Agility and the Pembroke Welsh Corgi
by Mary Lowder
Back in 1994, I was training a talented Pembroke that had earned many performance titles. In order to qualify for the Pembroke Welsh Corgi Club of America's Versatile Corgi Excellent award, she needed a title in a third performance area. Thus, my interest in agility began. For some reason, I doubted that agility would be very challenging. I assumed it would quickly bore me and I abhorred the idea of adding more training paraphernalia to my garage. But, we needed the title so off we went to agility class.
What turned me around? My dogs! The enthusiasm and joy they have displayed while doing agility has excited me more than anything I'd ever done with dogs. Although one can experience a taste of success very early in agility training, the sport is wonderfully complex and challenging. Competitive agility requires a mixture of guts, speed and terrific dog-handler communication. It can be intoxicating when everything clicks.
The sport of canine agility originated in England almost twenty years ago. Agility is based on the equestrian sport of stadium jumping. Since dogs do not carry riders, they can negotiate many obstacles other than jumps; such as tunnels, A-frames and seesaws. In an agility competitions, the dog is asked to negotiate a course of twelve to twenty obstacles in a pre specified order. The height of the jumps is determined by the height of the dog at the withers. The rules governing the dog and handler's behavior vary from organization to organization, but in general, the dog with the cleanest run ad the fastest time wins.
Pembroke Welsh Corgis that measure ten inches or less at the withers will run in the 8" division which means that all jumps will be approximately 8" high. Those over ten inches must enter the 12" division. Many Pembrokes measure right around ten inches at the withers, so an accurate measurement is necessary to know at what height to enter and to train your dog. Twelve inch jumps do not pose a great problem for most Corgis in obedience where the dog is asked to jump only twice in any class. A typical agility course will consist of eight to twelve jumps, plus many other obstacles. A Corgi over ten inches tall must be of sound conformation and in good physical condition (slim!) to handle these physical demands.
Agility jumps can be all shapes and sizes, from barrels to brush boxes to rail fences. Many jumps will have wings, just like the ones used at horse show jumping events.
A most interesting and challenging jump is the tire jump where the dog must jump through a hoop suspended above the ground.
Additionally, standard agility courses always include a raised pause table where the dog must do a sit or a down for five seconds.
Tunnels are favorites of many Pembrokes. The open tunnel is about two feet in diameter and 15-20 feet long. It is set in a curve or at an angle such that the dog cannot see the exit upon entering the tunnel. The closed tunnel's entrance is rigid like the open tunnel, but it "collapses" in to ten feet of dark, opaque fabric through which the dog must push before returning to daylight. Although most dogs initially require a bit of encouragement to enter dark tunnels, they quickly get over their concerns and dive into them with abandon.
Several contact obstacles are included in every standard agility course. They include the dog walk, the A-frame and the seesaw. In negotiating these obstacles, the dog must put at least one paw in the yellow "contact zone" on the on and off ramps as it mounts and dismounts the obstacle. Agility dogs are trained to step on these contact zones for safety reasons: to prevent them from leaping to the ground from great heights. The contact zones are generally painted yellow and contrast greatly with the rest of the obstacle.
In general, contact obstacles are the most intimidating of all the agility pieces. The dog walk is a raised plank that looks similar to the balance beam in human gymnastics, but has ramps leading on the off the "beam." The dog walk is 10-12" wide and the center board is raised 36 or 48 inches off the ground, depending upon whether 8' or 12' planks are used. The dog walk seems to be a relatively simple obstacle for Pembrokes to negotiate.
