Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Backyardless ADCH: Apartment Training for the Agility Dog

ADCH Ollie: title earned in 2009 during 4 years of apartment living with no place to train or practice "real" agility

This is my first time participating in a Dog Agility Blog Action Day event and it just so happens the topic is on something I know a lot about! The topic is backyard training, including the logistics of training in a small space. Or even, as was the case during my first 4 years of participation in the sport, no yard whatsoever.

That's right. Those were the apartment years. I had no place to train or practice. None. Not even a postage stamp sized yard. My "practice" was my weekly group agility class, which, usually consisted of running 2 or 3 courses. That's all the "real" agility I got. I didn't own any agility equipment because I had no yard to set anything up and, with Ollie's dog reactivity and his crazy critter prey drive, I never felt comfortable taking him to a park or other open space to practice off-leash. Looking back on it now, I wonder how my first agility dogs, Wave and Ollie, managed to learn such complex behaviors like weaving without me having a place to regularly train them on equipment. On rare occasions, I would rent a place with equipment, but, as I also find it necessary to practice agility-on-a-frayed-shoestring-budget, those were supplemental treats that were few and far between.
Ollie in our first and littlest apartment - dreaming of the day he could have a yard

Yet, somehow during a time when I had no place to train or practice any "real" agility other than a weekly group class, I managed to take a dog from adoption all the way to finishing an ADCH.

So if you take anything away from this post, let it be this: Do not let a lack of training space discourage you from becoming involved in the sport and do not let anyone tell you that you shouldn't even bother to attempt becoming involved in agility unless you have a large, fully equipped yard, field or building in which to practice. Not having space or equipment may be far from the ideal situation, but if you have a passion for agility you CAN still participate. You just need to be a little inventive.
Ollie AD, 2007 - that space in the background was all we had for training.

I spent my first four years in the sport doing apartment agility training.  What does that entail? Basically building a relationship between you and your dog while playing games together that incorporate some of the skills used in agility. Below is a list of a few of the things I did while living in a small space without access to a place to train.

1. Shaping Games: There is no better way for you and your dog to learn how to become a team than playing shaping games together. They learn how to think through situations and become better problem solvers and you both learn how to effectively communicate with each other. How you play is only limited by your imagination. I've done everything from 101 Things To Do With A Box (or chair or some other random object) to training tricks such as the Put the Ball in the Bucket game, the end product of which is shown here, but was trained through pure shaping with a clicker:

2. Body Awareness: This dovetails onto the 101 Things To Do With A Box shaping exercises which help a dog learn body awareness. Other things that can be done:
  • Place a row of boxes with low sides across the floor (or a small ladder or slightly raised jump bars) and ask your dog to move straight through so that s/he learns to lift up all 4 of his or her feet while in motion.
  • Have your dog place its front feet on some sort of object - a short stool, a sturdy square box, or even, as I've been using due to my ongoing household projects, a paint can - then teach them to pivot on their front legs while moving their hind legs in either direction around the perimeter of the object.
  • Build your own makeshift wobble board. Take a large box, crate pan or some other suitable object and put a rolled up towel, a ball or some other small object underneath it and go to town having your dog move around on top, including having them have to sit up and balance on their hind end while reaching for a treat. With my little Hokey, I've found I'm even able to get the desired effect using a large square throw pillow.
  • Teach your dog to move backwards onto objects. Refer to my past post, Back Up That Booty, on how I train that.
3. Crate Games: Always great for a variety of reasons. Since I recently wrote a post on the subject, I won't go into the details here, but here is the link to that entry - Playing Crate Games.

4. Target Training: My dogs were all taught how to target objects (my hand, plastic lids, a target stick, alley-oop style targets, or random objects) with their noses and individual feet. It's a big game that they absolutely love!

Hokey targeting the alley-oop
Ollie targeting the alley-oop

Poppy demonstrating targeting with a back foot
(and also how to target an eye with a tongue)

Ollie hand targeting
Ollie nose targeting a flat target

5. Sends: Even in a very limited space, you can work on distance skills. I used my alley-oop style target to teach my dogs to send outs. I also used furniture to practice straight and lateral sends. Any object that you can send your dog around will suffice. I was fortunate that the last apartment in which I was living had a large enough living room that I was able to configure the loveseat and sofa in such a way that I could work a figure-8 pattern. Even without that kind of space, I've been able to at least use the dining room table or pull a chair out to practice sending my dogs out and around from different positions.

