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DEFT DOGS

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DEFT DOGS by Allyson Marrs


BARKING MAD
Agility training isn't a light undertaking; it's a sport, and both you and your canine have to be ready to put in the time. It's a leash-free obstacle course, with no incentives, such as treats, to get dogs moving from task to task. The handler is limited to voice, movement and body signals, meaning that exceptional training beforehand is an absolute must. Dogs are scored on both time and accuracy.

This isn't a dog show; more like a dog showdown.

The typical training time frame is six to nine months of daily, committed training. Only then will your pooch be ready for a competition.

If you prefer to enlist professional help, the Seattle Agility Center offers obedience, agility and nosework classes, along with "personal" trainers.

But before your pooch can master agility, basic commands (sit, come, stay, etc.) must be learned. From there, introducing and helping your dog understand the equipment leads to familiarity.

During an agility competition, you can expect to see a teeter board, a tire hoop, jumps, weaving poles and a tunnel. Depending on the judge, the obstacles may be marked with numbers, indicating their order, and the tasks have a degree of difficulty requiring even the most-skilled dogs to have a handler to help direct them.

FURRY FITNESS
Your dog isn't the only one that'll be running around the backyard trying to master the teeter board or tunnel. Fido will be looking to you for the proper signals, and you'll have to keep up by running from task to task in order to direct your dog to the next one.

This means that you'll be training too, preparing to run faster and keep your stamina up, so you can shout out commands—being able to catch your breath is essential.

Because the obstacles are difficult, sometimes even scary to the animal at first, you may just need to demonstrate. If you can't crawl through a tunnel, shuffle across a board or weave in and out of poles, how do you expect your dog to learn? He'll need to see it first.

Dog agility becomes a family affair for these very reasons.

A recent study done by the University of Massachusetts Department of Kinesiology found that when the handler is actively completing a course with her dog, the heart and metabolic rates are equivalent to moderate to vigorous physical activity. Of course, if there is some downtime while the dog tries to complete an obstacle, a human would need to jump or run in place, for example, in order to maintain these higher levels.

But more than just physical improvements, practicing agility will create a stronger bond between you and your pet because it so heavily relies on trust. Your dog is looking to you for instructions, and in that process, he's trusting that you'll give him the right command to complete it. Through this process, you're reinforcing basic obedience commands, improving communication between the two of you and improving the animal's behavior even when he's off the course.

This behavior, ultimately, comes back to basic instincts. In the wild, dogs are constantly hunting and chasing down prey, navigating through dense forests or around fallen trunks, rocks and various other items. During the chase, the faster they go, the more likely they are to catch dinner.

Agility courses are designed around this notion, which is why they are timed. The faster the dog goes, the more likely he rewarded (with a trophy or a liver treat). Although the training may be difficult and/or daunting, the basic behavior is ingrained in all dogs. But it's always safest to check with your vet before starting an agility-training regime, much like you might check in with a doctor before competing in a triathlon for the first time.

BACKYARD COURSE
Many of the materials to make a backyard course can be found at home stores, making it easy and inexpensive to get started with your dog.

Weave Poles: Stick 10 to 15 ski poles or PVC pipes into the ground with enough space between each one so your dog can navigate through them.

Dogwalk: Use a picnic bench, or make your own with a 12-foot piece of plywood and two cinder blocks.

Standard Jumps: Stack cinder blocks and place plywood on top, adjusting the height depending on your dog's size.

Pause Table: Any table that sits low to the ground.

Tunnel: Any child's tunnel at a department store should suffice.

Tire Jump: Grab an old bike or car tire, big enough so your dog can easily jump through, and string it to a tree, or hold it yourself.

Teeter Boards: Use a long piece of wood and PVC pipe. Make sure to cover the board with an antiskid additive in paint, so your dog has some traction. You'll also need a large plumbing pipe, nuts and bolts. Take time crafting this obstacle because if it's not done correctly, it's potentially dangerous for the animal.

Though the competition may not be a walk in the park, it's fun for both man and beast. It'll take time—and more liver treats than you can imagine—but it's a rare opportunity to actually team up with your pet. Plus, if you want, you can probably wear that cape.

TOP FIVE AGILITY DOG BREEDS (small superstars)
Border Collie
Shetland Sheepdog
Pembroke Welsh Corgi
Jack Russell Terrier
Australian Shepherd

UPCOMING
On March 9 and 10, 2013, at CenturyLink Field, the Seattle Kennel Club will be hosting an agility dog competition. For more information about competing, or watching, visit seattledogshow.org.

PUPPY TREATS
Agility dogs get hungry. With all of that running around and performing tricks, these little hounds will need a reward for all of their hard work, and to get them serious about training.

For healthier options, it's easy to make dog treats at home, choosing only the ingredients you want your pup to snack on, and ensuring they're getting all of the right nutrients. You have total say over the recipe, but there are some basics to remember while playing Doggie Chef.

Recipes are easy to find online and the two below are courtesy of dogtreatkitchen.com. Whether you're looking for organic treats, weight control, veggie-only or even wheat-free, there are dozens of options. Here are two simple recipes to get you started, and your best friend's tail wagging.

Thumbprint Peanut Butter Treats
2 cups whole-wheat flour
1/2 cup rolled oats
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 cup peanut butter, creamy
1/2 cup chicken broth, low sodium
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup strawberry jam, sugar free

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.

Whisk together the flour, oats and cinnamon.

Place the peanut butter, chicken broth and water in a microwave safe bowl. Microwave on high for 15 seconds. Stir together the warm peanut butter and liquids until all of the liquid is incorporated into the peanut butter.

Make a well in the dry ingredients and pour the peanut butter mixture into the dry ingredients and stir, using a fork, until a dough forms.

Using a tablespoon size, scoop out rounded balls onto a greased baking sheet.

Create an indentation, and flatten each cookie.

Bake for 15 minutes. Once the dog treats are completely cooled, microwave the jam for 10 seconds, and using a 1/2 teaspoon, gently spoon the jam into each cookie's indentation.

Let the jam cool completely then store in the fridge or freezer.

Coconut Clusters
3 tablespoons whole-wheat flour
1/4 cup, plus 1 tablespoon applesauce, unsweetened
1/4 cup soy milk (any non-dairy milk will do)
1/2 cup shredded coconut, sweetened
11/2 cups rolled oats

Mix the first four ingredients together in a large bowl.

Slowly add the rolled oats, about a 1/2 cup at a time. The mixture may be too loose (or dry) to clump together. If that is the case, gradually add one tablespoon of applesauce at a time. Check the mixture by squeezing a small cluster in your hand. If it does not stick together, add one more tablespoon of applesauce.

Scoop coconut clusters with a cookie scooper. Then with damp hands, press into a cluster shape.

Place on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper, and refrigerate for at least one hour.

AVOID
Cheese, milk—any dairy products
Chocolate
Macadamia nuts and walnuts
Onions
Liver (in large quantities)
Raisins and grapes
Salt
Sugar


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