting. We also rejected AKC obedience for the same reason.
The relatively new sport of Agility seemed just what we wanted. The actual time spent in the ring is quite short, and the training regimen seemed less taxing than either of the other two. In addition, if breeding means anything, Keena should do well at this sport.
Some friends mentioned the Good Dog Agility School, and, when we went to the training classes, we liked what we saw. The owners (Chuck and Claudia Iannici and Richard and Cathy Yantis) employ only positive training methods, and that suits us quite well. There are obedience clubs in our area that aren’t so nice.
It is advisable, so we are told, to send your dog through some basic obedience training first. We did that, with the same trainers, in the fall of 1996. Keena was only 9 months old when we started the training. Many GSDs of that age are more interested in play than anything else, and she was no exception. However, she did learn to heel, sit, and stay (sometimes). After the classes were over, we continued to work on those skills at home.
And so, in the fullness of time, we began Agility training in April of 1997. The Good Dog Agility School divides the students into Beginner, Intermediate 1, Intermediate 2, and Advanced classes.
We of course belong in the Beginner class, and it contained 18 dogs. For convenience, they divided the class into two sections. The first section held the large dogs, and the second section contained everyone else. Keena fit quite well into the large dog group. We had a Malamute, two Bouviers, two GSDs, a Golden, a Belgian Shepherd, and a mixed breed in our division. One of the Bouviers is an International Champion. The other GSD and the Belgian have obedience degrees. The Golden is a Flyball Champion.
We tried to get to the training site at least 30 minutes before the start. Keena is very excited to see other dogs (wants to play with them), and we found that getting there early helped calm her excitement. Our class started at 7:00PM; even in the spring, the temperatures can be quite oppressive at that time of the day. For that reason both of us trained Keena.
At our first meeting, the trainers laid down the rules of the sessions. Firstly, they believe in positive training. Secondly, they do not tolerate bad behavior by either dog or handler. Thirdly, the primary consideration must always be the safety of the dog. By following such a principle during training, the handler will not hesitate to prevent injury during a trial.
The objective of the Beginner Class is to teach the handler how to train the dog. In particular, training the dog to go through the devices that are likely to be found in the Novice Agility parts of an AKC trial. These devices include hurdles, tunnels, collapsed tunnel, A-frame, dog walk, table, the tire, and teeter-totter. In addition the trainers added some devices that might be seen in a UKC meet. These devices include the open tunnel, the window jump, and the suspension bridge. In additon, in the off chance that one could get the Novice Agility degree between classes, the trainers introduced the weave poles.
We started with learning how to teach the dogs to go over low obstacles. That insured that the dog would not be harmed if they fell (or jumped) off the dog walk or off the teeter. The trainers introduced only one or two new devices at each session. As time went on, they raised the height of the dog walk and teeter-totter such that we eventually reached full height for both of these devices.
We did not practice the weave poles enough for Keena to be comfortable with that equipment. This exercise is not natural to dogs.
We are careful to keep her from going too fast through any of the exercises (especially the dog walk and teeter). The motto at Good Dog Agility School is that accuracy comes before speed. We still do not set the hurdles at the regulation height (24 inches for a GSD) because she is still just a puppy. Most of us have the (perhaps unscientific) opinion that we should wait until a GSD is at least 2 years old before going to the regulation height.
We had no trouble teaching Keena to go over the dog walk, up the A-frame (except that she wanted to go up it Schutzhund style), and over the hurdles. She was less enthralled with the tunnel, the collapsed tunnel (really did not want to go through this thing), and the tire. However, at the end of the classes, Keena would negotiate all of the obstacles without much trouble.
And so, how did the classes go? At the last session, we went through a practice trial. Keena finished first with a clean round. We were surprised by this result; frankly, other dogs (the other GSD and the Golden in particular) seemed to have an advantage when we started.
Where do we go from here? Our next class starts in August; we will go up to an Intermediate 1 grade. One definite advantage is that these classes start at 8:30PM. Perhaps the temperatures at that time of the day will be more tolerable.
We are quite happy with our progress. It is amazing how much we all have learned in this short time frame. We read somewhere that GSDs can learn a new command in at most 5 repetitions. Keena was quite consistent by learning a new command at the second repetition. Our trainers said that we need to work on control because she wants to go toward whichever one of us is not in the ring.