Interview: Sally Gichner (agility instructor)

When did you get in to agility and what interested you? What brought you to it?

DSC_0051Ok, I’ve been doing agility for about 21 years. What happened was, I had gotten this dog because I wanted an obedience trial champion and also I wanted to go into the breed ring with him–but he was very young–and very interested in all of the female dogs and he wasn’t paying attention to me.

Agility was very new at that time, so I decided I’d take up agility until he grew up a little bit–and I got hooked.

It is a lot of fun–I signed up for a school project and I’m totally going to take more classes. I’m addicted now. Do you remember what it was like to train that first dog? and what was that like?

Class #3

We trained quite differently back then. We didn’t know as much about training so kind of just put the dog on the obstacle and we didn’t do a lot of–you know how in class we do 2 on 2 off–we were really only looking for speed and we just didn’t do that. We trained really slow and we used a lot of hand motions.

So basically how not to do it.

It’s come a long way.

In one of our classes, when we introduced the dogs to the see-saw (teeter-totter), the other teacher had slammed it on the floor and we had fed them while we were getting them used to that. We hadn’t even put them on the obstacle. But are there any other obstacles that we do that? Or any other methods to make the dog more comfortable when they are so anxious about the obstacle?

Well the see saw is probably the worst one for most dogs because it has so many challenges to it–it’s noisy, it moves, it goes very high–so it can be very scary to a lot of dogs. So we do a lot of that–getting them used to the noise because so many dogs are sound sensitive. I, also, for the see-saw, tend not to let the dog just get on it. We start very slowly.

Class #7As far as other obstacles go–well–you see how we’re doing the weave poles now. We don’t just go out and try to do all 12 weave poles and lure them through. I start you very slowly with going through one set so they get used to that.

In other classes, we can’t do this in your class because your class is so big, but normally we run around the ring so that the dog gets used to running with [their trainer].

In another interview I’d done, the woman told me that she had re-trained her dog’s jumping form. And I’m wondering if retraining their form makes them more comfortable with the obstacle or does it cause some more resistance and anxiety?

That depends on the dog a little. When you retrain it’s never going to be as good as training it correctly the first time. The whole idea with re-training is that you want to make the dog more comfortable and more successful, but you really have to go out of your way to make it fun the second time around.

So, yes, it can make the dog more successful. Hopefully we do it right the first time, because retraining is not really going to be as good as doing it right the first time.

Based on your experiences what do you find to be the hardest obstacles for small dogs and what is the hardest for large dogs?

For small dogs the see-saw. It’s terrifying. Think how many times their shoulder height they’re dropping.

For big dogs, really big dogs, I think weave poles are hard because they have to know where their back end is even as their front end is going through the poles. The poles are 24″ apart so if you dog is more than 3 feet long then it’s still in the last turn with it’s back end as it’s making the next turn with it’s front end–which can be really hard for the bigger dogs.

The other thin that can be hard for bigger dogs is asking them to turn. Some of the courses–courses are made for the average dog–so for the big dogs it’s sometimes hard for them to [make tight turns].

What is the most common injury you see in agility and can you tell me when a bad injury has happened?

Ok, so, the two most common injuries that you see in dogs are a cruciate tear and an ACL strain–it’s the groin muscles that get pulled. The funny thing is that these agility dogs don’t usually have the accident doing agility. I can tell you more stories about agility dogs having problems from jumping and catch a frisbee or a ball or just running in the backyard. We tend to be pretty careful about our dogs doing agility. In all my time, i can’t really recall a dog getting seriously injured doing agility.

I mean, i have had dogs fall off obstacles, like the dog walk, and they get sore for a couple days, but–usually–we don’t even know when these injuries happen. I have a dog with a cruciate problem and I have no idea when it happens to the dog because they don’t tell you. They might be “Oh, I’m sore” or “Ouchie” but it’s always “I wanna go out and play” and they go out and do it anyway.

They just don’t tell us when they’re hurt.

A lot of the articles I read for this project talked about how agility raises a dog’s confidence, would you say that it also helps with their anxiety?

Class #1

I’m sure it could help.  Agility really helps build confidence because you’re bonding with your dog and, you know, showing them that you can be right all the time.

Have you ever encountered a dog and trainer pair who were exceptionally difficult to work with?

