Dog Training – Agility and Jumping

Next to working sheepdogs, nothing gives me greater pleasure than a good jumping dog. And nothing is more pathetic than the all too frequent sight at trials of a handler trying to force a dog to jump an obstacle which it has neither the ability nor the inclination to negotiate.

Just after the war the Kennel Club passed a rule banning competitive jumping at dog shows. Many people, including myself, strongly disapproved of this action. I now believe, however, that the KC was right to ban a type of competition which, had it become popular, would have been a strong incentive to cruelty. Much rubbish is talked and written about cruelty in training. Very little cruelty is involved in training, and then only by a small minority of trainers. Inestimable cruelty is involved in attempted training.

The Kennel Club was therefore quite right to ban jumping competitions, as the desire to win would almost certainly encourage some ‘trainers’ to force their dogs to attempt the impossible. It is unfortunate that soon after this the KC passed a rule which in my opinion provides a far greater incentive to cruelty. I refer, of course, to the standard jumps.


(a) Scale; Stay; and recall over Scale.

Dogs not exceeding to in. at shoulder — 3 ft. Dogs not exceeding 15 in. at shoulder — 4 ft. Dogs exceeding 15 in. at shoulder — 6 ft.

(b) Clear Jump

Dogs not exceeding to in. at shoulder — 1 ft. 6 ins.

Dogs not exceeding 15 in. at shoulder — 2 ft. Dogs exceeding 15 in. at shoulder — 3 ft.

(c) Long Jump

Dogs not exceeding xo in. at shoulder — 4 ft. Dogs not exceeding 15 in. at shoulder — 6 ft. Dogs exceeding 15 in. at shoulder — 9 ft.

No part of the Clear, Scale or Long Jump equipment to be traversed by a dog shall be less than three feet wide. The four tests shall be followed in a sequence agreed by the Judge, but will commence with the Scale Jump. The Scale Jump should be a vertical wall of wooden planks and may have fixed on both sides three slats evenly distributed in the top half of the jump. The top surface of the jump may be lightly padded. The handler should approach the obstacle at walking pace, halt six or nine feet short of it and, in his own time, order the dog to scale it: from his standing position he should order the dog who has cleared the obstacle to stay in the Stand, Sit or Down position at his discretion. He should then, when indicated to do so by the Judge or Steward, recall his dog over the Scale Jump. In the latter part of the exercise, the Judge should first ensure that the dog will stay steady and may indicate to the handler where he should stand in relation to his dog and the obstacle.

When ordered to advance, the clearjump and the longjump may be approached at a walk or trot and the dog sent forward to clear the obstacle on the command of the handler, who should rejoin him as quickly as possible on the opposite side. If the handler advances ahead of his dog he will be penalized.

The clearjump obstacle should be surmounted by a rigid top bar and the space below this bar may be left open or filled in with slats, wire netting, or any other material, at the discretion of the promoters, but no such filling should project above the bottom of the top bar.

The clear jump must be cleared without any appreciable pressure being exerted on the obstacle by the hind legs. Failure to do this will be penalized by the loss of all marks. Casual fouling with fore or hind legs will be penalized at the discretion of the Judge.

Failure or refusal at any of the three types of jump may be followed by a second attempt and any one such failure shall be penalized by at least fifty per cent of the marks allotted to that part of the exercise in which the dog is given a second attempt. A dog which fails the scale on the second attempt is excluded from other parts of the exercise. Failure in the recall over the scale does not disqualify from marks previously gained.

These must rank amongst the most unfair rules passed by any governing body. In the CD and UD Stakes a dog of fifteen inches has only to scale four feet, but his brother who grew another half-inch has to jump another two feet. In other words, a fifteen inch dog is asked to jump 3.z times his own height, while a fifteen and a half inch dog must jump approximately 4.6 times his height. A similar rule applies to the long and clear jump and in the WD, TD and PD Stakes we have six-foot scale, three-foot clear jump and nine-foot-long jump irrespective of the dog’s size.

