I am so very pleased to welcome this week’s Guest Blogger – Linda Stebbins of Los Ranchos NM to share her training experience in Agility. I know you’ll all treat her right, give her a big round of applause or shake her hand and say “thanks so much” next time you see her!
Agility success with a Gordon Setter requires flexibility, concessions, a desire to learn, train with restraint and understanding and a SENSE OF HUMOR! One of my Gordon Setters was running a clean course in a large horse arena and at the end of her run, a pigeon dive bombed her and returned to the rafters. She took a sharp U-turn, raced up the dog walk and went on point to the pigeon. So much for BEAUTY, BRAINS and BIRD NONSENSE.
Although I do not consider myself an expert, my 25+ years in a breed I dearly love, allows me to make valid comments, constructive criticism and appropriate recommendations.When I write about a topic, I am pulling from my own experiences and do not deny there are other methods and styles of training whether it be in conformation, performance or field. I do not proclaim to be a professional trainer and am in a perpetual learning mode. I do this for FUN!
Because I handle my own Gordon Setters in all venues, the journey to their titles is extremely long, self satisfying and rewarding for me. I live in New Mexico where 80% of competitions in the conformation and performance rings are a 7-8 hour drive away. This can be long and grueling but I am totally committed to showing and competing with my Gordons. There is a sense of pride when one can train and show their own dogs.
I like to get my Gordon Setters’ Championship and Grand Championship titles as soon as I can so I can start playing in the agility ring. I don’t begin competing in trials until my Gordons are two years old and I know that their growth plates are closed. I use rally trials as a tool for socialization, obedience and positive reinforcement. My true love is agility and I can honestly say I am an agility-holic. Before agility I participated in obedience and hunt tests. Agility became a strong desire for me because it gave me and my Gordon Setter a sense of mental and physical challenge. I truly appreciate Gordons who have titles on both ends of their name, and there is every reason for a Gordon to be extremely successful in this sport if so desired.
I am a strong proponent of breed standards so when one wants to take up agility with their Gordon Setter, we must keep in mind how substantial this sporting dog is. The normal jump height is 24″. The physical demands of agility are significant. Larger boned dogs may require negotiating some of the obstacles more carefully. Good structure (balanced conformation), temperament and soundness are very important.
While most breed show dogs are campaigned for a relatively short period of time, many agility dogs compete into their senior years with the jump height going to 20″. As for temperament, I like a Gordon who has a desire to work and a willingness to train. I was asked in an interview, “In your opinion, what makes the Gordon Setter such a special breed?” I replied, “Versatility!” They aim to please. They can hunt expertly, are extremely agile, obedient out of love, flow like a stream in the show ring, are a form of positive therapy for the owner’s “dog days”, full of snuggles and contentment whether in your lap or in their beds. As a learner, the Gordon Setter in general is intelligent, quick to learn and of bold character. I like the Gordon’s willing and forgiving attitude which makes a great partner. Curiosity and independence are traits which I think allow the Gordon to be a successful student.
Ready Set(ter) Goooooo!
My training philosophy consists of the Five F’s “Fun, Fair, Firm, Flexible and Fun”. I support positive reinforcement using rewards based methods. I want to develop teamwork. As the handler, you have to think step by step through the shaping process needed to train for an end behavior. I enjoy looking for the good things my dog does successfully. Rewards I use are treats, tug toys, tennis balls and/or verbal praise. Clickers are a true way to mark desired behaviors for problem solving and I do incorporate that in my training. Eventually the clear click sound transfers to me saying “YES” or “GOOD”. Whatever the method, I want to find a special connection that makes us a team.
My puppy starts in puppy socialization class which includes manners, and then moving into basic obedience where he/she learns to have a reliable sit, down, stay, and recall. We transition to “flat work” which is agility foundation, teaching me how to handle and making my body language clear and timely. The puppy learns how to take direction from me. After all, it is on the flat surface where I do most of my job navigating my Gordon. A combination of training class, private lessons and creative home training make a great equation for success on the agility course. A class exposes my Gordon to different sounds, breeds and people. Private lessons help clarify and tweak those skills that I so desperately need to have for my Gordon to advance. Homework is a must and this reinforces and gives my Gordon a purpose. At home I like to introduce my puppy to a rocker board, and later trading it out for a wobble board for building confidence and being comfortable with movement and sound. The Fit Paws Disc is another way to develop canine fitness, balance and confidence. Learning fundamental skills properly is vital because training mistakes will be very hard to fix later on. I have learned from my mistakes and work to overcome them. One big recommendation is do not compare the speed of your progress to other members of your class. This has been very difficult for me to ignore, primarily because I am generally the only sporting dog in a class of many herding dogs. I find the herding breeds are a natural for this sport and excel quickly.
When searching for an agility instructor and facility, attend a local trial where you can watch the various handlers and trainers. Find appropriate times to talk to the people and ask them questions about the training methods, styles, techniques, etc. I find most agility competitors are very receptive and want to help newcomers. When you visit training centers and talk with the instructor(s), see if he/she has a willingness to work with all breeds and a variety of energy levels. Not all dogs are high driven. I have had Gordon Setters who have been moderate in drive and consistent on the course. I also have had the total opposite where I have had over the top, high driven Gordons. Once again, don’t compare your Gordon to the speed demons. The instructor should be able to work with all levels of drive. Of course this goes without mentioning, but knowledge and staying up with current changes in the sport is crucial. I personally need to work with someone who has a sense of humor. After all, Walt Disney didn’t create Goofy after the Gordon Setter for nothing. This is supposed to be a FUN sport for you and your Gordon. Make sure there are a variety of classes offered, addressing specific skills and it is not just your basic levels of agility; availability and communication is vital. My READY SET(ter) GOOO! instructor(s) will ask for a video of my homework attached in an email. I will receive feedback commenting on the rights and wrongs. This is extremely helpful! The training center must offer a good foundation so when your Gordon is ready to compete, it is confident and safe on the equipment.
Agility is constantly changing and evolving. Many handlers have gone to the internet to take instruction. I have not experienced this type of training but it is getting to be more and more popular. In fact books became outdated quickly and the internet has taken its place. Seminars and camps are well sought after and the training center you attend will have announcements posted.
A few resource recommendations are:
- Website of Stacy Peardot-Goudy’s C Spot Win Agility! (click to view site)
- Agility University website (click to view site)
- The monthly magazine – Clean Run Magazine or check out their website by clicking here.
- Book by Nancy Gyes – Alphabet Drills (click title of book to be linked to Amazon for detail).
- Kim Terrill (Training/Activities Director) Owner and handler of canines winning AKC Agility Nationals, USDAA Agility National as well as many regional agility and obedience trials. Linked here are videos.
Three Gordon Setter Club of America members who have far exceeded anything I have accomplished and are reliable resources are: Julie Ashley, Ohio, Gail Deller, PA, and Susan Wey, TX. I am sure there are many others who are knowledgeable and successful but these three have helped and supported me immensely in the sport.
Team Work and Making the Dream Work requires your commitment, patience and sense of humor as an agility handler. Those embarrassing moments will occur and you must be willing to be amused by your Gordon Setter’s exuberant antics. It just means you didn’t proof the skill or train it long enough. 99% of the mistakes made fall on the handler, not the dog!
The Gordon Setter can transfer the ordinary day into extraordinary moments and memories.
Auntie Mame said “Life is a banquet!” I say “Living with Gordon Setters makes it a feast!”