Agility for the Mastiff By Sharon Krauss
Agility and Mastiff in the same sentence?? Impossible, you think? Not necessarily so ...
What is Agility? Very simply put, it is an obstacle course for dogs. At the competition level, it is a timed event where each individual dog (with handler) negotiates a course of obstacles in a specific order for the best time (only the dog has to go through the obstacles, the handler just directs). Time penalties are assessed for not taking an obstacle in the correct order, in the correct manner (certain obstacles require that "contact points" be touched at beginning and end), and for "handler errors". It is similar to stadium jumping and/or cross- country jumping for horses; or, remember weekends watching your favorite sports personalities negotiate the obstacle course as the last event of the sports challenge. For current or former military people, the boot camp obstacle courses also come to mind.
In any case, it is an extremely challenging and exhilarating sport in which you and your Mastiff can participate. Yes, they can do this!! The basic pre-requisite is a SOUND dog, and a handler with lots of patience and energy.
Why would you ever think of trying something like this with a Mastiff? you ask. Actually, Cassie chose the activity herself or I would never have considered it. I had some familiarity with the sport during my Aussie days (speed and agility being their middle names), but would not have thought of it for our big, loveable gentle giants without a definite shove (pull) in that direction. The excitement was certainly there watching the demonstrations at one of our major Southern California circuit shows. However, the demonstrations showed that the smaller, quicker, more agile dogs were better suited to this sport -- the largest being an OES (Old English Sheepdog) that had definite problems negotiating some of the obstacles.
The first glimmer of the possibilities for the Mastiff came while attending a beginning obedience class with Cassie at The Chosen Dog (Marjorie Hudson/Escondido, CA). Along with the usual lessons received in a beginner class, Marjorie uses "confidence course" obstacles at the end of each of her class sessions. These are the "kindergarten" of agility obstacles and are used to build confidence and awareness of the dog for his body. The walking over plastic and going over a small 6" jump were no problem, but when she brought out that little box (12" x 18") and asked us to get the dogs to "come up" and "sit," I thought, "No way". Two feet maybe, but all four feet and her butt, she must be kidding! (Cassie was nine months at the time). The rest of the group, with their normal-sized dogs, were all snickering as well, but we were game to give it a try.
My fellow classmates likened her to a circus elephant balancing on a platform, and all were amazed at her ability to get all four feet and her butt down on that small surface.
It was at this point that I though, "well, maybe we could." Marjorie is a great one for goals in her classes and when she asked for mine, I said I wanted Cassie to be able to go through the tire obstacle -- more because I didn't see how a Mastiff could fit through that little hole than anything else. Marjorie said, "fine, that will be your goal for the end of the class."
As I said at the beginning, what really motivated me to pursue this sport was Cassie's wanting to do it, and she literally dragged me into it. We were at a handling class taught by a Rottweiler breeder who also ran agility classes and had agility equipment set up in an area adjacent to the handling ring. At the end of class (finished after dark) her son took the Rott he was handling and worked some of the obstacles, making quite a racket on the A-frame. Cassie began barking at the noise she couldn't see, so we took her over to watch him do the A-frame so that she could see where the noise came from. The change in her attitude was amazing. From barking, she switched to straining and lunging at the end of the lead to get closer. We got closer and she got more excited. Dot suggested that we try her on the obstacle and she went up, over and down without a problem.
Well, to get to the point of this, she did get her large body through that little round tire hole at the end of the Beginner Class and, after finishing Marjorie's Control Class, we began in Agility I. Needless to say, we both love it and I can't wait for Mandi to get old enough to start. She is already exhibiting an even better natural talent with the "kindergarten" obstacles and she may even have the speed that Cassie lacks. While we may never have the ability to compete for speed (accuracy is our main objective), I am hopeful that we will be able to attain an agility degree.
