header photo

16 March 2021. Getting into Agility

I used to work a 9 to 5 job at an oil company in Aberdeen. I was worried my gorgeous young black Labrador wasn't living her best life - left at home all day with just a dog walker visit. So I joined us up at a local agility club, to give her something more exciting to do. 

Looking back, maybe all the signs were there that I was going to get hooked! After all, I'd spent my childhood running around the garden jumping over fences I'd made - pretending to be a horse or a dog. My parents, cat-people, were not impressed. 

Anyway, fast forward a decade and a bit and I'm training and competing in agility full time. I can't think of a better thing to be into!

I'm still in touch with my roots. I'll never forget my original motivation - to make my dog's life more fun. That is always going to be my driving force. 

So, what if you're just getting into agility? What should you do? What good resources are out there? 

First up, here's a couple of links...

If you're just starting out in agility, this is an amazing cheap resource for you!

If you want to get better at doing stuff like front crosses and ketschkers and all that stuff - check this out!

Click here if you want to expand your knowledge of the sport a bit more!


And here are 5 Top Tips for you...

1. Find yourself a great local trainer. You really want to train with someone decent, who has ideally competed at least to championship level, recently. 

2. Get your dog seen periodically by a decent physio, like those at the Win Clinic in Somerset. You'll need a vet referral to take them there. 

3. Ask your trainer about homework you can do. There are loads of skills you can do in your garden with just one or two jumps. 

4. Network with other agility lovers. Facebook is a big place for this. Look up pages like Agility Net and Dog Agility UK. 

5. Find out about national and international agility competitions. Look on YouTube - search terms like "agility championship Crufts" or "AWC agility 2018" or "European Open agility." 


8 Aug 2020. Did you know, you're a Personal Trainer?

Yes, you are. You are a PT. You might not know it, but trust me you are!

Don't feel qualified? Thinking that's a job better left to someone else? Rather not take on the role?

Well, I've got news for you.

You see, the thing is - you are your dog's Personal Trainer. His strength and conditioning coach. Call it what you like, but that is you!

Not thought of it like that before? 

It's time to take that role pretty seriously. 

You see, everything about your dog's body is pretty much down to you. 

You decide what your dog eats, and when. What he does as his everyday fitness routine. What proprioception he does. What strength training he does. If and when he gets support from a physiotherapist or vet. You choose when he trains and what he trains. You decide whether he jumps onto and off the sofa. Whether he walks on his walks, or zooms around at a permanent gallop. It's up to you what he does as a warm up and cool down - how long it is, what it consists of... 

This is a pretty major responsibility. 


Especially when you have an agility dog, and you have ambitions!

So if you feel totally unequipped for this role, get reading, or get some help! It's time to learn... 


4 July 2020. Training with a little one in tow.

When I gave birth to Charlie, 2 and a half years ago, I didn't realise what I had created. Right there, in perfect tiny human form, was a little distraction proofer. I just didn't know it then. 

Pretty much every time I train my dogs, Charlie is with me. To start with, he was pretty easy. Quietly lying in his pram. Lulling me into a false sense of security ;)  Then he sat in a pushchair, slightly less quiet, sometimes playing with a thing or two.

Next, he progressed to a play pen, full of toys. He tolerated that for about a month. After that, he wanted to be free!

And then he was everywhere. A walking talking little chap, into everything. He's an absolute pleasure and I love him so much, but he does make training interesting. If you've had a little one, you probably know what I mean...

Training a tunnel - okay, just check Charlie hasn't left a toy tractor in there first.

Working a sequence - no, stop, Charlie needs a wee in his potty.

Stride regulator on the aframe - stride regulator now in a dog crate... thanks Charlie.

Manners minder in position - Charlie grabs the treats before the dog can. 

Running up a handling line - dodging Charlie en route. 

One thing is for sure, he has taken distraction proofing to a whole new level. I don't know how my dogs cope with it sometimes. But they take it all in their stride, treating him as kindly as ever - dodging neatly around him when he runs into their path, politely moving away when he jumps on the bed where they're settled, politely tolerating him taking over their leads to 'help' with warm ups. 


2 July 2020. Now is the time to Train

I totally get why it’s hard to be agility motivated right now.

No competitions. Not even the sniff of one. Formal training has been disrupted for months – and lots of people have nothing but a postage stamp of a back garden to do any practice in.

On top of that, mentally it’s been tough. Lots of people have struggled – financially, emotionally. Who wouldn’t feel a bit anxious during this time?  

But. The big but is that now is probably a more important time than ever to train. This is an unprecedented period of time without competitions. And while competitions are fun, and are what keep a lot of people fired up, there’s a massive bonus to the lack of them.

Because you cannot undo any behaviours you are teaching right now by going in the ring.

That running contact hit you got that wasn’t quite what you wanted... you can do it again. That loose turn you got when you asked for collection... you don’t have to let it go. You can add these things to your list of stuff to proof. And you have time to do that, before you get back near a show.

The champions of 2021 are training now. They’re keeping their dogs agility fit. They’re working on new behaviours. They’re becoming better handlers.

