Teaching your dog a trick or two

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Want to train your dog to do a new trick or two? Agility is the fastest-growing dog sport in North America, and tests both dog and handler’s skills and fitness. Warren Eckstein talks about how to agility-train your dog.

Information for this article is compiled from Warren Eckstein’s book “How to Get Your Dog to Do What You Want : A Loving Approach to Unleashing Your Dog’s Astonishing Potential.”

AGILITY IS ORIGINALLY based on equestrian stadium jumpers’ competitions, and made its debut as an entertainment for spectators at the Crufts Dog Show in 1979. It has since become the most rapidly growing dog sport in England, Western Europe, and North America.
The purpose of agility is to demonstrate the ability of the dog and its handler to work as a smoothly functioning team while negotiating over/under/through various obstacles and jumps. Dogs are directed through a series of obstacles and must complete the course in the allotted time. The dog should be under control at all times and show a willingness to work with the handler.
In the United States there are several national organizations for agility which sanction tests or trials held by local dog training clubs. In competition, the obstacles are arranged in various configurations which are unique from trial to trial. As the dog and handler earn their way into successively higher levels, the courses increase in complexity.
Dogs compete only against dogs of similar height within a fixed number of jump height divisions. The dog with the lowest number of faults and the fastest time wins the class or height division.


Generally, healthy, trained dogs over eighteen months of age are eligible to compete and most competitions are open to purebred and mixed breed dogs.
The Regular Agility class is the basis for all of the agility classes. This course tests the dog on all possible types of equipment and qualifying in this class demonstrates the dog’s ability to perform all of the types of obstacles safely and correctly. The dog and handler maneuver through a numbered obstacle course, designed by the judge. As the dog and handler progress through the levels of the Regular Agility classes, they demonstrate the ability to negotiate more complex courses with adequate speed, efficiency, handling skills, and teamwork on all obstacles.
Various types of obstacles can be included in the course. Our course, set up on the plaza in New York’s Rockefeller Center, includes the following:
Contact obstacles
8-foot dog walk: Dogs go up one side, across a thin wooden plank, and down the opposite side.
Tunnel obstacles
Closed tunnel: like an open-ended nylon sock, dog runs in one end, and shoots out the other.
Open tunnel: A long plastic, flexible tube.
Jumping obstacles
Displaceable tire jump: A suspended tire.
Long jump: Just like it sounds.
Hurdles: Can vary in height and width.
Dogs and trainers get a limited time to “practice” on the course, and usually are allowed to run through it only once or twice. While the obstacles are the same from competition to competition, the order and complexity of the route varies widely.
For a clean, non-faulted run the dog earns 10 points. Points are deducted for faults like running over the course time, knocking poles off jumps and running the course the wrong way. To be certified at a certain level and move up to higher ranks, the dogs need a total of 30 points.
In all agility classes, the handlers direct their dogs through the course without a collar or lead and without using food, toys, balls or other devices. However, the handler is allowed to use verbal or visual commands to assist the dog throughout the course.


Practice, practice, practice! Plus keeping it fun. Since each obstacle requires different skills, the dogs are trained differently for each one. For example, a ball can be thrown through the tunnels to “lure” them through (which, of course, can’t be done in competition) or treats can be used to help them over the see-saw and dog walks. But in every case, the handler makes it FUN for the dog, and in the end, they are rewarded with lots of positive petting!


Not only do they get in great shape, but they also learn to socialize well with other animals and people and get comfortable in different places.


All kinds! Big, small, pure-breeds, mixed-breeds… all can be included, and they compete against dogs that are approximately the same size (so that the jumps can be tailored for the course.) Personality-wise, the dogs must be responsive to commands, be willing to learn new obstacles, and full of energy.

The Case Against Crate Training.

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When you were growing up, did your friends have dogs? Were these dogs housebroken and generally well-behaved? Odds are the answer is, “Yes”. Then I ask you, were these dogs kept in cages? Odds are your answer is “Never!”.

Several Years ago a new phenomenon emerged among dog trainers called “crate-training”. As far as I am concerned, “crate-training” is simply a euphemism of keeping a dog in a cage.