6. Directionals: I don't use verbal right/left directionals, but I do teach my dogs various non-verbal turning cues. This can mean some as simple as having the dog facing me then spin either left or right in response to my hand signal. I also teach them to change direction by either turning into me or away from me while at my side in a heel position, depending on what cue I give. Another thing I've done is set up a couple of cones for the dog to go out around and practice different cues and crosses. I've also worked the J-cues for distance redirectionals and a modified version for closer "flick away" turns.

7. One Jump Exercises: Even the smallest apartment space usually has enough room to work on your dog's jumping skills using one jump exercises. You can also work on recall-to-heel positions with or without a jump.

8. 2o/2o Contacts: Although I've recently been training running contacts, Wave and Ollie were both trained to perform a 2 on/2 off contact behavior on all contact obstacles. I was fortunate enough that the apartments I lived in during the first 3 years of my involvement in agility both had a set of carpeted stairs. If you choose to train 2o/2o contact behavior, stairs can be an invaluable tools for both training the behavior and maintaining the 2o/2o criteria.

Ollie demonstrating a 2o/2o using the stairs

9. "Table": My dogs were trained to do "table" as a behavior, not an obstacle. Since USDAA is my primary venue, this means when I give the verbal cue "table" they are to jump up on whatever object I am directing them to and immediately drop into the down position. (Because of Hokey's deafness, I will need to come up with some other kind of signal in lieu of the verbal command when I train this). Beds, sofas and arm chairs have been my most convenient "tables" over the years. If your dog is small enough, you could also use a large, sturdy, reinforced cardboard box covered with a non-slip surface, such as a non-skid mat, placed on top.

10: Tricks, Tricks, Tricks: Nothing builds and reinforces the bond between you and your dog like trick training does. Teach many and have them perform a few every day. Enjoy every minute of it!


10: Play!: Have fun together. It's all about you and your dog experiencing joy together while interacting in a fun and positive way. My dogs love it when I hide and they have to find me. And, no matter the size of your abode, there is always enough room for playing retrieving games or having a good round of tug. Just make sure to move that vase or lamp out of the way first!

Our first spring in our own fenced yard
Three years ago I was finally able to purchase a house of my own. However, all I could afford was a row house in the city. I actually selected the house I live in now based partially on the size of the yard; it's a little larger than the average city backyard (although the house itself is smaller than my last apartment). Although sizable in comparison to the majority of city yards, it is still far from the ideal size for practicing agility at 40' in length with 2/3rds of the yard having about 15' of usable space across and the remaining 1/3, about 20'.

Compared to the years spent with no yard to practice in, having my own fenced in space is a welcomed luxury. However, because the space is relatively small, I'm still constrained in what I can set up and what I can train and practice. (Note: on this Blog Action Day I expect there will be several posts on exercises that can be done in a small yard, so I will leave that up to others).  I have no space for contact equipment, so am limited to setting up exercises involving jumps, weaves and my canvas practice tunnel. It's better than nothing though, and Hokey and Poppy are reaping the benefits of "real" training space that Ollie never had.
Yard set up with jumps and weaves

Finally a little bit of room for some training


  1. Hi, what a great post on what to do when you have no yard!
    I do have a yard, but I do a lot of the things you talk about in my small house when it is too snowy or icy to get outside.

    We do a lot of crate games, especially in the winter, and set up an extra crate down at the end of the hall.

    Keep up the great ideas, a lot of people would have gotten discouraged and had an "I can't" attitude, good for you!

  2. Thank you so much! This being my first time participating in an Action Day event, it nice to get some positive feedback.

    I don't believe in "I can't" - only in "let's find a way to succeed" and "let's do the best we can with what we have".

  3. Very interesting post! Enjoyed the videos.

  4. This was a great read! I have two dogs, and I do have a big backyard, but can't afford a fence for it. Reading this is super encouraging! Would you recommend any particular books or training videos to start out with on my own, until I can get into an agility class?

  5. It’s a shame you don’t have a donate button! I’d certainly donate to this brilliant blog! I suppose for now i’ll settle for book-marking and adding your RSS feed to my Google account. I look forward to fresh updates and will talk about this blog with my Facebook group. Chat soon!
    Henderson Dog Training