You have a choice, every day.

Competitions will come back. You can achieve beyond your wildest dreams if. If. You put the work in now. You put the time in. You make the effort to get the resources you need. They are out there!

There is a heap of online training, including on here. You can have 121s with me every week if you want! There are fields to rent. There are parks that are open, where you can take a few jumps. There are fully kitted out venues to hire.

Don’t wait till you’re wishing you’d put the effort in. Do it now. Don’t ask yourself if you want to. Do it anyway, and ask later. Ask yourself when you’re heading out on to the startline at a competition in 2021. How does it feel to be that prepared? To know your dog is that fit? That well trained? You did it!


27 June 2020. Cruciates and Agility

As soon as my dog went acutely lame at three and a half, I was sure it was her cruciate ligament. Actually, with hindsight, I sometimes wonder whether that would have been what she was diagnosed with if I hadn't been so sure it was her cruciate - but maybe that's another story.

I had noticed a few very minor changes over the previous few months. One was that when she sat her hindlegs sometimes splayed out a bit beneath her, especially when she was on slippery surfaces. And the other was that she sometimes loaded one hind limb slightly more than the other when jogging with me, so that her back end would be very slightly rotated. 

But on the other hand... just over a month before it happened, she won several championship agility events at Crufts. Just two days before it happened she was checked by the Team GB vet and physio in the run up to the European Opens, and nothing out of the ordinary was noted. She was being seen by a physio regularly too, for maintenance checks.

At the time she went lame, I was giving an agility camp up in Shropshire. It was awful. She went acutely lame - properly holding her leg off the floor for the first 12 hours. Me and her are extremely close. My heart kind of fell out when it happened. I couldn't think about anything except her, and the pain she was feeling was my pain. 

Immediately I questioned everything I had ever done with her. It must be my fault. I had trained her too much when she was young. I had over-exercised her during the few days before it happened. I had let her jump up on things. I had stepped on one of her hind legs as we finished an agility run together at a show.

I packed up and left the camp the following morning, even though there was still 1 more day to go. My fellow trainers stood in for me. I felt bad for leaving like that but I couldn't teach people - I could barely string a sentence together. I called my vet (several hours drive away) and persuaded them to refer me to a specialist orthopaedic vet referral centre not far from where I was. 

When I arrived at the referral centre and the receptionist spoke to me, I burst into tears. I couldn't speak I was so upset. I was seen almost immediately by one vet. He did a detailed examination and told me he thought it was unlikely it was her cruciate, but that we would need to come back the next day to see the specialist. 

I found a local campsite, and stayed there, just a few miles from the centre. Every spare moment I was reading research papers on the internet about cruciate injuries in humans, dogs and other animals.

The next day at the centre she was seen by the specialist. That was when I was told that it was indeed cruciate, and we started talking options. In the end, we went for a type of TPLO called a cranial closing wedge osteotomy. It was done over the next few days. She wasn't insured so I maxed out credit cards and borrowed money to pay for the op - fortunately, all of which I managed to repay quickly.  

My heart hurt a lot. We were so close and her happiness mattered more to me than... well, more than anything really. On top of that we were in the middle of preparing to go out to the EOs together and were at the outset of an exciting agility career.

I'm kind of writing this to give other agility lovers who suffer cruciate issues with their dogs hope. It isn't a subject I talk or write about much at all. It still hurts me now to think about it. But if you're hurting now, I want to tell you the good part to this story, which I'll get to in a bit...  

I have mixed feelings about the orthopaedic vet. On the one hand, I believe he did a good job with his operation. And he was good about going through all the scans with me and answering my many, many questions. He's well respected in the field of cruciate repairs -  what's known as a European Specialist.

On the other hand, when I discussed rehab with him, he told me "dogs rehab themselves". I brought the issue up time and again. I wanted a treatment plan to share with my physio - and she was keen for me to get one too. But his attitude was firmly that dogs didn't need rehab. That my dog would just naturally learn how to use her new, modified body. And that 8 weeks after the operation she could go back to full agility. 

I doubt anyone told Andy Murray after his surgery that he didn't need rehab. Because his body would just figure it out. Sure, the body does figure it out - the body is an amazing thing. But if you are an athlete and you want your body to do that optimally, you give it the best possible circumstances for the best possible outcome. On the issue of rehab, the specialist was wrong, wrong and wrong.  

We went home after the operation. The weather was glorious. As well as making a pen for her indoors, I set up a pen in the garden so she could enjoy the sunshine while she recovered. I cried a lot. I sat with her in the garden and swore to myself that if we were ever able to run together again at agility, that I would always remember this moment. That I would be grateful for any time we ever got to play together again. That results would mean almost nothing to me, compared to the joy of having my partner happy again.

And I never forgot. The recovery took a long time. Way longer than 8 weeks. But eventually, we got back to training and months after that we got back in the ring. And we won a lot. Even big competitions. Because, you know what? Your dog can get over cruciate surgery. You can both come back stronger than ever.