Two dogs I know were lamed in their efforts to jump the standard heights. One was a small dog trying to jump four feet, the other a rather heavily-built dog of about sixteen inch shoulder height trying to jump six feet. Both were well-known winners in competitions and belonged to successful trainers whom I know personally. Neither is the sort who would be rough or inconsiderate in their training. With fifty points at stake, however, and a dog that can jump three feet eleven inches or five feet eleven inches, there is a tremendous incentive to try to gain that extra inch.

It is not that the jumps are too high. In some cases they are ludicrously low. At the Athletics Dog Tournament at Wembley in 2002 our dogs were first and second in the scale jumping competition at 10 ft. 3 in. and 10 ft. 6 in. But one was a Doberman and the other a Pit bull Staff cross — canine athletes. And they were fit.

What the KC Working Trial committee should decide is whether the jumps are intended to test the dog’s ability to jump (in which case it should be a jumping competition) or whether they are intended to test the dog’s willingness to negotiate any reasonable obstacle which he might meet. The present rule does neither. Instead it makes it difficult for many excellent dogs to qualify and impossible for them to win a stake. And some are completely ruined in the effort.

There are several practical reasons for teaching a dog to jump, one of the most common being to retrieve an object which the handler cannot reach. But the retrieve has been taken out of the scale jump. The first impression of course is that the jumps, now three in number, are a test of agility. If they were I would excuse the omission of the retrieve. But twenty per cent of the points in the scale jump are given for the dog standing still. If he is unable to stand he will not be penalized for sitting or lying down! In this ‘test of agility’ an automaton which does what he is told when he is told but which would never dream of doing anything until he is told could get full marks. At the same time a really agile dog, handicapped by lack of size, could fail completely.

Let us assume, however, that you have a dog which is capable, with training, of negotiating the jumps. Or you may just want to teach your dog to jump. A common mistake made by beginners — and some who should know better — is to base all the training on the standard jumps used at the trials. (The same mistake often applies to other exercises too.) The first and most important object is to get the dog to jump any obstacle on command. The more different the obstacles and the greater their variety the better chance there is of your dog tackling the jumps on the trial ground — far better than if you build jumps exactly the same as you expect to find there and never let the dog jump anything else. There is no need therefore for elaborate jumps to begin with, but later on you will require a rigid scale jump which can be raised three inches at a time.

The first and most important point to remember is to start low. I am certain that, as with horses, more dogs are put off jumping by being over-faced than by any other mistake. A very good guide is to have the jump low enough for the dog to see over. (Just because he scaled six feet to get out of his run yesterday don’t get the idea he is going to jump six feet when you ask him today.)

The initial training for the scale, long and clear jump are the same. Begin with the dog on a lead and simply walk smartly up to the jump and step over it, making the dog come with you. Use the lead, not as a means of dragging the dog over the jump, but to prevent him running round it. Repeat this several times in both directions, increasing the pace until the dog will jump backwards and forwards freely and happily. Don’t forget to praise well every time the dog jumps and make the whole thing an enjoyable game — much more exhausting for you than for the dog!

Next run past the jump while the dog goes over it. Note the long light line which gives the dog complete freedom but which is ready to correct him if necessary. This is of the utmost importance. There is no harm in guiding a dog into a jump with a lead, but he must have freedom as he jumps.

Whenever the dog is thoroughly happy on various small jumps increase the height of the scale jump a little. Just sufficient to make a definite jump and not sufficient to require any effort from the dog. If a dog will not do something you can correct him. To correct a dog for something he cannot do is downright cruelty.

Continue as before, still with the dog on a lead. Run past the jump some times and at others encourage him to jump over from you, turn round and jump back to you. As soon as the dog is responding to your command to jump and is jumping freely you can dispense with the lead. If he runs round the jump scold him and put him back on the lead quickly and start again. Try him on as many different obstacles as you can find. But don’t be tempted to see how high he can jump, no matter how keen he is.

