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Agility Right from the Start: A Conversation with Eva Bertilsson and Emelie Johnson Vegh

Editor’s note: For anyone who has seen or participated in canine agility, it’s easy to see why it’s the fastest growing canine sport in the country. It’s not only great exercise, but loads of fun for both dog and owner. Whether training in the backyard or competing in international trials, the key to success in agility training is learning how to work as a team.agility_clip 01

Swedish authorities Eva Bertilsson and Emelie Johnson Vegh have been teaching and competing in the exciting sport of canine agility since the early 90’s, using reinforcement technology to develop their teaching methods and reach new levels of teamwork. With their new book, Agility Right from the Start, they now bring to the US and Canada the powerful modern training system that has made them leading agility teachers in Norway and Sweden. At ClickerExpo 2010 in Portland, Oregon, the pair took time to talk to us about this important new agility book and to share how both the beginner and the pro can make it both fun and successful…right from the start!

Everyone is excited about your new book, Agility Right from the Start. Tell us what inspired you to write it.

Bertilsson & Vegh: We are both seasoned competitors, but even more passionate trainers. It is our shared passion for training that brought us together, and in the summer of 2001 we started teaching classes together. In the early days our classes were traditional—we used rewards-based training, but relied on lures and body language to get the dogs to do what we wanted. However, once we discovered the joy and efficiency of clicker training, we began to incorporate it into our agility classes. A couple of years later we began writing articles. In the process of teaching, training, and writing, we realized that how we teach agility differs from the way that other instructors do. We wrote this book to present our approach to agility and show others how to make it fun and successful, right from the start.

What makes this book so different from other books on agility?

Bertilsson & Vegh: The difference between Agility Right from the Start and other agility books is our approach. We use the science of learning to show you how to train your dog in the best possible way. All our training is based on the principles of clicker training, which provides a clear outline for how to train. We split the training into small, digestible pieces and show that you can build behaviors step-by-step using positive reinforcement techniques, reinforcing the behaviors you want and ignoring the behaviors you don’t. Your dog will be happier and more confident when he knows what to do and gets rewarded for it, and you’ll be happier and more confident when you can count on your dog to get it right. The end result is a happy and confident team that can get around the agility course with flow, speed, and precision.

Foundation skills form the core of agility, which is why we also emphasize developing your skills as well as the dog’s. How far your dog’s training can go depends on your own training. We use the same approach to teach people as we do to train dogs—step-by-step, working on one foundation skill at a time. With people, we use Teaching with Acoustical Guidance, or TAGteach, which is basically clicker training for people. We include many TAGteach exercises in the book in order to help you improve your own skills and be the best trainer and handler that you can be.

Through our years of teaching and training together, we’ve increasingly come to appreciate how important it is for training to have focus, intensity, and a consistent system of handling at all times. We refer to these principles as Good Agility Practices. In our book, every exercise is designed so that it’s easy to follow these Good Agility Practices. They are what make your good training great agility training.

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What are some of the biggest benefits of using your approach?

Bertilsson & Vegh: As a trainer, you’ll get the chance to get it right from the start. You will learn how to build good foundation skills for both you and your dog—that’s as important for the backyard trainer as it is for the world cup team.

For your dog, foundation training is all about learning to love the game of agility. Using positive reinforcement, you can teach your dog to work with focus and intensity, offering behaviors and earning rewards. You’ll learn what you need to focus on your own skills as well as your dog’s, building and honing an excellent agility team.

And finally, you’ll have fun. There shouldn’t be a contradiction between "having a ton of fun" and well-planned and thoughtfully executed training. Agility is a great sport. It’s fast. It’s exciting. And above all, it should be fun. We show you how to make it fun for both you and your dog so that you’re both happy and confident throughout the process. That’s the whole idea behind our approach to agility training.

What will the experienced agility competitor find in this book?

Bertilsson & Vegh: The experienced agility competitor will learn how to use a true rewards-based system to build great skills. We teach you how to break your training down into small parts so that you can polish one detail at a time. We provide many exercises in the book that help focus on the details and the steps. We also show ways to build and maintain a truly independent performance, which is something you need in order to excel on the agility course.

What will the beginner find in this book?arfs clip 03

Bertilsson & Vegh: Agility is quite complex; there are a lot of components to it. We address one component at a time. First you first learn the skills you need to feel confident in training your dog. Then we show you how to bring your dog into the mix, working on one thing at a time so that you and your dog can be successful in every exercise you do. You get the chance to get it right—right from the start!

Thanks so much for talking with us today! Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about Agility Right from the Start?

Bertilsson & Vegh: Have FUN! We hope you enjoy reading this book and working with what’s in it as much as we enjoyed writing it. Happy training!

Agility Right from the Start is available in March 2010 at the clickertraining.com online store.

About the author

Julie Gordon is the Content & Communications Manager at Karen Pryor Clicker Training. She oversees editorial development and content management for the company’s websites, and regularly contributes articles and blogs.

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