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Bending Poles and the Clicker

Agility – a combination of speed and accuracy where handler and dog must work as a team.

So much time can be wasted or gained at the bending poles, so it is well worthwhile ensuring that your dog truly understands how to perform this obstacle. Basic principles include rhythm, keeping the dog’s head facing forward, and ensuring that the dog is used to being handled on both sides.

It should be borne in mind that dogs spines do not fully develop until they are about 2 years of age, and excessive wiggle training before that age can be detrimental to the animal and could potentially cause long-term damage. Bending repeatedly through a series of poles is not a natural behaviour for a dog and could quite easily compromise the growth plates if performed too vigorously or repeatedly at an early age. Such injuries might only manifest a couple of years later, which might make diagnosis of the initial cause of the injury difficult.

There are many varied ways of teaching bending poles, such as placing restricting wires between the poles, targeting, using a leg to force the dog into the correct gap, weave-o-matics, etc. To my mind the best way (and the one that will cause least injury) consists of two elements:

Firstly, it is imperative that the dog understands the correct entry point. The dog must enter the obstacle with the first pole at its left shoulder, irrespective of the angle of approach, which side the handler is on etc., etc. To ensure that the dog truly understands this, I would train each little variation of the entry with a clicker.

Secondly, the dog needs to understand that it must run as fast and as straight as possible. In order to achieve this, two sets of poles should be set up parallel with each other, with a gap large enough between them for the dog to pass easily between them. The dog is then clicked for running down the channel created by this double row of poles. This keeps the dog’s head straight and gets a good turn of speed. The poles can then be gradually moved closer and closer together and eventually moved in to one straight stripe and voila! the dog is weaving.

In order to make the bending behaviour even stronger, and to ensure that the dog doesn’t lose concentration and so pop out of the line of weave poles before completion, the dog needs to be consistently reinforced for those last few poles. The easiest way of doing this is to make use of backchaining. This is a technique used by clicker trainers to encourage and reinforce behaviour chains. (a behaviour chain being a number of different and often unrelated behaviours in a certain sequence which need to be performed in a continuous flow. e.g. enter the poles with the first pole of your left hand side, bend to the right, turn and bend to the left, etc.)

Basically what one does is train the last behaviour first – in this case the last three poles only. Put that little sequence on cue. Then add the three poles before that so that there are now six poles in the sequence. Then the three before that, etc. Once the dog understands this, as he commits to the poles (presuming that all the above criteria – correct entry, head pointing straight forward, rhythm etc. – are understood by the dog) you can give the cue for the last three poles. The dog will change down a gear and zip through those poles so that he can do that last little wiggle which he knows so well will earn him his reward.

Voila!! you have a dog that not only understands the various concepts of wiggle poles, but a dog that is really motivated to get to the end of them.

And so the time arrives to consider entering a show and seeing how your handling skills will stand up under pressure……

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Maxine Quinton
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