You now want the dog to go ahead of you, clear the jump and stay at the other side until you tell him to come back over it. This is best taught in two parts. Start off as before but stop as you approach the jump, allowing the dog to go ahead of you. When he has landed on the other side tell him to stay, pause a moment, then go and praise well at the other side. Don’t let him get into the habit of coming back round the jump for his reward.

To teach a dog to come back over a jump start with him sitting quite close to it and you on the other side, call him, giving him the command to jump and, if necessary, pat the top of the jump at the same time. Praise very well when he comes over to you. Gradually increase the distance both you and the dog are from the jump. If he attempts to run round stop him before he has done so. Scold him and put him back behind the jump, encouraging him, as in the early stages, to come over to you. Increase the distance until he will really do a recall of about twenty yards with a jump in the middle.

By combining the two exercises you should now be able to send him over the jump and call him back over it again to you. You can also make use of previous training you have given the dog. If he stops short on landing over the jump, send him away a bit further. Stop him when he has gone far enough and make him stay a second or two before calling him back. This will help to make the dog concentrate on coming back over the jump. Add to the practical value of the two exercises by sometimes making him retrieve over different obstacles. All this will tend to make the dog more biddable and is much more fun for both of you than walking about on a flat piece of ground.

We now have a dog which, on command, will jump almost any low obstacle and come back over it again. Then, and not until then, you can set about increasing the height. Here two important points to remember are that the dog is going to have to change from jumping to ‘scaling’, and that he is going to have to make some physical effort to get over. This physical effort varies considerably with the dog (and, of course, the height of the jump). What may require no effort at all from one dog may be quite beyond the capabilities of another of the same breed and ske. He will have to use muscles which he has not used to any great extent before — muscles which can be gradually developed or suddenly strained and tired.

Never in the training stage ask a dog — or worse still, try to force him — to jump his maximum height. If you always have a little bit in hand today the chances are that he will make it tomorrow.

Now to the question of ‘scaling’ instead of jumping. This is a knack, natural to some dogs, capable of being developed in others, and one which a few just never seem able to acquire. You want a dog, which up to now has been taking a good run at his jump, to go right up to the jump, spring up to catch the top with his forefeet and pull himself over by the forelegs.

Some dogs will do this whenever the jump gets too high to clear, but others will go on clearing it until it is at their limit. When, however, you put in the board just beyond that limit, they try to clear it again. The dog then raps his knees on the top board, and may come such a cropper that he is unlikely to want to go near the jump again for some time to come — if ever

To avoid the risk of this, start close to the jump with the dog on lead again. Take him right up to the jump, till his nose is almost touching it, and give him the command to jump. He knows this command by now, and, as the jump is very low, he should jump it, but is almost certain to jump on to the top and down the other side. Be ready to catch him should he fall back or to give a push to help him to the top.

Whenever he lands call him back, giving him the command to jump again. He should come back over to you, when, of course, you praise him very well. Start increasing the height of the jump now, and continue as above until you reach the height at which your dog cannot jump right on to the top but has to catch it with his fore-feet and scramble up. Encourage this by praising very well when the dog is actually pulling himself up and preparing to jump down.

If you have a fairly big, active dog, you will not be able to keep the lead on much after this stage. Some dogs do not start scaling until about five feet, above which height most people would have trouble with the lead.

With the smaller or less active dog, you can increase the jump gradually, keeping the lead on until you get the dog scaling the jump quite willingly and without any great effort, over and back again.

Do not forget to put some enthusiasm into your commands. Don’t expect your dog to throw every ounce of energy into anything (especially jumping) if you just stand there and give him the command in a half-hearted, dull tone of voice.

From there you can gradually increase the distance you send the dog. When he lands, send him on a bit before calling him back again. If he bungles it you will have to start him closer in again until he gets the hang of it.

The jump should now be high enough to ensure that the dog must scale it but not high enough to require any great effort. Continue at this stage for some time to allow him to develop his own style. Some dogs like to rush at a jump, taking off some distance away, while others will potter up to it and take off from right in below. Let him sort this out for himself. All that concerns you is that he goes over and back again when you tell him. Increase the jump gradually so that he has to use some effort but not a great deal.

