Making the Most of What You Have (Training in Small Spaces) – Part 1

Tricky street tuggingFor about a year and a half, I was living in New York City. I went from living in a large house on 2 acres to a small one bedroom apartment near a park. In this three-part article series, I am going to share how I kept agility in my life while living in a challenging environment. Although I am going to focus on getting creative while I was living in New York City, these ideas can be used for agility enthusiasts with small backyards as well as times we are stuck in our homes during inclement weather.

I won’t spend time talking about how to train and teach various skills, such as targeting, flatwork games for handling, and various jump exercises. There are so many amazing instructors out there who have written numerous articles on these topics. I will share the games this agility enthusiast played with my dogs to make the most out of the limited space we had. I will begin the series by discussing some of the challenges I experienced, frustrations I felt, and some of the things I did to overcome them.

The Challenges of Small Spaces

The hardest part of living in New York City was related to equipment. I didn’t have access to large equipment or enough equipment to work sequences and courses. I couldn’t exactly fit a dog walk under my bed (and believe me, I stuck everything from a plank, 2x2 weave poles, and 3 Clip-N-Go jumps under there)! For half of the time I lived in the city, I had a car. For the other half, I commuted on the train and met up with generous friends who had cars. I registered for a weekly class in the suburbs of New York City. I also looked for run-thru opportunities, signed up for seminars, and played with my agility friends in their very large backyards. My challenge was filling in the gaps in between classes and seminars.

Another challenge I faced was limited off leash opportunities. The only fenced in spaces in New York City are dog runs. And I couldn’t drag a jump into a dog run to train my dog. I had to plan my training sessions around New York City’s parks scheduled off leash hours in their parks. Because the parks are wide open spaces with lots of distractions (other dogs, people, bikes, baseball games, and squirrels), it was very important for my dogs to have excellent impulse control. I realized that this was a blessing in disguise since it provided me with an amazing opportunity to work impulse control and distractions! I figured that if they could stay with me when training in the middle of Central Park, then focusing during an agility trial should would be a piece of cake!

It was extremely important for me to plan my agility training sessions in advance. For the first time in my life, I included agility training as an appointment in my Google calendar. This included planning in advance what I was going to work on that particular week. By creating a plan, I was more efficient with my time and productive with my dogs.

Embrace Your Space

I shared my small one bedroom apartment with three dogs, Charlotte, Tricky and Marvel, as well as my boyfriend (now my husband). There wasn’t a lot of space so we had to make the most of what we had. Under the bed became prime real estate for storage…and that’s where my agility equipment lived. I was able to store 2 Clip-N-Go jumps, 1 travel plank, 1 mini-teeter, 1 wobble board, a set of 2x2 weave poles (4 poles), 2 Dyna Discs, and 2 perches. The Yoga ball and Peanut didn’t fit so I stored them on top of our kitchen cabinets. Anything considered for foundation training and body conditioning can fit in your home—even if you live in an apartment. Even the dogs’ crates were part of agility training.

Marvel was a puppy at the time so having all of this foundation equipment was perfect. And although Tricky is a master’s level dog, I regularly used this equipment to work different skills and keep them fresh for her. I will expand on how I used the various pieces of equipment in part 2 of this series.

Remember the old saying, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade”? Well that’s exactly what I did when thinking about how to make agility work living in an urban area. I saw New York City as one giant opportunity for impulse control training and building understanding on various skills needed to play agility.

Keep Calm and Ignore the Squirrel

From the moment we took our first walk in our new, New York City neighborhood we had to contend with pigeons that were very habituated to people and dogs. They wouldn’t move out of our way until we were only inches away, holding their ground until the last moment. When they finally fly off, my dogs were in a frenzy of excitement. We lived in a family-friendly neighborhood with Razor scooter riding kids and bouncing basket balls. Bike messengers were constantly on the move, sometimes even riding on sidewalks. Dogs with a variety of manners and social-ability shared the city sidewalks. Talk about a gauntlet! Through various self-control games, I taught my dogs to ignore the pigeons and poorly mannered dogs. I taught them that they could only visit people and other dogs on cue. These skills not only help create a more focused teammate in the agility ring, they are also helpful in create a better-mannered family companion.

You might recall an article series I wrote last year called, “How Tricky Got Her Groove Back,” about some motivation issues I was working through with my dog, Tricky. One of them was her lack of interest in tugging. Living in the city provided me with the perfect background to teach her to tug, no matter what! We tugged in Times Square, Central Park while training other skills, in the hallway and on the front steps of my building, next to the local dog run, next to the neighborhood basketball court…you get the idea. When I first started asking Tricky to tugDSC_9020_NYC distractions outside of the context of agility, she didn’t immediately grab the toy. After a few times of doing this, having a tug toy show up in random areas blew her mind—like it was Christmas in July.

