DOG AGILITY is about teamwork and effective communication between you and your dog.

Since dogs don’t speak English and you don’t speak Dog…

WHAT'S THE SECRET? Great agility foundation training!

PROPER FOUNDATION TRAINING will ensure that your dog will not have gaps in his understanding. This will translate into more consistent success in negotiating an agility sequence.


December 2, 2009


I recently competed at the USDAA Nationals in Scottsdale Arizona and was thrilled to be able to watch the Steeplechase Finals and the Grand Prix Finals. What an amazing opportunity it was to be able to watch agility greats strut their stuff and put everything on the line. I saw incredible runs and I saw crash and burn extravaganzas. I learned that success in agility at the top level has three components. The first two were obvious to me:

1. What the dog brings to the table -- inherent drive, structure, and biddability.
2. The quality of the training and the skill of the handler.

But a third component seemed to be as important:

3. The handler's mental game. I always knew that mental management was important but I didn't realize it deserved equal billing with the othe two components. You can have the best dog in the world and be an amazing dog trainer but if you fall apart under pressure, your chances of doing well at national and international events are slim. Can you manage stress and stay focussed and think on your feet despite the pressure. Of course all the mental management in the world isn't going to help you if your dog training is lacking.

During the USDAA finals, all eyes were on these world class competitors and these handlers weren't going for clean runs -- they were going for 1st place. All or nothing. I watched some absolutely incredible runs. But I was also surprised by the number of well known agility handlers who seemed to crack under the pressure. I'd be willing to bet money that these courses would have been easy for them under normal trial circumstances. Okay maybe this isn't a revelation to most people, but I guess I expected world class competitors to have a better handle on the whole mental management thing. Maybe it has to do with the fact that agility is still in its infancy as a sport. I know that I will be paying more attention to my mental game from now on!

August 31, 2009


My older Border Terrier, Django, passed away in her sleep on August 24th at 10 years of age. Django was my first Border Terrier, my first agility dog, and the first dog I owned when I was an adult. She was supposed to be my son's dog, but we know how that usually goes.

Django was a great 1st agility dog.  She learned things very quickly.  She was patient as I learned all the basic handling moves.  Despite being stressy, Django never was scared of any of the equipment and she had dynamite weaves.  She even became a pretty decent gamble dog despite always having to turn around and bark at me after doing the first obstacle before she’d continue on with the rest of the gamble.  In fact I remember a particularly hard Master gamble where only five dogs Qd (BCs) and Django got it too.  I was just so proud of her.  Django had some quirks.  She always told me off on the table and one judge in the US came up to me and said Django’s table performance made her laugh because suddenly she’d turn into the Tasmanian Devil.

Django’s best agility years were when she was between 3 to 5 years old.  After barely qualifying at her first AAC Regionals in 2003, she went on to be the 2003 6-inch Special AAC National Agility Champion in Prince George, BC.  That was completely unexpected and it was quite a thrill.  Her death at 10 years of age was not completely unexpected.  Django started a slow decline in health when she turned 6.  My vet thought I was imagining things because at first the signs were subtle and blood tests came up normal.  But I knew my dog and I knew something was wrong.  Although I usually enjoy being right, I wish that this time I had been wrong.  She had been doing poorly in the past couple of years but we were never able to determine what the cause was even after every test imaginable.  I retired her from agility in early 2007 when it was clear it was no longer fun for her.  But she still enjoyed running a few tunnels at the barn every once in a while and would bark up a storm.

I took both Django and Dizzy to the beach the day before she died.  The beach was by far her favorite place to romp.  She loved to steal Dizzy’s toy and play keep away.  Recall — what recall?  She was a senior and clearly felt rules no longer applied to her.  She was like an old lady who had won the right to cross the street very slowly while holding up traffic. She had gone downhill in her last week and I knew the end was near but at the beach I didn’t know it was just hours away.  She died in her sleep that night.  Almost exactly 10 years to the day that I got her from her breeder.  We had some good years together. Django may not have been the fastest agility dog but she’ll always be my first agility dog.

