This is bonus material from my How to tame a T-rex diary, and of course this is HUGE subject and there are as many solutions as there are dogs, so I'm just sharing some of my general thoughts on speed in agility as I see it.
First of all, paradoxically I think the worst you can do is to actually "push for speed". Nothing kills speed as much as physical or psychological pressure.
I'd like to share one video with you, this is Brava's first ever competition start:
Ignoring the super weird distances on this course and my equally awkward handling, you can still see that Brava, as cute and sweet as she was, was yet far from being one of the fastest dogs in Poland and one of the best agility dogs in Europe that she would become later.
I really believe that speed in agility is by-product of three components: structure and physical preparation, motivation and understanding the task. Therefore I don't really focus on "my dog needs to run fast", but rather on preparing my dogs when it comes to those three elements. You need to also remember that they change in time: the dog develops both physically and mentally, they learn more skills, they become more motivated and as it happens, they also become faster. So I assume if I take care of those three elements, the dog would work as fast as they can at this moment and you need to appreciate them, reward them and praise them for that.
This is exactly what you see on the video - Brava was running as fast as she could at this moment and I just made sure she knew she was the greatest, the most pyrfect and fantastic dog ever.
Coming back to the elements of speed:
- Structure and physical abilities of the dog. We cannot influence structure (so pay attention to this when choosing a puppy), but of course we can help the dog to develop coordination and muscles.
- as always, I repeat: long walks = happy dogs. The dog needs regular walks, during which they can RUN. Agility is a sprint and the dog must have the chance to practice it. Nothing can replace long, off-leash walks, fullstop.
- secondly, proper conditioning exercises. I really encourage everybody to consult a good physiovet, who can help you evaluate your dog's structure and would advice on exercise program. There are also lots of excellent online resources on canine fitness and conditioning, the once that I used myself and can fully recommend are:
Avidog.com (by famous Chris Zink) and Dogs4motion, but I'm sure there are more great ones.
2. Motivation. This in itself is a huge topic, so just some basic points:
- find what your dog really LOVES. It's not true that the dog has to play with toys, has to tug or has to retrieve to be great in agility. It is useful, it makes it easier FOR US, but if your dog loves nothing more than chicken hearts or liver sausages, use that.
- reward actively! reward that is running away is more attractive that the one that just pops into dog's mouth. Move, praise your dog lavishly (watch out, some dogs are actually overwhelmed by too loud praise), choose a toy that you can throw or drag on the ground, use a clam ball (lotus ball) if your dog works for food, race your dog to the reward, experiment, find out what is best for your dog.
- reward often and for small steps. Plan the training in such a way that the dog is mostly successful, divide the behaviour into little steps that you can reward. Use backchaining and frontchaining (you can see that on the video with Reksio). BUT that doesn't mean you need to reward everything! Actually lack of clear criteria is very frustrating especially for softer dogs and might cause frustration and shutting down, because the dog doesn't know what to do to get the reward, and still obviously they can see whether the trainer is genuinely happy or not.
- reward for speed. That seems obvious but actually is one of the most common mistakes I see on the seminars. People for instance stop to reward, so the dog also stops and hence, gets rewarded for being static rather than running. The other example is rewarding right after the dog omits obstacle or starts sniffing etc. Reward when the dog is doing something correct and fast.
Again, I can recommend excellent trainer for motivation issues: Polona Bonac, one of the greatest trainers ever in my opinion, with lots of insight and lots of ideas on how to engage your dog.
3. Understanding of the task. The better the dog understands the behaviour, the faster they can perform it. Be patient, it's a process. It's normal then when the dog is learning the behaviour, it won't be as fast as later - very simple example is the grids that you can see on the video. Notice the difference in speed when he was first doing the grid and now, several weeks later.
NEVER try to get speed before understanding, it's a recipe for disaster , if you ever saw dogs that seem deprived of self-preservation instinct and demolish the course, those are the dogs that have physical abilities and motivation but lack understanding.
The three elements of speed are all interconnected and you can not reach dog's maximum potential if you neglect any of them.