My dog got back to winning championship tickets, recorded the fastest time in an EO agility round, won the BO at Crufts, and lots more. But on every major startline, as I walk out, I'm still thinking about those days in the garden. In the sun. Watching her hobble around on three legs with a big bandage on her fourth leg. And that makes me very grateful. 


These are the most important things I learned - most of them, the hard way... 

1. Warm up. And cool Down. PROPERLY. In humans, pretty much the only thing you can do to prevent or reduce the recurrence of cruciate ligament injuries is to warm up properly. 

2. Strengthen. Agility is not fitness. Make your dog fit first, and do agility later.

3. If you return a dog to agility after any major operation like cruciate surgery which effectively changes their joint angulation, their movement patterns will be learned all over again. So approach training like you have a puppy and give your dog the best possible chance of gradually learning the best possible movement patterns. 

4. Believe. In yourself and your dog. What you share together is way better than any ribbons. 


3 June 2019. Course Design for Novice Dogs

It’s been 7 years since I last brought out a puppy measuring into large height. And 5 years since I last brought out a puppy at all.

But just the past month I’ve started competing with my youngest dog, Clyde. He’s currently a little over 2 years old.

A couple of the courses we have run so far have been really fun. Some have left me with my heart in my mouth. Others have been so risky I’ve opted not to run.

Risk is an inherent part of agility. But for safety courses for novice dogs should always have these 5 features: 

  1. Entries to contacts which allow the dog to straighten up well before the up plank, especially the dog walk. Novice dogs do not necessarily anticipate equipment early, especially as it may not look like their training equipment. They can easily lose balance and fall. If in doubt, put a tunnel before the contact, with the tunnel exit taking the dog on a straight line to the dog walk up plank. Or a weave, with the weave exit finishing on a straight line to the contact.
  2. The aframe approach should not allow the dog to gain too much speed. This avoids excessive force going through the dog as he drives onto the up ramp.
  3. Very well secured tunnels which are straight or on loose curves only. If there aren’t enough bags supplied for the tunnel, remove it from the course.
  4. Timing gates should be set as close as possible to the start and finish obstacles.
  5. Fast approaches to bounce jump scenarios should be avoided. Where minimum distances between jump obstacles have to be used it should be when the dog is already decelerated, for example at the start of the course.

29 Jan 2019. It's a Numbers Game!

Sometimes I'm chatting to someone at a competition and they'll say something like "I've got to qualify for Olympia here because I'm only doing one other qualifier." Or "I'm only doing four shows this year so I need a win today."

We all prioritise agility in our lives according to where we want it to sit. And that's just as it should be. But if you've set yourself a goal (even just in your head) like qualifying for Olympia or winning up a grade, whatever it is... Then, as you prep your show calendar for the year, bear in mind - it's a numbers game.

The numbers

Statisically, the more qualifiers you do, the more chance you will have of qualifying. Plus, I'm not sure that one shot at qualifying for something gives you one fifth of the chance of five shots at it. What do I mean? Well, one shot is a lot more pressured. You'll know you only have one chance, and that puts more mental demand on you than knowing that it's just another of many more runs to come.

I remember when I first won into grade 7 hearing some handlers say they wouldn't enter championship classes until they were ready to win a championship ticket. I got what they meant. But personally I needed to enter the classes for two reasons:

  1. I needed to know what the championship challenges were. And what better way to find out than to run the courses?
  2. But most of all, I needed to make it 'just another run'. If you only do two champ classes a year, then it probably will feel a big deal. And your first ever few champ classes will probably feel a big deal too. Your 32nd champ class won't. It'll feel like any other class on any other day. Except that you have the pleasure of not having to queue.

So, as well as wishing you all good luck for 2019, I encourage you to plan a few more qualifiers this year. Or a few extra champs, or whatever it is. You can always opt not to go to a show if you find you've already nailed your goal...


12 Jan 2017. Choosing for Your Dog

Last year I was in my final stages of prep to go out to the EOs to represent my country with my incredibly talented dog... when she got injured. Although she appeared to improve quickly I immediately stopped everything - off lead exercise, training, competition... and had her seen by a specialist.

In all honesty, I didn't think twice about the decision to stop. As I write she has been off competition now for months and is very slowly making a return – her recovery managed through physiotherapy and hydrotherapy.

So you can understand why I get fed up of the excuses I hear made by handlers sometimes, who are choosing to run a dog who they know and have been told isn't 'right'. And yes, it does happen. But it's fine because they are only going to compete until they get that last gamblers point... Until they've finished the camp they're on...

Yes I do know it's annoying when your dog gets an injury. I know it messes up your plans for the weekend... the summer... that training holiday you booked... But we all of us have to make the right choices for our Dog.

It's not about your plans, or the inconvenience, it's not about the fact it messes up your social life...I'm sorry. But Tough! When you got a dog you decided to do agility. Not your dog. Your dog couldn't give a toss about going to that final or getting that win or that last point. And yes, your dog will probably work through the pain without complaint.

But seriously, are you going to ask him to?

No you shouldn't 'just' do this exercise... that weave... or that competition. If your dog isn't okay then you know what?... your dog isn't okay.

It's up to us to make the right choices for our dogs, even when those choices don't suit us.