Training Weave Poles

Most advanced agility training revolves around the handling of dogs between obstacles, not the proper execution of the obstacles themselves. Weave poles are another matter. No obstacle is more difficult to master or to maintain. This is probably because the weave pole obstacle is the only one that does not come naturally to the dog - or to the handler for that matter.

There are four major agility titling organizations in the United States and all have very similar requirements for weave pole execution. The poles are set in a straight line numbering from six to fourteen. The poles must be equally spaced apart, but that distance may vary from 18" to 24" depending upon the type of competition. The dog's task it to enter the poles with the first one on its left and to weave in and out of the remaining poles until they are completed. When we speak of "finding an entrance," we refer to the requirement of entering the poles in this manner, no matter what the angle of approach to the obstacle or the orientation of the handler to the dog.

As you might imagine, several distinct methods have evolved for teaching this obstacle. Each has its proponents and opponents and there is much discussion in the agility community about which method is best. It is probably safe to say that any of these methods will work, given adequate time, but one might easier for a given dog than another.

The "push-pull" method was probably the first one used in the United States and is accomplishing by walking next to the dog, pushing it away and calling it to the handler between the poles. This is initially trained with the dog on leash. Then the lead is removed and hand signals, body gestures and voice ("in/out") are used to push the dog out and back between the poles. Trainers using this method tend to develop quite a "dance" to handle their dogs through weave poles, sometimes known as the "weave pole wiggle." This method of training weave poles has gone out of favor in the past few years for several reasons:

  1. It requires that the handler be next to the dog as it executes the poles. Since it is very important to train agility dogs to execute all obstacles independent of the handler's position, this type of handling becomes problematic when running many advanced courses.
  2. The dog is much more likely to weave well on only one side of the handler, typically on the left, since this method requires that the handler guide the dog through them. This is a big problem when running courses where a right-handling advantage is obvious.
  3. The dog tends to see the poles as a series of obstacles rather than as one, often causing the execution to be slow and methodical. Dogs that know how to weave on their own can do it much faster than they can with our "help."
Photo 1 Two methods have been developed in the recent past to counter the problems caused by training weave poles with the "push-pull" technique. The first is the slanted pole method, often called the "weave-o-matic" method after the commercially available device* used to train weave poles in this manner. As you can see in the photograph to the left, the weave poles are canted (slanted) such that they lie almost on the ground. The first is canted to the dog's left, the second to the right, and so on. The dog is encouraged, on leash, to trot down the intersection of these poles where they form a "V." Next the dog does a series of recalls and send-aways through the V and is always rewarded for running right down the middle. Over weeks or months, the poles are gradually raised until they are vertical, but trainers often leave the first few poles canted to encourage a proper entrance as shown in the photo to the right. Photo 2
Photo 3 A third method widely used to train weave poles is know as the "chute" method. As you can see in the photograph to the left, curved guide wires connect poles 1 to 3, 2 to 4, etc., creating a proper path for the dog to traverse. Although some trainers start their dogs with the weave poles in a straight line and wires in place, many separate poles 1,3,5,7,9 from poles 2,4,6,8,10 creating a chute or narrow path between the two lines of poles as in the photograph to the right. Dogs are taught to run down the chute from all angles of approach and the chute is gradually narrowed until the poles are in a straight line. Once the dog is weaving well with the poles in a straight line, the wires are either removed one at a time, or the whole set of wires may be gradually raised until they are well over the dog's head. Many leave the entrance and exit wires on permanently. Most trainers would agree that this in not the quickest way to train weave poles, but it seems to produce dogs that can find entrances very reliably. Photo 4

As you probably have gathered, both the weave-o-matic and chute methods were developed to create dogs that can weave independently from their handlers. Handlers must take care during the initial stages of training to encourage this independence; handling the dog on either side, working the dog ahead or recalling the dog through the poles. Food targets are commonly placed on the ground after the poles to encourage the dog to focus straight ahead, not on the handler, and also to encourage speed.

It is very, very common for dogs advanced dogs to still weave better on the left side of the handler than on the right. Agility courses can be designed such that the course is more easily run with the handler on the right or the left of the poles and it does seem that the right-hand advantage is more commonly seen. Therefore, it is crucial not to let handling side, proximity of the handler or gestures of the handler dictate how well your dog executes the weave poles. This is a major training commitment - much easier said than done.