Crate-training (I’m going to refer to it as “caging” from here on), was touted as the perfect solution to the problem of housebreaking. And it was. After all, dogs kept in cages didn’t have access to their owner’s homes and carpets.

Caging relies on the fact that our dogs are clean by nature and won’t soil where they have to sleep or stay. But caging never teaches a dog how to be housebroken. In essence, it’s an avoidance technique which doesn’t address the task of housebreaking.

You don’t know how many calls I get from people who have caged their dogs fro housebreaking purposes but don’t know when they can trust Fido enough to let him out of the cage.

For years, responsible professional breeders have cage-trained their dogs successfully. The operative words here are “responsible professional breeders”.

First of all, these people know how to use cages effectively.

Secondly, good professional breeders devote their time to their dogs.

Being a professional breeder is a full-time job and breeders are generally there with their dogs for most of the day. Since they are there to supervise their dogs, breeders don’t need to cage their dogs for hours on end.

This does not hold true for the average family. In the average household, both spouses work outside the home at least 8 hours a day. They also sleep approximately 8 hours. So far that’s 16 hours that Fido will be in a cage. Add a couple of hours for shopping, errands and dinner out and you’re up to 18 hours a day that the dog is confined.

Three-quarters of a day is too much time for any dog to be confined. If you say that your busy life won’t permit you to devote more time to a dog, you’re probably better off with a pet that requires less maintenance – like a fish!

In my over quarter-century of working with over 40,000 dogs, I’ve never used a cage. You won’t find the use of cages for housebreaking in my dog training book How To Get Your Dog To Do What You Want: A loving approach to unleashing your dog’s astonishing potential.

Instead, housebreaking is achieved by regulating your puppy’s food and water intake, putting him on a regular walking schedule, watching your puppy for the tell-tale signs that he has to “go”, and confining him in a small gated area (the kitchen is ideal) when you cannot watch him with a hawk eye.

By using gates, you can start off with a small area (sat 3′ by 3′) and when the puppy has shown he can keep that area unsoiled, you can gradually increase the area of his confinement. As housebreaking proceeds, you’ll be giving your puppy more and more space. Your ultimate goal is to give your dog the entire run of your house. Gates afford you the flexibility of increasing the area of confinement – cages do not.

Don’t get me wrong, crates (carriers) are important and every dog owner should have one – for transporting your dog. They afford your dog protection when he’s in your car and you come to a sudden stop or, heaven forbid, if there’s an accident.

And you’ll definitely need a crate or carrier for Fido if you plan to do any air travel together. If Fido spends the vast majority of his day in a cage, he’ll never have free run of the house.

Underscoring my belief is a recent study published in 1996 by the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association: Risk factors for relinquishment of dogs to an animal shelter:

“Dogs who spend most of the day in the yard or in a crate were at an increased risk for surrender to the shelter.
The study was not able to determine whether these dogs had been relegated to the yard or a crate as a result of behavioral problems or whether keeping dogs in these situations resulted in isolation from the family, with less attachment and less training, thereby increasing the risk of relinquishment.”

I am seeing an increasing number of dogs who are under-socialized and, in some cases, actually aggressive. Kept in cages, these dogs don’t have the opportunity to interact with people and other pets.

Another problem that’s on the increase is coprophagy – stool-eating. Many a dog confined to a cage would rather eat his or her stool, than have to lie with it in a cage.

I’ve heard a few misguided dog owners say that Fido likes to sit in his cage. ” He feels secure.” What they are really telling me is that their dog is not secure in the home environment. The dog feels threatened unless he’s caged!

Other advocates of caging say it gives the dog a place of his own. My dog Rio has his own bed in my bedroom, but nine times out of ten times he’d rather curl up and snooze on the living room floor – if that’s the room I’m in. My home and my presence is all Rio needs to feel secure!

The so-called “experts” rationalize that cages are okay because dogs evolved from wolves and wolves have denning instincts.

To that I say dogs have been removed from their lupine ancestors for millions of years.

Dogs have been living with man for tens of thousands of years. Even the earliest cave paintings depict dogs as man’s companions! We cannot take a dog into our human environment, treat him like a wolf, and expect him to respond like a human.