Technically, dogs are only allowed off leash in certain parks around New York City during designated hours. When I chose to train the dogs outside of those designated hours, I used a long line to give the impression they were ‘on leash.’ I worked their start line skills, including focusing on me while leading out. This is an important skill because there’s a lot going on at an agility trial. If your dog is focused on you when you’re leading out, you have a better indication of what your dog is going to do once released. The bustling park provided the perfect level of distraction training. I was always generous with my reinforcements because of the level of distractions my dogs had to deal with on a daily basis. I was amazed at times at their ability to focus—a true testament to dog training.

There was a dog run with a separate small do area at the park near where I lived. Once in a while, I brought my little dogs there to play with other dogs. This game me an opportunity to practice calling my dogs out of play. Calling your dog out of play is an important life skill. It’s also a great way to see how your dog will respond when highly aroused. Agility tends to bring out the excitement in dogs—and when they are that aroused, they sometimes do not respond in the way you want and do not control their impulses. This could show up as blowing contacts, taking obstacles when not cued, breaking start lines, leaving the ring, not turn tightly when cued, knocking bars…a lot can happen when a dog doesn’t know how to be thoughtful when aroused. There are many training games to address the examples I listed above. These games are specific to fix those agility problems—but if your dog doesn’t come when called the training games won’t help the core issue.

Agility is everywhere!

Just because I didn’t have access to equipment didn’t mean my dogs couldn’t practice important skills necessary. Agility is not just about equipment. There are many components that make up the game and help to create a partner in your dog. A dog needs to build confidence performing skills, such as running across a dog walk or slamming down a teeter. A dog needs to understand how to use his/her body to move around the course (more about this in Part 2 of this series). A dog needs to learn how to respond to handling cues long before they can be done on jumps.

I lived near a park. There was a long, 2-foot high stone wall at the entrance of the park. I used the wall to play ‘plank’ games. My dogs had to race along the wall with me or independent of me. I cued them to jump on, turn around, and then jump off, in preparation of safely bailing off of a dog walk. While playing these games, people, children, other dogs, and all kinds of city critters were moving all around us. Built-in distraction training!

When I adopted Marvel, he was only five and half months old. Almost right away, I started doing flatwork training with him—not just for agility, but as a structured way to build his focus for me in the face of distractions. When Marvel first came to live with us, he was overwhelmed by all of the sights and sounds of the city. He alarm barked at everything. These games not only taught him how to move with me and be more focused on me, they also gave him an opportunity to enjoy playing with me in distracting and stimulating situations. I used traffic cones I found at the park to work on wraps, driving back to me, figure 8s, and sends. I also used trees and telephone poles.

DSC_9036_Tricky park benchTo work on the Table behavior, I used park benches. My dogs practiced racing to benches with me, sending to park benches, distractions while they held a down position on a park bench, and so forth. Whenever we walked by a park bench, they became really excited! This was also helpful in building value for any stopped contact behavior because the dog was in motion and then suddenly had to stop, while I stayed in motion.

I practiced Recall games everywhere I could let my dogs off leash. Whether playing with another dog or holding a Sit-Stay, coming when called with speed and focus was the intention. And we had fun with it. Sometimes I raced away as they were coming, which only increased their drive to catch me. Sometimes I stood still. Either way, because I kept the game unpredictable and playful, my dogs were always keeping an eye on me because they never knew when the party was going to start!

Agility is a Game of Building Blocks

Agility understanding is built upon, brick by brick. It can take about two to three years to create an agility partner from puppyhood. And once the bricks have been laid down, it doesn’t mean it you forget about it. Everything needs tending to, needs to be revisited, to make sure the integrity is still in. Although I was raising a puppy for agility while living in the city, my Masters level dog also benefited from playing all of the games I noted above and will note in the next two parts of this series. So don’t be discouraged if you don’t have a large backyard or the equipment to run courses. Anything is possible with an open mind and some imagination!

Read Part 2 and Part 3 of this series.

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Positively Expert: Bobbie Bhambree

Bobbie Bhambree is a dog trainer, a dog behavior consultant, and an agility competitor with over fifteen years’ experience in dog training and behavior. Bobbie is the Founder & Director of DogCentric Training & Behavior, a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT), a member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants...


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