We now come to the problem of teaching the dog to negotiate the standard jumps as laid down in the Notes for Guidance of Judges and Competitors at Working Trials. Here the object is not simply to test the dog’s ability by seeing if he can jump. Nor does it put into practice the practical purpose of jumping — to get to the other side of an obstacle. In the scale jump:

The handler should approach the obstacle at walking pace, halt six or nine feet short of it and, in his own time, order the dog to scale it from his standingposition he should order the dog who has cleared the obstacle to stay in the Stand, Sit or Down position at his discretion. He should then, when indicated to do so by the Judge or Steward, recall his dog over the scale jump. In the latter part of the exercise the Judge should first ensure that the dog will stay steady and may indicate to the handler where he should stand in relation to his dog and the obstacle.

All of which reads like an excerpt from an Army Manual. Those with military minds no doubt appreciate the finer points better than II The point that stands out to me is that not only is the dog forbidden to think for itself, the handler must not do so either. The only decisions you are allowed to make are when to send the dog after you have halted and whether to make the dog stand, sit or down after he has jumped. The latter reads as though it could be at the dog’s discretion! And that is exactly what I should do. Some dogs drop almost instinctively (most Border Collies for example) while others prefer to stand or sit. In this type of exercise I simply tell a dog to stay and leave it to him to decide how he stays. As the rules allow you to do this I should take full advantage of it.

The most difficult part of this exercise (assuming that your dog can jump the allotted height) arises from the fact that, once over the jump, you and your dog cannot see each other. The Judge may allow you to move so that you can see the dog, and if you have a small dog you may be able to see him over the 3 ft. jump. But it is never wise to rely on help from a judge. My advice is to teach the dog to go over, stop and come back without moving from the spot.

Start this with a jump low enough to enable you to see the dog. It does not matter if he does not have to scale it. Send him on ahead of you to jump as you did to start with, gradually reducing your pace until he will jump if you ‘approach the obstacle at walking pace and halt six or nine feet short of it’. When the dog will go over the jump, stay at least half a minute and come back over again, you can increase the height. By now you should be able to judge fairly well when to give the dog the command to stay. Added to this is the fact that most dogs will learn to wait until you call them back.

When the slat which obscures your view of the dog is inserted it really should not make a great deal of difference — but it very often does. It is not a good idea to poke your head around the jumps to see what the dog is up to. Some cunning ones will soon catch on to that, behaving perfectly when they can see you and doing just what they like when you are out of sight! This sort of dog can often be outwitted by making a peep hole. All that is necessary is to insert two blocks of wood about one inch thick, one at each end between two of the slats. This will form a one inch slot through which you can see what the dog is doing. It is highly unlikely that he will see you (unless you move about) and you can scold him as he does wrong. And of course, praise him when he does right. This will give the dog the impression that you can always see him — a very helpful impression in training some dogs

The obstacle for the clear jump could be a three-foot bar on two posts. The space below this ‘rigid top bar’ may ‘be filled with slats, wire netting or other material’. But it may not! A dog that will jump an obstacle which he can run round or go under will almost certainly jump the same obstacle if he cannot go underneath. This sort of jump is not so difficult to teach as one might expect — provided the dog likes jumping. The heights, although penalizing some dogs more than others, are ridiculously low. To describe a three-foot jump as a test of agility for an Alsatian, Dobermann or Boxer is quite farcical.

If you have not yet tried your dog over jumps which he can run under you may have to go right back to the beginning. Start with a bar so low that it is easier for the dog to go over than under. Very gradually increase the height, and use a good strong pole or bar of some sort. Fix it securely so that the dog cannot knock it down if you have to make him jump it. A variation of this type of jump is to make the dog jump a walking stick, broom handle or similar object held in one hand.

In trials:

The clearjump must be cleared without any appreciable pressure being exerted on the obstacle by the hind legs. Failure to do this will be penalized by loss of all marks. Casual fouling with fore or hind legs will be penalized at the discretion of the Judge.