All the time. Usually the dogs aren’t the problem, it’s often the trainer. Everyone learns at different rates, so it can be very, very challenging. Some people can read it and do it, some people need to see it, which is why I always demonstrate what I want you to do, some people–and this doesn’t happen as often– I have one student right now who you actually have to physically manipulate  her through the motions because unless she physically does it–like when she does a turn–she has to physically do it to learn it.

Also some people are very artistic or very mathematical. I’m more mathematically oriented. That was very hard for me to work with people who were more artistically inclined. Because I’d be like “Ok, you run 10 steps, make a turn, run to your left, 3 steps” but people who think with the other side of their brain don’t think that way. They think in colors, or patterns, so I had to get used to that, so people can understanding what I’m telling them.

Dealing with different kinds of learners is very challenging–but the most challenging people are the people who come in and think that they know everything already.

Oh well I knew that I knew nothing. Ha, ha. The whole project was to research something we knew nothing about. And I have the issue that I live in the age of the internet, anything that interests me I look into and try it out. So I was plagued by the idea of not having something that would keep me going to 15 weeks. And while I was in the backyard letting the behemoth run around it was my mother who suggested agility and now I’m hooked.

DSC_0069Well, that’s what happened with me. I just thought I’d do it until my dog grew up and matured a little bit and the end of the story is that I did agility for 5 years and then practiced obedience for about 3 weeks with him  and went in and got the basic titles with him and I’ve never done obedience again. I started in obedience.

It was a very weird situation–the last obedience trial I was in–when you were called back into the ring for awards, the judge would give you one ribbon at a time say congratulations to each person. Well, one of my friends was in there and she–when she got her ribbon–jumped up and down with her dog and said “what a good girl!” and the judge said to her, “We don’t do that. We don’t get excited in the ring.”

I just thought, “Guess what? Not for me!”

I did it to have fun with my dog. And this was just too strict for me. Obedience is very strict. Where you have your fingers and your hand–I mean–it’s all choreographed.

My next question is about Mimi (another dog in class), because Valerie was telling us she’s about 6 or 7 years old, I thought that was really old to be training and agility dog.  I was wondering if you find it’s harder to work with an older dog versus a younger dog?

Class #2

There are a lot of advantages to training an older dog. One, they pay attention–they have focus. Mimi isn’t jumping around like idiot. In some ways it’s easier because you’re not dealing with the youngster behaviors.

Now with older dogs, as long as they’re in good shape there’s no reason not to do stuff with the dog. As a matter of fact the exercise is good for the older dogs. They get stiff, creaky, they don’t stay as flexible without exercise so they have to keep moving.

The other thing is that seven–for that size dog–is not old. That is the prime of her life. So don’t think about it that way.

My last question is: What do you recommend for trainers do at home when they don’t have obstacles?

Oh there’s a lot you can do at home. For one, you want to make sure that your dog will run with you and pay attention to you when you turn and when you slow down. You want to work on turns and crosses. Getting your dog to pay attention to you with distractions. Can they run by something interesting?

When I trained my current border collie, I made him do the weave poles with my older shelties running around him. So they’re barking at him but he has to do the weave pole.

You can even put a toy out.

Certainly, work on getting your dog’s attention. Go out to places your dog has never been and get their attention.

You can also teach your dog to go ahead of you. Have them stay and then go forward–ahead of you.

So there’s lot’s do.

By J. M. Tuckerman

J.M.Tuckerman is a neurodivergent writer with a big education. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, an MA in Writing, and a BA in Writing Arts (specializing in Creative Writing, New Media Writing, and Publication; concentrating in New Media Production), which she somehow managed to earn despite her three very loud and large dogs. Jessica was lucky enough to intern at Quirk Books and Picador, USA while earning her master’s degrees. Her service dog, Ringo, is very proud of all that she has accomplished and hopes to be on a back cover of a published book with her very soon. An avid reader, writer, and lover of young adult and middle-grade literature, Jessica’s bookshelf is overflowing with hardbacks, paperbacks, and a million half-filled notebooks. She is a proud fur-mommy to two lab/st-bernard littermates, a retriever-mix service dog, and one orange little hobgoblin cat, all of whom have made very audible appearances on the Booked All Night podcast.

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