Education in agility has come a long way, even in the last few years. Handling methods are becoming more refined, training across the globe is becoming more consistent, and there are avenues for learning that will work for just about anyone. The main problem being, of course, figuring out which one is going to be a good fit.
Now, like most of handlers out there I have a regular coach that I see most every week. I was going with both dogs but have recently cut down to just taking Raafael, as he’s the dog still in development and frankly I am just too poor to keep both dogs in class full time. That doesn’t mean I have stopped looking at other sources.
In fact, I will never stop looking for opportunities to take new classes with different trainers, and anyone who says they don’t need it is either cheating themselves out of some potentially awesome experiences, or worse, convinced themselves that listening to new trainers is going to somehow ruin their entire handling system. These days that last point is becoming more and more untrue. As I discussed in my review of the Jenny Damm seminar that I audited last September, modern handling is becoming very similar across the board, and while you should never change your handling system willy-nilly, a new trainer can give you a fresh perspective that can make a huge difference.
There are some who will only want in person training, some who love (and can only get) online training, some who favour seminars, and some who think you should only take seminars from a trainer you’re already taking online classes with. Let’s breakdown the options and see what the pros and cons are. I’ll throw in what my actual experiences have been along the way, though yours maybe very different.
In Person Training
This is the obvious starting place for most people, and in general that’s a good thing. When you’re first starting out you have no idea what you’re doing, where you’re going, and likely have the worst timing in the world. Even though I came from the horse world and had experience training animals I still screwed up all the time, and having a trainer right there (thank you Adina!) to keep me from forming too many bad habits from the get-go was (and still is!) invaluable. I am fortunate to have an experienced and fun trainer teaching literally a 20 minute walk from my home, and not only that but a trainer who is very dedicated to constantly upgrading her own skills. As an added bonus my trainer is well versed in dealing with a variety of behavioural issues from resource guarding to reactivity, and ensures that all our training is designed to fit the handler and dog, instead the other way around.
I am especially lucky that I have this particular trainer nearby and that I have never once found that I was “outgrowing” her training, but I will say I have often felt like I have outgrown the facility where we take our classes. The footing is hard and a bit too slippery so jumps have to be kept low (a problem when you’re trying to get your timing down for 26″ fences!) and the space itself is a bit small, which limits what we can set up. Unfortunately Halifax doesn’t offer a lot of alternatives unless you build your own place, so I am stuck making due. I’m fairly positive my trainer feels the same way and hopefully she will find (or build) a better place to grow in. For now I mostly go to class to get her feed back, and then do my best to transfer it when I’m training on my own on better footing in larger areas.
The hardest thing about in person training, especially if you’re new to agility, is making sure you’ve picked the right trainer for you. In my case I really only had one option, largely due to my lack of transportation, and just got lucky (though I had worked with another trainer locally for basic obedience that I didn’t even finish the first session with, which is a whole other story). You may find that there is only one trainer in your area that does agility at all, and they might not be great at it. Like all dog training there is no regulatory body to keep the bad or inexperienced trainers from setting up shop, so it’s up to you to do your homework.
Watch a few classes, and, if you have the chance, go to a trail and watch how the trainer interacts with their students and their own dogs. Don’t be afraid to ask for references, and don’t feel that you have to take whatever is available, because as I’ll discuss below there are other options. Ask what level your trainer has competed to. They don’t need to have been on a world team, but if they haven’t made it out of the starters or novice division, get out of Dodge. Running agility is not the same as competing in obedience or rally, and unlike the later there is real potential to physically harm your dog if you don’t know what your doing. If you walk into class and they’re having you lure your dog over a teeter with the leash still attached on the first day, RUN AWAY. In fact, I don’t think we used any equipment until the very last class of my level one agility, and really that might have been too soon. Your trainer should understand that agility is not a sport of instant gratification. If they’re throwing your dog over an a-frame on the first day than they’re likely just concerned with keeping you entertained enough to keep you paying, instead of properly developing you and your dog as a team.
Your dog is your best friend, and doesn’t deserve that treatment. Neither do you. It can be intimidating in the face of authority but you must be an advocate for your dog. It might take some trial and error, but finding a good trainer that fits your personality will be more than worth it over the long haul.
