“Starting Over in Novice”


Good morning!

My best dog ever Trio just brought me a pine cone.  Of course, any of my dogs are “the best dog ever” if they bring me something and look so proud and happy about it!

Pine cones are to be treasured and this particular one smells beautifully of pine trees, but the topic of this particular blog is not pine cones.

Today the subject that springs to mind is training a dog to do agility and hopefully getting the opportunity to run in Starters/Novice.

I have heard some people refer to this momentous occasion as “going through novice”, but I think this makes it sound as if it is not a fun experience at all and simply something to “get through” before the real fun begins.  Looking back at the times I have been fortunate enough to step to the line and take on the first ever courses with my dogs I will never describe it as “going through Novice/Starters”.

Let’s see how many times have I done this?

Twelve USDAA Starters Dogs:

Saxon, GSD

Rufus, English Shepherd

Purdy, English Shepherd



Bracken, English Shepherd

Nel, Border Collie

TC, Border Collie

Bobbin, Pembroke Welsh Corgi

Stroller, Border Collie

Daz, Border Collie

Twiggy, Border Collie

Just Emma, English Shepherd

Watson, English Shepherd


Six AKC Novice Dogs:











That’s 18 trips to that precious Starters/Novice start line.

Hey, Wait! Make that 7!

Trio, the dog who just happens to be sitting in front of me holding a beautiful pine cone in his mouth looking so proud of himself, just “went through AKC Novice” before I even had a chance to realize we were there.  More about that later!

The point I’m hoping to make here is not how many dogs I have “been through USDAA Starters and/or AKC Novice competition with, but just how important it is to truly believe that the dog sitting in front of you, whether he is holding a pine cone or something unmentionable, is truly the best dog in the world.  Agility happens most of all between the obstacles and outside the ring.  Only a small time is spent in the actual competition so remain in the moment, relish the experience and enjoy it for all it’s worth, as it truly is an honor stepping to the line for that first time in Starters/Novice competition.

Okay.  Now I really have to get off the computer as the best dogs ever are being very quiet and patient.  Must reward that before it is too late!


P.S.  When I got my puppy, Trio, I had an interesting conversation with somebody who commented that “Now you have to start all over again!” as if it was something to be dreaded.  I was and have always been thrilled to meet a new puppy or dog, to develop that playful bond and to apply layer upon layer of mutual trust which hopefully will be the beginning of a fun and enjoyable agility experience.

Agility Tips (2000)

Agility Tips

Nel over a jump
Photo by Tien Tran Photography

By Kathy Lofthouse

September 2000

Warm Up Properly

Whenever training agility, playing with your dog or before a competitive agility run, please be sure to warm yourself and your dog up thoroughly. This is crucial for the achievement of peak performance and the prevention of injuries.

A carefully planned warm-up routine can enhance the agility experience for both dog and handler. Be sure to walk about and allow the dog to gradually stretch his legs, relax and get the kinks out. Let him sniff and answer the call of nature. Gradually walk about with him in a more purposeful manner, gaining speed and stimulating both human and canine circulatory systems.

Kathy's young daughter, Clair, with Bracken on the dogwalk

At this point many competitors like to engage in a stretching routine for themselves and their dogs. Some play little games, tricks and maneuvers, which engage the mind and body of their agility partners. After several minutes, short periods of jogging can be introduced. Only then is your dog ready to engage in playing with toys, jumping the practice jump or sprinting and finally going into the ring.

One note of caution: Be especially careful when traveling with your dog. Several agility dogs have been injured when being suddenly asked to run at speed when having been confined in a car for long hours of travel. Even if your dog loves to chase the ball, please let him walk about, sniff and stretch for a considerable period of time before throwing his toy.

Common Reasons For a Dog Going Off-course

One of the most disappointing faults in an agility run is where the dog goes off course in spite of what the handler considers to have been great handling. Unfortunately, the handlersí reaction to this is often a reason for the dog learning to run slowly and carefully around the agility course, sometimes for the rest of his/her career. Before blaming the dog for this transgression please consider the following may have occurred and remember that what you do in the ring for this run will directly affect his or her next performance:

  • Handler took her eyes off her dog
  • Command was issued too late
  • Command was not clearly given
  • Dog was not trained for the challenge
  • Handler used ambiguous body language, such as leaning forward when she really wanted the dog to arrest forward movement, waving an arm towards a wrong obstacle in order to “help” her dog, glancing toward an obstacle to which she did not want the dog to go
  • Handler did not know where she was going in time to give proper guidance
  • Dog has been given many rewards for performance of a particular obstacle and very few for the performance of another

In order to avoid the same pitfalls as this handler you should always:

Rufus jumping the wall jump
Photo by Karen Moureaux, Dog Sport Photos
  • Keep your eyes on your dog, except while making a very quick and efficient blind cross
  • Issue commands in a timely manner, i.e. in a jumping sequence the dog needs to know where to go while he is in the air over the previous jump
  • Give commands clearly and with confidence and gusto
  • Move rapidly in the direction you wish the dog to go
  • Train the dog better before competing
  • Stand up straight if you don’t want the dog to push on faster
  • Keep your arms to yourself unless you are very proficient at using them close to your body. Square your shoulders towards the obstacle you would like the dog to address
  • Learn the course well and then go where you want to go. Do not worry about where you don’t want to go
  • Keep a balance in rewarding obstacle performance, i.e. don’t just give rewards or praise for contacts, but sometimes for jumps and tunnels, table etc.
  • Particularly useful when using the “Here!” command, always be sure that your hands respond to the command before you expect your dog to do so! One of the most common errors is for the handler to be yelling “Here!” while their arm is waving toward the direction the dog is, of course, going

Most importantly, for all but the hardest headed dog, if your dog goes the wrong way, please go with him or her and keep running, thereby preserving his or her positive attitude.

Your dog will thank you!