Dana Pike Agility Foundation Seminar

02 Jul 2006Steve Schwarz

I took Meeker to Dana Pike’s Novice Agility Seminar this past Sunday at Nancy Reyes’ For Your Canine facility in Schiller Park, IL. I’ve been holding off doing any significant agility specific training with Meeker until I attended this seminar. I have great respect for Dana as a trainer and wanted to see her approach to starting a dog.

It has been five years since Milo started in agility and I know more things I wanted to consider before starting Meeker. In some ways “ignorance is bliss”, when I started Milo I knew a little more than when we started Mr. Peabody but didn’t have too many training approaches to consider. Now that I’ve been exposed to more approaches it doesn’t necessarily make it any easier to choose how to proceed.

In her seminar Dana provided hands on exercises along with informal lecture periods and demonstrations. Not all puppies or young dogs attending the seminar (including Meeker) were ready to try all the exercises. Dana advocates handlers start training their dogs basic obedience skills.

One thing that became clear in Dana’s presentation was that she has a consistent approach to training and has refined a minimal set of commands/behaviors in her “system”. She was very open to discussing other approaches and helping us weigh the pros and cons of various techniques.

Handling Skills

Dana starts dogs and puppies working with their handlers on the flat.

Dana brought up a skill I’d heard from Jen Pinder and read in Linda Mecklenburg’s articles; being able to have your dog move at your side (and not forge ahead or lag behind) while you both move around the equipment. This is not obedience “heeling” but the dog moving at either side and attentive to your body language for moving forward and to/away from your side.

You’ll need to be able to do this in order to work on Shoulder Pushes and Shoulder Pulls (as used in Post Turns Post Turn/Shoulder Pull/Pivot TurnLearning the Post Turn). Dana pointed out you can start working on this skill immediately and you don’t need any equipment. A related aspect of this skill is the dog shouldn’t take any obstacles unless you direct them to. So you should be able to walk, trot, and run with your dog at either side all around the obstacles on an agility field with your dog staying with you. If you are just starting your dog at agility it is a great time to start this training since your dog isn’t likely to interact with the equipment without your prompting. This is an important foundation skill that shouldn’t be overlooked.

From moving together on the flat the next skills include “Walking the Line”, a drill for teaching the Rear Cross Rear CrossLearning the Rear Cross. In this drill the dog and handler move along in a straight line and perform a side change and 180 change in direction at the end of the line. This drill allows working the Rear Cross in both directions without the need for any equipment. I’ve always worked on Rear Crosses on the flat by walking in a zig-zag fashion but Dana’s method works just as well. I’ve been meaning to post a Rear Cross “how to” since I started this site, I’ll get around to it soon (I promise:^).

Dana didn’t have us work the Front Cross on the flat on its own but that is possible too (

here is my how to article). In my mind Front Crossing on the flat is just an extension of moving with your dog, since your dog won't forge ahead :^) you can just keep Front Crossing back and forth as you move along.

The next skill set Dana presented was using a single jump without the jump bar to teach a “Go” command. In her system “Go” always means perform the obstacle you are facing. She then uses her body language to cue the dog on whether or not to collect or extend for jumps. Dana starts sending the dog to the jump with the dog on the left toward the right standard and the handler not passing the jump standard (unless the dog initially needs the help). Click then treat when the dog comes back to the handler’s right side and is positioned facing toward the jump again. This “finish” position also helps reinforce the “work at my side” philosophy. It also happens to be a side change or Front Cross. You can then send the dog through the jump uprights and wrapping the left pole and finishing on the handler’s left.

Then it is time to start adding in all the variations. Work all angles of the dog facing the jump “around the clock”. Vary the distance from the jump. Send your dog laterally from you to the jump. Perform a Post Turn as your dog goes over the jump (don’t let your dog cut behind you to the wrong side!). So now you’ve worked “Go” from the take off side, on both sides of the handler, from all angles, and all distances.

Another “Go” variation is with the handler continuing forward motion as the dog takes the jump. This reinforces the “move with me” skill you’ve been working on on the flat in the context of an obstacle.

The last “Go” variation is to use “Go” with the handler standing on the landing side. This is still a “Go” since the dog is taking the obstacle it is facing. Put the dog in a stay on the take off side and face the dog from the landing side and cue “Go” rewarding the dog at an outstretched hand. This also starts you working on

Lateral Lead Outs. Start varying the dog's angle (around the clock), then with the dog in the straight on position vary the handler's angle, and finally both the dog and handler's angle.

So now you can work the three main handling maneuvers on the flat and with a jump. What is a plus is you can work these exercises with very young dogs who shouldn’t be jumping yet because you aren’t doing any jumping. Of course now you can also work on all the

One Jump Drills without a jump bar.

Dana also uses the bar-less jump to teach an “Out” command which means take the jump from the back side (some call this an Around). Again all the variations above need to be worked.

The last verbal command Dana uses is the dog’s name as a “check-in with me” command. This is an easy one to teach.

If you’ve trained your dog to this skill level you actually have enough (non obstacle) skills to run any course. This is really the minimal set of commands you need to get your dog around a course. You’ve got a dog that can move at your side at any speed, only performs the cued obstacles, “Go”s to any obstacle you’ve taught it, goes “Out” around any jump and understands Post Turns, Front Crosses and Rear Crosses. IMO any other handling commands are for “special purposes”. Do you really need an Over-Come, directionals, step, or switch commands? Do you need a Blind Cross? Ultimately that is for each trainer to decided. But I’ve seen Dana run her advanced training courses with her youngest dog “Tangle” using only these handling skills (and at speeds that make our “advanced” teams look like we are retired) and it is all that she needs…

Obstacle Training

Well this post is getting pretty long winded and Dana had a lot more information and hands on drills for training contacts, weaves, and the table in her seminar. With her permission I’ll devote future articles to her approach (or at least my application/interpretation of her approach) as I teach Meeker the agility game.

Conclusion

So as you can probably tell I greatly enjoyed this seminar and think that Dana’s approach makes good sense, has a good progression, is self consistent and she is an excellent instructor. It was particularly instructive to spend a day with a trainer and see how their training progression works and listen to their reasoning. It would be wonderful if we could all get this kind of exposure with a trainer before embarking on training a new dog.

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