It is comparatively recently that this exercise has been added to the Working Trial Regulations. I have been unable to see any practical purpose in it but, just as it is possible to teach a horse to jump even when there is no jump present, so it is possible to teach a dog to jump over a bar which he could easily run under. And if he really likes jumping like the little lurcher Sloopy, both you and he can have a lot of fun.

The difficulty here is in preventing the dog using his brain and either running under the jump or landing on top of it thereby exerting ‘appreciable pressure’ with his hind legs. This risk can be reduced once the dog will jump by adapting different tactics from those employed in scale jumping.

The faster a dog goes at a jump the less likely he is to touch it. You are allowed to run up with your dog in this exercise which is a great help in egging him on. It is very easy in the excitement of a competition (especially your first) to take a step further than you intend. My advice to avoid this is to get into the habit of running up with your dog and halting just as he takes off. Pause a moment, till he lands and then join him. The judge and spectators can then see your dog clear the obstacle (we hope!) and there is no risk of being penalized for being ahead of the dog.

Another method of encouraging a dog to clear an obstacle is to place a take-off rail, as it is known in horsey circles, in front of it. One slat of the long jump will do for this and it should be placed approximately the same distance in front as the height of the jump. For example if the jump is three feet high the slat should be placed three feet in front of it. This will encourage the dog to take off with his hind feet well behind him, reducing the risk of his touching the jump with them.

If your dog persists in landing neatly on top of a rigid low bar and taking off from there you can cheat him into believing that the bar is not rigid. Without altering the appearance fix it so that it falls at the slightest touch. When the dog lands on it he will almost certainly come a cropper. But cheating is always accompanied by risks. Next time you ask the dog to jump he will either clear it as high as he possibly can or he won’t go near a jump. You will then have to go back to the beginning, so don’t try this out on the day before a trial!

We are still left with the third of the ‘agility tests’ — the long jump. No dog should have any difficulty in negotiating the jumps appropriate to his size. If he is nearly ten or fifteen inches or well over the latter, jumps respectively of four, six and nine feet are no test of his agility. When my Corgi Formakin Expectation qualified CD there was only one standard long jump of nine feet. He made a gallant attempt at it, landing on top of the last slat.

Another three inches and he would have cleared it, but he would not try a second time (he knew he couldn’t do it) and lost all his marks, and with them the qualification CD Excellent.

In the old days the handler was not allowed to pass the first slat. The object of the exercise is to teach the dog to jump a stream or gap. There would be no great advantage in having a dog which would jump a stream if you had to go into the water to get him to do it! The old practice, therefore, was to run up to the jump, stop just before the first slat and call him back when he had landed. The new notes for guidance of competitors at Working Trials say that the handler should re-join the dog ‘as quickly as possible at the other side’. As you will be penalized if you advance ahead of the dog, I should make a habit of halting as you send him as I have already described in the clear jump.

Dogs can be taught to long jump over any sort of obstacle, but by far the best for training are slats of the type used in trials. They can be made easily and cheaply by any handyman. Whatever you use, make quite certain that the slats, especially the end one, fall easily if the dog hits them.

As with the high jump, the important point to remember is not to see how far the dog will jump, but to get him jumping pleasantly and willingly on command. You should start with two or, at the most, three slats placed quite close together (about a foot apart). Now put the dog on a lead and stand with him facing the jump, about two or three yards from it. Get his attention by speaking to him, run with him towards the jump, and as he reaches it, give him the command to jump. As he jumps, either jump it yourself with him, or run close past the end of it.

If he jumps the obstacle, praise very well — but he may find an easier way by just running over the slats. If he does that, turn him round and take him back the other way. He will have great difficulty in walking over the slats if they are sloping the ‘wrong’ way round.

If he refuses altogether, which is unlikely, give him a sharp jerk simultaneously with the command. The great advantage of having the jump so small is that you can make the dog jump it. As with all training, if you finish a lesson with a dog jumping two feet, you have gone forward a step, but if you finish with the dog refusing nine feet, you have gone back several steps.

