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When a Training Issue’s Not a Training Issue…

Have you ever heard – or even said yourself – “But he knows what he’s meant to do!”?  Consistency is something a lot of agility dogs and handlers struggle to achieve – let’s be honest it’s partly why we prize our rosettes so much, as often they are few and far between. 

Weaves?  Never heard of them.  Contacts?  Nope.  What do you mean “I did it last week”?  That was a different field, different colour, different weather, the judge didn’t have a hat on, and I saw where that lead person put my toy so I’m just going to fetch it before we go any further….!  Perhaps the dog is lacking experience in the competition environment, perhaps you think they need more training, or perhaps they are not 100% physically comfortable today.

Leaving aside the debate on whether dogs can be stubborn, cheeky or out to embarrass you, if your dog shows a change in their behaviour this can be the first sign of a physical problem.   Changes in athletic performance due to sub-clinical physical problems can often be mistaken for training or confidence issues, e.g.,

  • Running under jumps
  • Change in jump style e.g. tucking
  • Measuring jumps
  • Pole-knocking
  • Collapsing on landing or skidding on turns
  • Missing weave entries
  • Weave entries that go 1-3 i.e. lack of deceleration/stride control
  • Doesn’t stay in weaves or cannot maintain consistent foot pattern
  • Unwilling/unable to hold 2-on 2-off contact position
  • Wide turns
  • Reduced speed
  • Decreased stamina
  • Refusing obstacles
  • Displacement behaviours e.g. sniffing
  • Unwilling to tug
  • Reluctance to sit on the start line

Of course, we always have to consider the handling before we blame our dogs for wide turns or start worrying about them.  I have a video clip of my collie that if you watch without sound looks as though he is struggling to jump, he measures one jump so badly.  Turn the sound on and you hear me yell “LLLEEEEFFFTTTT” just as he is about to commit to a full extension jump (disclaimer: I never normally yell like that, and it was a horribly late cue).  He is such an honest dog he immediately pulls up, puts in *two* extra strides, and makes the turn I asked him for, tight to the wing.  In the same scenario, my terrier wouldn’t have even bothered trying to turn – he would have jumped long then done an enormous wide turn. 

How do you know whether the agility issues your dog is showing are due to training, lack of experience/proofing, lack of confidence, dodgy handling, or a physical problem?  It can be a process of elimination, so if you have concerns about your dog, talk to your own circle of experts.  This should obviously include your trainer who knows your dog well, and ideally show them video.  Get your dog checked out by your vet.  If you don’t already have a relationship with a hands-on canine therapist of any kind, Canine Massage Guild members offer no-obligation free muscular checks at some agility shows.

Rather than worrying that your dog has suddenly forgotten all their training, is just being awkward or doesn’t like agility any more, ask yourself whether the new behaviour could be physical.  Asking a dog to carry out a behaviour that they are physically struggling with is frustrating for both of you, completely unfair on your dog, and may make an injury worse.  Repeatedly asking your dog to do something that causes discomfort may also have the longer term effect of putting your dog off agility; if their confidence and enjoyment in the agility game take a knock, this can add an extra complication to their recovery and return to competition.

Remember to specifically focus on changes – if your dog has always been ambivalent about toys this is unlikely to be physical, however if a keen tugger suddenly isn’t interested in their favourite fluffy raggy, it is possible that they might have sore neck muscles, or a painful tooth. A dog who has always set up keenly for a run but now sits gingerly on the start line could have a gluteal strain – if you’ve never experienced this yourself, all I can say is “ow”!

While some agility or everyday behaviours are like red flags for injuries to certain muscle groups, general performance issues such as a lack of stamina and decreased speed or power may be linked to myofascial pain or trigger points.  These things certainly won’t stop a high drive dog from doing what they love, as best as they can, although subtle restrictions to their movement and flexibility, together with low level pain, will show up as reduced athleticism.  This type of gradual-onset problem may be easily explained away by the dog being slightly older or unfit.  If you think your middle-aged dog has slowed down this season, my advice would be to book a vet check and a maintenance massage for him or her and find out whether you see a different dog!

About the Author

Alison Pearce is a Clinical Canine Massage Practitioner based in Newbury, and a member of the Canine Massage Guild. 

Alison has been competing in agility since 2005 with a variety of dogs of all sizes, and currently competes at Grade 5 with her Border Collie, Herbie, who was runner up in the Novice Cup at Crufts 2018. 

Click here to contact Alison.



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