Long story short: your regular trainer is someone you’re probably going to spend years with. Make sure you feel confident and comfortable with them. Make sure you love spending time with them. If that’s not the case, find another way to learn.
There are soooooo many online classes now. It’s actually to the point where there are so many options that it’s kind of paralyzing. You can, as a complete novice with a brand new dog, train with the very best agility handlers on the planet right from the start. I’ve only managed to take one online class with Silvia Trkman and the only thing I’m sad about is that a) I didn’t have access to proper training space for the entire class so I couldn’t really take full advantage of it and b) I was too broke to retake it this year. Yes, I would do it again, even with all the other options out there.
There are a variety of price ranges for classes, and the level of the competitor teaching it seems to have little to do with what that price will be. You can pay as little as $60 to audit (or less for those places that offer bursaries), or as much as $2000 (or more). You can pick and chose a focus, or invest in a strategically laid out programme. One of the great things about this push for online learning is that a lot of trainers will release free material in the run-up to class. Not only is there often really useful tidbits that you don’t have to pay a penny for, but it can give you a taste for what the trainer will be like to work with before you’ve committed to the class. Also, many programmes will allow you access to the course material for a period after the class has officially ended. I can still log on to Silvia’s website and review the class notes and everyone’s comments and videos if I want to go back to something. There are a huge variety of topics to chose from, from obvious things like foundations, jumping, international handling, contacts, etc, to more eclectic things like a few that the Fenzi Academy offers like Truffle Hunting our Rattle Snake Avoidance (rattle snake bites will likely have an adverse effect on your Q rate, me thinks). There are some trainers who don’t offer specific online courses, but who will review videos of your training or agility runs that you post for them for a fairly reasonable price.
Another bonus to online classes is that you will often be taken them with an eclectic cross-section of agility handlers and dogs. This will give you a chance to see how they approach the class, which can give you insight into your own dog’s brain and expand your own training knowledge. This is especially helpful if you don’t have a traditional agility breed as it can often feel like all the training out there is geared towards border collies and shelties.
Now there are some downsides to online learning. For one, you will probably have to post your videos on a forum that other class participants are part of. If you’re shy or not used to being critiqued this can be a big deterrent. But let me tell you something: as someone who works in the arts and is critiqued (constructively and unconstructively) by other professionals and even strangers all the time, it’s actually a good thing. Try not to take the critique as a personal attack and examine it as someone doing their best to help you to be better. You don’t have to take every piece of advice to heart, and some people will be particularly artless in how they deliver it, but that advice still has value. Even if you reject whatever their critique is, it can still make you look closely at why you think they were wrong. And in the end more than likely you will find something worth considering that might not have occurred to you otherwise.
The other main detriment to online classes is not getting immediate feedback, which means you may end up practicing something completely wrong before the instructor has a chance to review your video. This isn’t so much worse than working through your local classes’s lessons at home, though, so I don’t think it’s that big of a deal. The only time it’s really a problem is when something isn’t working. When the trainer is standing next to you they can decide when you should stop or modify your training plan. Fortunately most online classes have an active forum, so don’t be afraid to put a pause on your training and ask some questions before continuing.
Basically, the small detriments to an online class are really inconsequential, and I would recommend every agility competitor, no matter your aspirations, take one as some point.
Some might say that with the popularity of the online class that seminars will someday go the way of the Dodo, but I disagree. The value in taking seminars is subtle, with the big issue being it requires a lot of evaluation after the fact on the part of the handler. You can sign up for a seminar with someone who you’ve taken online classes with, in which case it’s more of an in-depth regular class. But I really encourage you to move outside of your regular group of trainers from time to time. As I said earlier a lot of the handling out there is becoming really similar (I can sit and watch a Silvia Trkman video and pick out all the OMD moves she does even though I doubt she’s ever studied with them…or really cares to “name” moves beyond what she needs to teach her classes). So getting a new trainer is not likely to revolutionize your training (unless you’re switching from a conventional North American system to more international style, then you might be in for a surprise or two). But what they might do is present a concept in a new light, or add a slight tweak to a training method, or do something slightly different that speaks to you, adds to your understanding, or just works better for your dog. These events might not seem huge but they add up, and I find it invigorating. They make me personally want to revisit some foundation stuff, or tweak what I’m doing, and even if I end up rejecting it I will have at least tested my dog’s understanding for the better. Also, many trainers will do seminars in the same place a few times a year, which can be a great way to check your progress and train with someone who would otherwise be too far away.