Sharon Nelson, founder of the North American Dog Agility Council (NADAC), a widely respected teacher of agility and trainer of the very successful Pembroke, "Sunny," offered the following suggestions for training weave poles:

"We start with four weave poles with wires on the poles. The poles are in a straight line as we have never seen a need to lean the poles or use a channel method, especially for small dogs. During the first two lessons we put sections of x-pens around the weave poles so the dog cannot possibly make a mistake or get any kind of a negative attitude about weave poles. The dog is lead through the poles with lots of praise, with a click as it enters and a click as it exits. There is a food target on the ground as the dog exits the poles. The food target is off to the side of the exit, about two feet past the last pole. As the dog picks up the food off of the target, it is called to the handler with lots of praise and another treat. After being led through a couple of times, the leash is removed and the dog is encouraged to weave on its own. Because of the small number of poles, the food targets, and the positive communication from the clicker, the dog is very eager to repeat its trip through the poles. We use a small number of poles so that the dog can be very successful long before it can develop any stress from a long set of poles. It goes without saying that the dog is put through the poles from both sides of the handler from the very beginning so the dog does not become one-sided while weaving. During the first two lessons, the dog usually weaves in each direction 8-10 times. The number of repetitions depends upon the attitude of the dog. We never train if the dog is not 'up' and eager to work. This has never been a problem with a Pem that I have trained.

During the third lesson, the x-pen sections are removed. The wires on the poles are lowered to about 1" above the dog's elbows. Since the dog should have a very positive attitude about the weave poles, there shouldn't be a problem with the removal of the x-pens. The dog knows the path to take and is usually quite keen to repeat it. If the dog should jump over the wires the first time, then a soft 'ah-ah' as the dog jumps is quite enough to discourage a Pem from repeating that mistake. For a shy dog, it may be necessary to help it once in each direction with a leash. The most important element that we strive for is an upbeat attitude and a very keen attitude to work. By making the task an easy one, the work attitude remains high. The dog now begins to find the entry to the weave poles on its own and to focus on the poles, not the handler. The dog knows the path, is clicked for the entry and the exit, and gets its treat on the target for completion.

If the dog were to jump over the wire and get its target without weaving, again a soft 'ah-ah' with the handler walking away from the dog instead of toward it is all that is required. Most Pems would find that the food is not wanted if the joy of receiving it is not combined with praise from the handler. By the end of the third lesson, the dog should be weaving in both directions with the handler on either side.

We continue with this method until the handler can have the dog weave from any angle, either side, toward the handler or ahead of the handler. By having a limited number of poles, the dog can get incredible speed and always be successful from the very first lesson.

When the dog can weave from any direction and always at full speed, we then begin to add poles, also with wires. If at any time the dog starts to lose speed, then poles are removed until the speed is regained. Again, as the poles are added, the dog must perfect the new number of poles from any angle, with speed, with the handler in any position. The dog continues to be clicked for correct entries, for speed and for exits. We break the traditional clicker rules as we never allow the clicker to be a cue for the dog to stop working. It just means that the dog is performing correctly. The targeting continues with the target being moved further away from the exit as the speed increases. By the third lesson, the target is usually six to eight feet past the last pole. As the number of poles increases along with the dog's speed and enthusiasm, the dog's natural impulsion will carry it further out from the poles before it can receive a treat. If the treat is too close, we find that the dog will run right over it rather than slow down. (But, that is a whole different article on target training and yet another one on clicker training for work ethic.)

When the dog has reached a total of 12-14 poles with accuracy, speed and attitude, we begin to raise the weave pole wires at a rate of ½ " per lesson. If the dog begins to lose speed, accuracy or attitude, then the wires are being raised too fast for that dog. Slow down a bit. When the wires have been raised to a point that they are at the very top of the weave poles, usually three feet high, then we start removing them, one at a time, from the center poles out.

When you are finished you should have a happy, fast, accurate dog that loves weave poles! This method takes us from three to nine months to train and the dog's attitude dictates how long it takes. The most important thing that I can say about Pems or any other breed is to make it fun and the training will progress much faster."

The most common problem with the chute method of training is that of the dog jumping over the wires, out of the chute. Linda Mecklenburg, handler of Sue Klar's MX bitch, "Kayla," offers the following advice; "If using just wires on poles in a straight line (which is usually the way I teach dogs because I've found it to be the fastest, least labor intensive method that results in accurate dogs) then the dog must be taught not to jump the wires. If you put an obstruction in the path of an agility dog (a weave pole wire), he naturally assumes the he is supposed to jump it. I put the dog on a leash and guide him through. If the dog tries to jump over or go under a wire, he gets a self correction from the leash. It doesn't take long for most dogs to figure out that, 'Gee, if I just think about what I'm doing and follow this channel, that's when I get praise and goodies, not when I try to jump out.'

Of course there are always exceptions (fearful dog, very large or very small dog etc), but I find that most people that claim that they 'tried wires and they didn't work,' never took the time to teach the dog the expected performance."