The seesaw (or teeter totter) is also 12 inches wide, is 12 feet long and is mounted on a fulcrum that is 22-24 inches high. The dog must mount the seesaw via the 42" contact zone, move past the fulcrum which causes the board to tip, and exit via the down contact zone. The seesaw can be a very intimidating obstacle since it moves. The dog must learn to control the drop of the board to keep from scaring himself to death and to prevent a "fly off" which results in a nonqualifying performance. Fly offs are called when the dog dismounts the seesaw before the board has reached the ground (whether the contact zone is touched or not). The Pembroke's low center of gravity makes it as stable as any breed on the seesaw. Yet, many dogs require great patience on the part of the handler when learning this intimidating obstacle. A frightened dog cannot learn. There are many methods available to allow the dog to learn to negotiate the teeter with minimal stress. Most dogs will naturally pause at the pivot point of the seesaw, then descend once the board is stationary.
The A-frame consists of two nine-foot boards mounted together at an apex of 5 ½ feet. Horizontal slats are attached to the 3-foot wide boards every 10-12" for traction. The first 42" of the either side of the A-frame is the contact zone, but only the down side is judged. It is very helpful to keep the A-frame low when first exposing your Corgi to it. Longer legged dogs seem to have little trouble with a full-height A-frame, but our dwarf dogs must have a good run at the obstacle to build up enough momentum to scale this mountain.
Weave poles are found in most levels of agility competition. They consist of 6-14 three foot poles mounted about two feet apart in a straight line. The dog's task is to weave in and out of these poles as fast as possible without missing a pole. Most trainers admit that weave pole training takes more time than any other obstacle. Speed and accuracy through the weaves are a big factor in deciding winners at top levels of competition. A link to an excellent article on weave poles follows this article.
When running a course in agility trials, handlers may do just about anything except touch their dog or touch an obstacle. The handlers may give signals with their bodies, talk, shout or clap to their dogs. They can run with their dogs, walk, dance or stand in a single spot. The dogs may bark and generally talk back without penalty. The goal is for the dog to take each obstacle on the course in the proper order and to execute each obstacle correctly, and to do so in the shortest time possible. Qualifying scores generally count toward a title, and titles are offered by many trial-giving organizations. A maximum amount of time is allotted for each course and amongst those dogs that have qualifying runs, the highest score determines the winner. Placements amongst those with tied scores are based on course time.
Although the dog appears to be doing all the work in agility, the handler's role is just as important as the dog's. It's the handler's job to tell the dog which obstacle to take next. The handler gives the dog directional cues with body language and can give verbal cues as well. Most dogs are much more sensitive to directional cues than to verbal, and will generally take whatever obstacle is in front of them. Thus it's the handler's job to point them in the right direction.
The Pembroke Welsh Corgi's bold, outgoing temperament makes it an ideal candidate for agility training. However, basic obedience training is necessary before one can progress very far in this sport. A consistent response to stay, sit, down and come is mandatory before one should ever consider running an entire course. These commands are easily taught to the Pembroke and should be reinforced in sessions separate from agility training. A dog that responds well to verbal commands and one that can be given direction with an arm movement will be far ahead of the dog that needs to be led to every obstacle. It is quite easy for the best-trained dog to get out of control while running an agility course. Dogs often enjoys this activity so much that they start taking obstacles on their own, whether or not they have been asked to do so. It is just that aspect of agility that makes it so fun and exciting. To beat all the longer legged breeds in the 8 and 12" divisions, we must train for maximum speed over the obstacles while maintaining enough control over our Corgis to qualify.
If you are interested in trying agility with your Corgi, you will find instruction available all over the country. In beginning classes, you will teach your dog to negotiate each piece of equipment separately. The jumps and contact obstacles are set at a low height to ensure that the dog is not frightened and has some success. Food and toys are used to encourage dogs over "scary" pieces of equipment and human spotters should be present by obstacles from which the dog could fall, (e.g., the A-frame, seesaw or dog walk). Advanced classes tend to deal more with the sequencing of obstacles, and you will come to understand how important the timing and clarity of your signals are. Your dog can make a remarkable amount of progress with just a few months of training, particularly if it has had some obedience training.
To have some real fun with your Corgi, give agility a try. Even if you never enter a trial, you will have a ball with this sport, and more important, so will your dog.