Things have really moved forward lately regarding acceptance of the agility event as part of the AKC competition program (along with the obedience, tracking, field trials, etc.). The November, 1993 issue of the AKC Gazette outlined the most recent information, presenting the proposed classes/degrees to be offered and the obstacles to be used as well as timing and sizes. We checked the various size and height requirements as they would be for a dog the size of a Mastiff and feel that Cassie can handle all of the obstacles for the Novice or first level degree. The width of the teeter-totter and dog walk are 12" (we currently do 9-1/2" at class); the width of the A-Frame is to be 4' (we do 3'); and the height of the A- Frame is 5'6" with a 45ø angle (this is the only part that might give us trouble, but we will give it a try). The last problem was overcome in that the tunnels and tire jump are 24" dia- meter and she recently showed no problems in getting through that size.
So, now that you know this is a real possibility, how do you get started? First and foremost, you must have a sound dog. This is not a sport for dogs that are prone to dysplasia, OCD, HOD, etc. Your start must be gradual and easy, no long workouts and full-sized jumps until the growth plates have closed and they have finished growing. However, puppies can be started on the fundamentals and learning the vocabulary, which is of primary importance in developing the accuracy and control needed. Accuracy and control are always first, because if you are not accurate in negotiating the course, your speed can't help enough to offset the time penalties.
There are a number of good books out on the sport, as well as videos, but the best method is to attend a class or join an agility club where they have the equipment and experience in training. Just remember, they are laughing with you, not at you, when you bring your little speed demon to the first class.
The basic commands consist of: climb, go-through, table, go, wait, left, right, box, tunnel, weave, and jump. Some of these can be broken down even further once you get into the individual obstacles. The intent is to give the command and have the dog look for the obstacle that the command indicates.
These commands can be taught at the "kindergarten" level with even small puppies, so they learn what the names mean. "Table" can be anything that they have to step up on -- it is not necessary that they jump to the regulation 4'x4'x28"h table. "Climb" can be walking up a wide plank that is just slightly elevated. "Jump" can be going over something as small as a piece of pvc on the ground, as long as there are uprights on either side that will be the visual indication of all future "jumps". "Go-through" can be taught with a hula-hoop set at ground level so no jumping is involved.
The one thing that stands out in my mind relative to early training is the need to have something (other than food) that the dog can focus on. Marjorie suggests finding a toy that they "will die for" regardless of the surroundings or circumstances. This is used at the beginning, middle or end of any obstacle to get the dog to focus on where they have to go and as a reward for successfully completing an obstacle. (I am considering the use of the "touchstick" recommended by Gary Wilkes in his tape on operant conditioning as it lends itself very well to this type of training).
This was the most difficult for me because I didn't work at it hard enough when Cassie was younger. Each time I thought I had the perfect toy, she would become disinterested after a few uses at class or away from home.
After many tries and almost giving up, I did finally manage to find something that she truly will "die for." The only problem is there are some limitatins to working a complicated course situation with a 10" Boomer Ball under your arm. Yes, that's the only thing she loves to distraction, even over food! She will play with this as long as I will let her, dribbling (just like a professional soccer player) around the yard. If I put it up, she will stand or sit and stare at it until I put it down again. To get her mind off it requires hiding it -- when she isn't watching so she doesn't see where it goes.
Working on your own can be a problem from an equipment standpoint. Some of the equipment (jumps, table, tunnel, go-through, weave poles) are easily and economically constructed with pvc pipe as the basis. The more complicated items are the A-frame, dog-walk and teeter-totter. Space can also be a problem if you are working with regulation sized equipment. I currently have a back yard of approximately 80' x 100' and feel that I can work with most of the equipment (not all at once) in that space. You don't need to have the space available for all pieces to be set up at the same time, because you are training more for recognition of specific obstacles and teaching of sequences, rather than a complete course.
The "kindergarten" obstacles are sufficient for training of all commands and these are usually within most individuals' space and budget limitations. I found that buying and constructing one or two things at a time was the way to get started. If enough Mastiff people in one area get interested you could form a co-op to share expenses. Maybe even non-Mastiff people would be interested.
If enough readers have an interest in the sport, I could do another article that would go into actual training and construction of the obstacles. Please let me know your thoughts. In the meantime, the following references may be of help for those wanting to get involved. Good luck and above all, have fun!!
Enjoying Dog Agility, From Backyard to Competition, Julie Daniels, Doral Publishing, Wil- sonville, OR, 1991
Agility Training, The Fun Sport for All Dogs, Jane Simmons-Moake, Howell Book House, New York, 1991