Debbie Hunt, who has earned the AKC MX and MXJ titles with her Pem, Dixie, recounts the following story: "I trained Dixie using the weave-o-matic. She progressed fairly quickly until the poles were almost upright. And then (as many other people have experienced) we got 'stuck.' At this time I was only practicing weaves with her once a week at our training facility since I did not own a set of weaves poles. My instructors suggested canting the first two poles and the last two, leaving the middle ones vertical. Dixie weaved better on my left side and, because she was having trouble, I wanted to make her as successful as possible. I started concentrating on getting her weaving with the poles upright and ignored the second problem - weaving on my right side. This was a mistake. I soon had a dog who could weave with the poles upright on my left, and a dog who could only weave with them open (canted) on my right. At this point I had purchased twelve stick-in-the-ground poles which I could spread open like the Weave-O-Matic. My next step was to try and get out of the picture. I was training the weave poles at home now for at least ten minutes twice a day. This helped tremendously and I was able to get Dixie to weave with me behind her or on either side. I thought we were all set. By now she had earned her Open title but we were lucky that I was able to earn it by handling her through the poles on my left. We did have two refusals on the entry in Open, but the runs were still good enough for qualifying scores. Once Dixie got into the poles, she had no problem finishing them. Missing the entry would depress her and she would weave much more slowly than at home.

Once we moved up to Excellent, no refusals were allowed and I realized I still had to fix our problem with weave pole entries. We failed six Excellent classes in a row due solely to improper entry of the weaves, despite the fact that she was doing the weaves nicely at home with no entry problems. I finally figured out what the problem was. I had been doing the weaves at home 'by themselves.' When in a trial, the weave poles seemed like a different obstacle to her because they were part of a series of obstacles.

I finally set up the weaves with a few jumps or obstacles in front of and after the weaves and started practicing the weaves as part of a sequence. Dixie then started to show drastic improvement. She then managed to qualify five out of seven times in Excellent, earning her AX and two MX legs. Her confidence on the weaves improved tenfold and she is finding the entry very consistently from some very difficult angles. She is also weaving much faster. I am hoping this will continue and that we don't experience any setbacks."

Speed through the weave poles can sometimes become a problem with our breed. This may be due to improper training, worry on the dog's part, or just the genetic makeup of the dog. I have found the use of a food target on the ground, after the poles, to be one of the best methods for increasing speed. Unlike Sharon Nelson's experience, my dogs have absolutely no qualms about snatching that target tidbit even if I've given them the verbal cue that they haven't earned it. Until the dogs are well trained, I like to throw the piece of hotdog onto the target (usually a white washcloth) as the dog completes the poles successfully. It is very handy to have a "bait master" (another person) poised ready to put food on the target (or snatch it off) when I send my dog ahead of me through the poles.

Kay Jackson likes to turn weave poles into a race with her ADCh Pem, Katie. She places a food target beyond the poles and sends Katie to weave. If Kay reaches the target before Katie does, then Kay eats the treat with great relish. I assume she always allows Katie to "win" if her speed is adequate.

Deb Richey has used the "bum rush" to encourage speed in her OA Pem, Tyler. "If Tyler is either very slow or if he pops a pole (which usually happens when is very slow), I take him by the collar and take him back to the beginning of the weave poles. (This is where having short weave poles comes in handy.) Still holding him by the collar, I weave him through at the best speed I can muster, bent over with a 26-lb dog attached to the end of my arm. I almost lift his front end off the ground when I do the bum rush and he has no choice but to weave briskly. I only give my usual weave command, if I say anything at all, while rushing through the poles. Tyler gets lots of praise and lots of cookies at the end for being such a clever dog and weaving so well. Then we do the weave poles again without me attached to him. Of course, this technique is effective only for dogs that understand very well what is expected of them. It is not for everyone nor for every dog. But, I can think of a few dogs I'd like to see handled like this - just once. It would make a world of difference."

When purchasing any type of weave pole set, try very hard to avoid those that are mounted on a fat base that is more than 1/2" high and more than an 2" wide. The wide wooden bases so often seen in home-made sets create an obstacle within an obstacle for our short legged breed. They must weave/hop/weave/hop to make it through this monster. This is a lousy way to encourage speed.

Black and white photo of stick-in-the-ground poles.
If you train weave poles outside and have reasonable soil, you can use either stick-in-the-ground weave poles such as those at the left or slip a 3/4" piece of PVC pipe over a metal stake that is pounded into the ground. Wires can be purchased to fit over these poles or they can be canted (leaned) right or left to create a Weave-O-Matic type of set. Those of us living in climates with long winters need to have weave pole trainers that can be used inside, but they are pretty expensive. Since there is no substitution for a proper introduction to this obstacle, I would encourage your local club to invest in one or more sets of weave pole trainers such that beginning dogs will have the best possible foundation for speedy, accurate weave poles.

The PWCCA, Inc. does not endorse nor does it guarantee any product or other item supplied by any company listed below. These contacts are listed simply as a convenience to the reader.

KT Trainer:
Weave poles with wires on a metal, separating base
Action K-9 Sports Equipment
27425 Cataluna Circle
Sun City, CA 92585
(909) 679-3699

Weave pole wires only
will fit 3/4" pvc pipe
Action K-9 Sports Equipment
27425 Cataluna Circle
Sun City, CA 92585
(906) 679-3699

Stick-in-the-ground weave poles:
(will make short ones for Pems)
Carol Stein
13633 Fancher Road
Johnstown, Ohio 43031
phone: (614) 967-0518

MAX 200
114 Beach Street Bldg. 5
Rockaway, NJ 07866