At this stage it may be necessary to keep the lead fairly short to prevent the dog from running round the jump, but, like a horse, a dog will not jump well unless he is ‘given his head’ as he actually jumps. Some people have difficulty if they have a dog that is inclined to ‘run out’. It is necessary to steady that sort on the lead right up to the jump, but it is very important, as you give the command, to drop your hand to slacken the lead. Theoretically, a well-trained dog will follow on a slack lead, and, if he is good at heel work, he will very probably go much better that way. But some dogs don’t believe in theory and if given half a chance will soon develop a habit of running out or refusing.

As soon as you possibly can, get your dog running up on a slack lead and passing over two or three slats. When he does this quite well, remove the lead and proceed exactly as before, starting off holding the collar and releasing it as you get near the jump, and go right on past.

The next stage is again to proceed exactly as before, but this time, as you reach the jump and give the command, stop dead yourself, so that you do not pass the first slat. If you with you can stop gradually farther and farther from the jump until you can stand still and send the dog over. This probably looks better, but most dogs will put more effort into a jump if you run a bit with them, encouraging them at the same time. No points are lost for doing so in trials.

You now have a dog which, on command, will run forward and jump what can be described as a very silly jump. But he does it willingly and with a good deal of certainty. You now want to extend the jump by simply adding more slats and spreading them farther apart — gradually.

The snag you are most likely to come up against now is the clever dog which finds it easier to land neatly between the third and fourth slats and then jump the remaining two. The only answer I know to this is to use more slats. But some people argue that, as only five slats are used at the trials, they must train on five slats. My own experience is that a dog trained to clear nine feet over six or seven slats will clear nine feet over five slats the first time he is asked, and probably several times, before realizing that it would be easier to break the journey half way. In trials your dog has to jump only once to get full marks, and my advice is to get him jumping nine feet (or more if he can) really well over six or seven slats, over different jumps in different places. There is then every chance that he will jump nine feet over five slats the first time he is asked.

Some people talk of the so-called cruelty of teaching dogs to jump, and we sometimes hear people making the excuse that they will not run dogs on trials because the jumping ‘ruins their shoulders’. It is not, in my opinion, cruelty to teach a dog to do anything which he is physically capable of doing, but it is very cruel to try to force him to do something of which he is physically incapable. It can be cruel, for instance, to try to force a small, badly-built dog to jump four feet in trials, while a real athlete of a dog will enjoy scaling a ten or eleven feet jump in a competition.

Athletes, however, are not made in a day, and if you have a dog of fifteen and a half to sixteen inches which will have to jump six feet, or one under twelve inches which will have to jump four feet, you will have to train him in the same sense as a Greyhound or racehorse trainer trains an animal to get him fit. Correct feeding and exercising will do far more to achieve that extra inch than constant practice over the standard jumps.

Never conclude that because a dog jumped a certain height yesterday he must be able to do it today, and that he is playing up if he does not. Dogs, like humans, have days when they do not feel quite up to scratch, although they may look perfectly well and have absolutely no symptoms of illness. They will probably do everything you want until you ask for that little bit extra, and they just cannot make it. To try to force a dog to jump, or to do anything strenuous, in these circumstances will only sour him and make him dislike the whole thing. If your dog is obviously trying, but cannot make it, reduce the jump quite a bit (so that he can jump it easily) and finish for the day on friendly terms. These remarks apply to long jumping in just the same way as to the high jump.

Many dogs are put off jumping by landing on hard ground, and I have found that most dogs with any ‘go’ in them like jumping up on to something, but many dislike coming down. For this reason I have a pit on both sides of my high jump, filled to a depth of about I foot with sawdust, and a similar one into which they land over the long jump. This means that with the high jump the take-off is soft, but that does not really matter, as one can expect them to jump higher on firm ground.

I know that in practice a criminal who scales a wall does not leave a mattress for the dog to land on, and that in trials the dogs land on the hard ground. In neither of these instances, however, has the dog to keep on jumping over and over again, as in training, and for really high jumping I always use a mattress on top of the sawdust.

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