Django R.I.P. June 21, 1999 – August 24, 2009

Sylvie Fefer &
Terraholm Django SATChC, Bronze Award of Merit, 2003 AAC National Agility Champion, Master Couch Potato & EXCELLENT Snuggler

Django and Owen playing at the beach on August 1, 2009


July 16, 2009


One of the things I love about dog agility is that the learning never ends.  I’m constantly honing my skills both as an agility handler and as a dog trainer.  My dogs and my students’ dogs are my guides and their progress lets me know if I’m on the right track.  Dogs are pretty honest, don’t have hidden agendas to thwart your training efforts, and most are very interested in getting rewarded for a job well done.  If they aren’t doing what you want, then the communication between the both of you has broken down.  They are either jumping to the wrong conclusion about what is expected during an agility sequence, or shutting down and displaying avoidance behaviours because they are confused or stressed.
Sometimes, in a training session, the learning on the dog’s part is pretty quick – there are a few repetitions where the dog gets it wrong and then through the proper timing and placement of reinforcement, the dog starts getting closer to offering the behaviour you are looking for.  Pretty soon, he really starts getting it right and continues to get it right.  But every once in a while, when trying to train your dog to do something new, the dog just doesn’t seem to get it at all.  Repetition after repetition is unsuccessful.  Most trainers will either make the exercise easier on the dog or help the dog in some way.  A common idea is to never let the dog get it wrong more than two times in a row.  Not everybody agrees with this.  I recently attended a Susan Garrett seminar (amazing dog trainer and accomplished agility competitor) and she advocates letting the dog figure it out and think it through until they get it right, no matter how many reps it takes to get to that point.  She admits that this is easier if the dog has learned to think for himself and offer behaviours through “shaping exercises”  (a topic that is covered in my DAFT classes). Most people (myself included) have a hard time with the idea of letting our dogs repeat a mistake over and over again.  We don’t want to frustrate our dogs so we quickly jump in and dumb the exercise down. 

This week I thought I’d give Susan Garrett’s approach a try.  I set up 3 distance exercises that I knew Dizzy would have a very hard time with, but that were building on skills he already has. We did what seemed like a billion reps of him getting it wrong, him knowing that he got it wrong and him yipping and yapping at me saying: “what the %&$# do you want woman, cause I just don’t get it!”  Within those billion reps (okay it was more like 20) he got it right a couple of times and I rewarded him handsomely.  But these exercises were hard for him and those couple of successes didn’t seem to help him be more consistent.  I wasn’t sure if this new training concept was working for us and after ten minutes of training I decided to end the training session without having accomplished my goals.  The next day I set up the exact same sequences.  I was amazed when Dizzy did each one perfectly.  I thought it was a fluke, so we did it a few more times and Dizzy got it right each time.  Hmm.  So I upped the challenge: I patterned him to go to a different obstacle in the sequence and then asked him to do the original challenge.  Successful again.  And again and again.  Wow!  It just goes to show that learning goes on even when we don’t perceive that it is happening!   I think the key is that I didn’t let too much time go by between the first session and the second session.  I’m not sure if I would have had the same success if I had let more than a couple of days go by in-between sessions.   Maybe I’ll try this with another really hard exercise and figure out what the optimum time between sessions should be for sustained learning to occur for my dog.  YMMV ;-)  


July 9, 2009


Recently, when walking a course at a trial, I made a handling decision that I knew broke the “rules” of the handling system I try and follow (Greg Derrett).   This particular Jumpers run was the last run on a weekend where we had had a low Q-rate, so I had it in my mind that I really wanted us to Q.  I needed a morale boost.  I thought I had a better chance of getting this damn Q if I made a certain choice that was inconsistent with my usual handling because it would put me in a better position for the next sequence within the course. I thought I could mitigate the collateral damage.  My dog however, had a different idea.  Expecting the usual consistency in my handling, Dizzy misinterpreted what I was trying to do as we were running the course, and I practically tripped over him.  Not one of my finer handling moments.  Yes we recovered and we did Q.  But it was a dirty Q and I vowed that I would NEVER do that again. It’s just not worth it.  Why bother working so hard on being consistent during our training sessions if I’m going to throw it all away during the rush of competition? It’s not fair to my dog.  And it’s not the kind of agility handler I want to be.


July 5, 2009


Although Dizzy had a great “table” execution for years, in the past year we’ve been having some table issues at trials. Every once in a while he’ll sniff under the table instead of getting on it (refusal!) or he’ll get on but be very reluctant to lie down or even refuse to lie down on it. The table is one of those obstacles that most people (myself included) never spend a lot of time training. After all, how hard is it — the dog usually already knows how to lie down on command and all we need to do is get them to do that on top of a table. So the table is one of those obstacles that often gets short shrift in the training department. And yet it is not uncommon to see dogs with table issues in competition. So I decided to build more value for the table and put one in our living room. We tugged on it, played games on it and every meal time he’d have to race to the table and lie down before he would get fed on it. Then a few days ago my husband had band practice in the living room so he moved the table from the centre of the room to the corner of the room. The next time I went to feed Dizzy I gave him my table command and he rushed into the living room and laid down on the carpet in the spot where the table HAD been. Oops. Clearly I neglected to change the placement of the table enough (well, okay, at all) and in Dizzy’s mind the command was linked to the spot in the room and not the table itself. We’re fixing that now ;-)