In our first Dog Sports Highlight series, I reached out to my good friend and one of my training mentors, Holly Haynes-Clark. I first became interested in dog agility when I was looking for a way to give June a mental outlet for her intelligence and energy. I also just really wanted to do something fun with my dog! I was blessed with Holly as my first agility teacher. She took me under her wing and coached me and June in Beginner Agility and right on through our first blue ribbon and beyond. She also coached me with Kona, who had a completely different running style, and Holly helped me adjust to meet Kona’s needs. Taking agility classes gave my smart, energetic girls a positive outlet and improved our relationship by building trust and communication and allowing us to have so much fun together! I’m eternally grateful for Holly’s mentorship and friendship. Her approach to training has been a huge influence on my training style, even in obedience training. Holly recently allowed me to ask her some questions about agility and how it has been such a good thing for her and her dogs! If you’re interested in agility, I encourage you to reach out to local trainers and give it a shot!
How did you get started in Agility?
I got started in dog agility in 2006 with my Doberman, Lucas. He lacked confidence, which made him reactive when he was fearful. Dog agility gave Lucas more confidence, gave him a job to focus on and perform, and gave him physical and mental exercise. It also strengthened our bond together. This positive transformation in Lucas and our relationship was such a blessing.
In 2012, I started training my second agility dog, a Working Kelpie named Kayla. In 2016, 2017, and 2018, we were invited to compete at the AKC Agility Invitationals in Orlando. Since Kayla has recently turned 9 years old and is almost ready to retire, I am now training my third agility dog, Zuko, an Australian Kelpie. I am sure our journey together will be just as special as my other agility dogs.
What is your favorite thing about agility? What do you find most rewarding?
It never stops amazing me that we can train an “animal” to play this game and how they love to do it! I enjoy teaching dogs skills in little steps. You can see how their brain works, and when taught in little steps, how they are able to put together the steps into a finished, amazing skill.
What is your least favorite thing about agility? What do you find most challenging?
I guess my least favorite thing about agility is when I see a handler blame their dog for their mistakes. It is actually very sad. When a dog does agility, not only are they are doing it because they enjoy it, but they do it because they get to do an activity with their owner. I find it very challenging when the handler (owner) doesn’t understand that any successes or failures with their dog is due to their training (or lack thereof) or relationship issues. Bottom line, be kind to your dog and kind to yourself. No mistake or problem is forever. Take responsibility and learn from your mistakes and work on fixing them. In most cases, you get what you train.
How has participating in the sport changed your relationships with your dogs?
This sport has helped me be more in tune with my dogs. We have this unspoken communication thing going on. It has improved our communication outside of the sport as well. Being more in tune with my dogs allows me to recognize when they don’t feel well, when they are tired, when they need more activity, when they are doing things that make them happy. We have a better relationship overall.
What benefits have you seen in your dogs since starting them in agility training?
I feel that by providing both physical and mental exercise to my dogs through dog agility, I’m providing them with a well balanced, happy life.
If someone is completely new to dog sports, but interested in agility, how would you suggest they start?
I would suggest that they look at videos on Youtube to get a well rounded idea of what the sport is about. Don’t just look at the top athletes doing the sport, but everyday people that do this sport as a hobby.
Then I would find local classes / instructors in their area and give it a try. If there is more than one instructor in their area, I would strongly suggest doing a class or private lessons with many of them to see which instructor fits their personality best. If they are not having a good time, they need a different instructor.
A tip when looking for an instructor: you really want to find an instructor who will teach solid fundamentals to begin with. If the instructor wants to put your dog on the equipment on the first day and a line of jumps, you may want to find a different instructor. Learning the fundamentals before the equipment will make the sport with your dog a lot easier and safer in the long run.
What is some information that you wish the general public knew about the world of agility?
Many people who try it, get hooked and never look back. It becomes their lifestyle. I saw a chart published a couple of years ago that indicated that the majority of people that do the sport range from the ages 40-80. If you want to stay mobile, mentally sharp, and healthy as you grow older, agility is the sport for you. This is not to say that young people don’t compete! There are many young adults and even some kids that have a blast training in agility, and I hope even more youth become interested in this awesome sport!
What is your favorite thing about the agility community?
Agility is an international sport. It is a community. I have developed many close friends from all over the world through the sport of agility.
What is something you would change about the world of agility if you could?
My favorite quote, by Steve Young, is something I wish some in the agility world would embrace:
“The principle is competing against yourself. It’s about self-improvement, about being better than you were the day before.”
I never go out to train or compete and think about being better than another dog and handler team. I’m just concentrating on me and my dog. Being better than the day before. Did I accomplish my goals for this training session or run? The world of agility needs more of this type of thinking.
What is your general training philosophy when it comes to training your own dogs?
I don’t know if it is my philosophy or my style, but I tell myself to be patient with the training and it will come. Training is like building blocks for me. I train in small, manageable steps to get the big final result, even if I’m only training 5 -10 minutes at a time, this will add up to something bigger. But most of all, always make sure you and your dog are having fun. Otherwise, what is the point?
How has teaching others changed your approach to your own agility training?
I tape a lot of my students and they learn so much by watching themselves. I have also started video taping all of my training sessions. So much insight can come from watching yourself.
Describe your perfect agility student (human and canine).
My perfect agility student would understand that learning and training the fundamentals of agility may not always be exciting, but it is the fastest and easiest way to performing great dog agility. They would also practice the very small, but significant training exercises at home throughout the week. These simple, no equipment needed exercises create the building blocks for a solid performance. This idea of building blocks also includes coming to class/lessons a little early to make sure their dog is warmed up and staying a few minutes afterwards to cool their dog down. It’s these little things that make a good agility student. And as I said early, it should be fun for the human and dog, about building a good relationship. This includes rewarding with toys or treats. If you and your dog aren’t enjoying the sport, why even do it?
If you could only teach your students one overall lesson, what would it be?
To answer this question, I can’t help but to think of a dog training meme I see on the internet from time to time. The title on the image says “Training A Dog”. The graphic that follows includes two images. The first image says, “Your Plan” with a straight line to the finishing point. The second image has a squiggly line, going up and down, up and down, with the phrase ”Reality.” This is what dog training is really like.
Dog agility is a journey and the journey never ends. There is always learning to do. You have successes and failures. Don’t give up because you will turn your failures into successes.
What do you and your dogs like to do outside of agility?
My husband and I like to go on long daily walks with our dogs and sit outside on our deck and let the dogs play or sunbathe in the yard.