This blog post is part of Agility Nerd Steve’s Dog Agility Blog Action Day on the topic of Outside The Ring.
Your agility run starts the moment you take your dog out of their crate and ends when you put them back in. The entire time in between can affect your mood, your dogs attitude, your teamwork with your dog and in turn can affect your run.
Every dog is different, what you do with one of your dogs will differ from what you do with your other dog which will differ from what your friend does with their dog. Experiment and find a routine that works and then stick to it.
Some things to think about when you open the crate before you run:
Are you organized? Get all your treats, poop bag, toy, etc ready before you get your dog out.
Are you warmed up? Do your stretching and jogging in place without your dog sniffing around on the end of the leash.
How much time do you need with your dog before your run? I always measure this in terms of dogs in the run order. One of my dogs need to get out 10 dogs before their run and one of them only needs 5 dogs or so (give or take depending on JWW vs STD vs snooker). Sitting around and waiting is the kiss of death for some dogs, while other dogs need those moments to get connected and warmed up.
What do you do ringside? I teach my dogs a mat behavior on a chair and take the chair ringside while we wait for our run. This is a great way to keep your ADD dog focused on hanging out instead of scanning the environment. I know some people who let the gate steward know they qare going to be waiting for their run “over there” out of the excited atmosphere. There are many different ways to use your time before you enter the ring, get creative and find something that works. Watching runs with a dog sniffing at the end of their leash is not my idea of good ringside protocol.
If our agility “pre-game” procedure is important, the post-run procedure is even more important. Yet this is when I see the most disconnect between dogs and handlers. You just finished your best run ever, do you turn to look at the timer display? Or meet your dog at their leash for some joyful praise and play?
Some ideas to improve your relationship with your dog after your run:
Go straight to your reward and reinforcement. DO NOT check your scribe sheet, or ask about a missed contact, or question someone about why your dog did so and so. Reward your dog! Celebrate that time together! Congratulate you and your dog on acheving something positive (every run has something). Those handlers who are mad that their dog “fill in the blank”, and do not reward, withhold praise and walk their dog back to their crate are only undermining relationship. The mistake happened so long ago (you probably kept going after the mistake, the dog finished the course and has no idea something went wrong) that withholding reinforcement only leads to confusion on the dogs part. Reinforce your dog for finishing the run with you, going to their leash, leaving the ring happy, doing their cool down, being your dog, etc.
Is cool down important? Cool down and stretching are important for me after I work out, it isn’t any different for our canine partners. Again, every dog is different and may take longer to stop breathing hard, or need specific stretching activities. Go for a long slow walk, have a sniff in the bushes, do some passive or active stretches or another activity that allows you and your dog to come down off of the excitement together.
When your dog is cooled off, put them back in their crate with something to chew. This will give them time to relax and recharge for the next run. Most dogs do well in their crates and are able to get more rest than wandering around with you shopping, talking or watching ringside.
Be creative and make your crate to crate experience custom tailored to you and your dogs needs. Some handlers run 2 dogs close together in the same jump height; you might need a good buddy and an even more creative plan! All of us and our dogs have different needs, just make sure your crate to crate protocol puts your dogs needs first and includes rewards and attention to maximize the relationship and teamwork between you and your dog.