Our dogs are beloved family members and need to be treated as such. You wouldn’t keep your child confined to his room for his entire youth and adolescence, would you? You’d have one maladjusted young person!

You want your child to be an active, full participant in your household and your life. The same goes for our dogs. And cages will never permit this to happen.

The Case of the Undersocialized Doberman…

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Sally and John obtained their Doberman pup, Jessie, from a breeder at the age of six months. The dog was the smallest of the litter and had previously been purchased by another couple who decided to bring her back to the breeder. Sally and John had owned another Doberman previously, but their first dog had run out into traffic and been killed at the age of five months. The couple wanted this new pet to be a good guard dog of course, but they also wanted her to be affectionate and playful.

Over the next few months, they successfully housetrained Jessie by crating her. Actually, the dog was crated every time the couple left the house. They taught her obedience commands on a sporadic basis. She was very good with “sit” and “stay,”not so good with “come” and “heel.” They often had visitors who Jessie seemed to like with the exception of one person, John’s accountant, who arrived to do the books once a month. On each subsequent visit, the puppy became more aggressive with this woman, until finally the accountant could not set foot on the premises because of the dog’s hostile reaction to her. The dog didn’t react this way to any other visitors.

The Analysis

1. Was the accountant ever alone with the dog? Could she have done something that mad the dog dislike her?
2. Is she fearful of Dobermans in general and showing it so clearly that the dog can sense it? What kind of body language is she using around this dog?
3. How do the owners react to the visitor? Are they nervous and tense about money, so that the presence of this particular person adds to an already stressful environment? Pets will pick up on these emotions.
4. Is there anything in the dog’s background that would set her against this one person? Did the former owner (the woman who eventually gave her back to the breeder) or the breeder look like the accountant or perhaps even wear the same perfume? Were there any other similarities?
5. Does the accountant use any machinery that might frighten the dog? A noisy adding machine? A beeper to summon her to the office.
6. If all of the above reasons have been explored, we may have to dig deeper, since there is always a cause for behavior. Although the possibility may seem farfetched, maybe something is going on that one spouse doesn’t know about, such as an affair between the husband and the accountant. The dog may be jealous and protective of her mistress if she knows something the woman doesn’t.

The Cure

Jessie is clearly an undersocialized dog. The fact that she is always crated whenever the owners leave the house indicates that she’s not trusted, and this attitude carries over to her behavior with other people.

The accountant is not a family friend – she only comes to conduct business. Therefore the couple’s attitude toward her is undoubtedly cooler, and they don’t waste time on chitchat or sitting down for coffee with her, as they would with a friend. It certainly would be helpful for the family to spend some time with the accountant while Jessie is present and act friendly toward her. If they treat her like a pal, the dog might eventually do the same.

It may also be a good idea for the accountant to meet the dog on neutral territory. The couple has encouraged Jessie to protect the house; therefore, it may be more difficult for her to react well on her own territory to an acquaintance who performs only a business function. The couple could bring a favorite ball or toy for this meeting in a local park or schoolyard and have the accountant and dog play together.

If the problem is the accountant’s equipment, the cure might be to accustom the dog to the sound of the machinery. Sally and John could make a tape recording of these sounds, which they could play to Jessie, gradually increasing the volume every few days, or they could use the equipment themselves in front of her.

This behavior problem has to be stopped before it goes any further. In a case such as this, where a dog is developing aggressive tendencies, the symptoms are likely to magnify over time. First, she’s aggressive toward certain people in the house; next, she might snap at anyone who comes near the cat. It’s very important that Jessie be socialized now, with the couple and with anyone who comes in with them. The crate in which she has been confined should be removed (preferably when she is out of the room), and from then on, Jessie should be included in all of the family activities.

Finally, if all else fails, and if the accountant herself has difficulty acting at ease around the dog, the solution may be to keep her off the premises and let her work with the couple in her own office. To avoid allowing the situation to repeat itself, with every other newcomer in the household, Sally and John should make it a point to include Jessie and make her understand that the visitor is completely welcome.