One of the drawbacks of seminars is that they are generally more expensive than an online class, and you’re only getting the trainer for a few days or maybe a week instead of over a few months. Also, if you have a dog who is easily frustrated, distracted, or suffering from motivation issues, a seminar will likely be too much for them (unless it’s a seminar on motivation, of course). Make sure your dog can handle a concentrated and intense weekend of training without shutting down, as otherwise you will both end up frustrated (your trainer too, probably!) and it will feel like a waste of money. If you don’t think your dog is ready or you can’t quite afford it, auditing is a fantastic option.
DVDs, Books, etc
So you’ve probably noticed a trend in that I mention Silvia Trkman a lot. On top of taking her Foundation class I have almost every DVD that she’s ever put out. Mu’s tight turns and running contacts were training exclusively with the use of her DVDs (and consultation with our regular trainer, too). Raafi had a nice head start on a lot of concepts when we took her Foundation Class as I already had her Foundations Fun DVD. Many of the trainers now offering online classes have already released DVDs, books, or published articles, and they can be a great introduction to their training methods before you spend the coin on an online class. Also, DVDs and books will obviously be yours to keep forever so you can refer back to them whenever you like. You can rewind and rewatch any section you need so that you can make sure you understand it perfectly before trying to train your dog. You can move through the material at your own and, more importantly, your dog’s own pace. Frankly, I love getting new DVDs and have every intension of expanding my collection.
There are also sites like Clean Run and Tawzer Dog (just to name a few) that will allow you to rent a DVD (Clean Run you can view online for those who like me prefer instant gratification). I’m also looking forward to picking up a copy of Susan Salo’s Jumping Grid Workbook, which is design to compliment her DVD series (which you can rent on Clean Run). Your trainer will likely have a pile of books and DVDs of their own that they could lend you to get started.
As with online classes there is a lot of material out there so it can be hard to figure out what to buy. I try to focus on what’s been giving me the most trouble, and after that stick to those trainers I find the most inspiring.
Agility has come a long way in what seems a very short amount of time. There is a lot of knowledge out there and it can seem daunting to pick just one thing. But here’s the fun part: you don’t have to pick one thing. The time for “camps” of handling is coming to an end. It’s actually really exciting to watch this sport turn into the sophisticated art that it can be. It is also still one of the most accessible sports in the world, and one can truly say that location and ability does not have to dictate learning. Do your homework and dig in, you will have fun.
Listed in no particular order
- Silvia Trkman
- Online classes throughout the year, DVDs, free articles in her blog. If you want to train running contacts, this is the lady to talk to.
- Fenzi Academy
- If you can’t find a class from these guys that you want to take, you must be dead inside. They offer courses in many disciplines taught by a wide range of respected trainers. Very reasonable rates for auditing and scholarship and bursary opportunities.
- An elaborate online community on the OMD handling system. Tonnes of great instructional videos, articles, and training challenges. They have a few subscription packages so you can test the waters or save a bit of money if you want to go whole-hog.
- Susan Garrett
- I’ve linked to her Handling360 course, which is only still open for a few more days. Very pricey (too rich for my blood, unfortunately) but lots of fantastic content and she does offer a payment plan. If you’re having trouble getting in-person training locally than this is a great option.
- Daisy Peel
- Online classes on handling, training, and fitness for both the handler and dog. Hoping to get into the Canine Fitness class myself in the near future.
- Jenny Damm
- She does not offer online classes but you can sign up to have her review your training videos or courses for a pretty reasonable rate.
- Clean Run
- Lots of agility themed DVDs and books (and some other subjects as well).
- Tawzer Dog
- Their whole existance is to provide training material for +R trainers. Includes a subscription option as well. Their agility section is a little slim, but still some good stuff there.
- Similar to Tawzer Dog, but a little more about rentals, and a better agility section.
- They offer a variety of courses available through a subscription. They also have some fantastic free videos that go really in depth into motivation and bringing out the most fun for your agility dog.
If you’d like to read more blogs on the subject of Continuing Education click here. There’s always some amazing things to read (also, blogs are another form of continuing education. Fancy that!)