Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Big Dreams, Tiny Budget

It's been a while, but today is another dog agility blog event day. The subject is "backyard training," and if you'd like to see what everyone else has to say you can visit this site:

I haven't had a chance to visit to read what everyone else has to say yet, but I'm hoping to get some good ideas! Since August of 2008, 99% of my training has all been done in my backyard. Both Kaiser and Secret were solo projects taught at home with no outside help. Part of the reason is because there were/are no local classes that fit my needs, but also because training just gets expensive -- especially with three dogs!

When I first started agility with Luke in 2007 he was my only dog. I quickly became addicted to the sport and we enrolled in session after session of weekly classes with no break. I'd often take a private or semi-private lesson each week in addition to our group classes, and sometimes I'd even go down for ring rental on another day. Paying for all of that training time adds up, there is no doubt.

What ultimately led to me getting serious about finding a way to train on my own were the struggles Luke and I had in the NADAC Chances class.  When we got into Elite we just COULD NOT Q. We literally went over 10 months without a single Q when we moved up (and we were trialing two or three times a month back then!) and it was getting depressing. The local training classes did not touch on or encourage distance work at all, so I felt the only way we were going to see any improvement was if I found a way to work on my own. Thankfully I feel that my experience riding and training horses for so many years really helped my intuition for learning agility and I felt that I could be fairly successful on my own.

The more I got into agility, the more I found myself backing away from horses. I was approaching 30 and had been renting my apartment for over 8 years, so I decided that it was as good a time as any to start house shopping. I would sell my younger horse, Norman, to help with a down payment towards the new house, which was more or less the beginning of the end of my equestrian life. While house shopping, I stressed to my realtor that a big flat empty yard was ALL that mattered. She struggled greatly with this request, but eventually we found the perfect property. My yard is 100'x100' fenced with no obstructions -- unfortunately it's in the town of Sparta, but you can't win them all...

My older horse passed away shortly after I put the offer in on the house, so I was horseless as we moved forward with the deal (unfortunately the only reason I was looking in the Sparta area was because that's where my barn was....). I found myself selling off all of my tack and equipment to put towards my new passion in life --- buying agility equipment! Before I moved in, I had a couple of tunnels, my dog walk & a-frame were ordered and all of my PVC was cut and ready to assemble into jumps.

Being able to train at home has been such a blessing and has completely changed my outlook on dog training in general. I can't imagine going back to a group class anymore because it goes against how I train my dogs. I love having the ability to set an exercise and work each dog for five or ten minutes. This keeps them fresh, happy and excited about agility. All the work that we do is in drive because I don't have to worry about bringing them up & down over the course of an hour long group class.

I can work on what I want/what we need. Training at home was THE KEY to building Luke's distance skills and is largely why Kaiser & Secret both have had good distance from day one. So many people at trials have asked me for help and I struggle with advice since I know how difficult it is to work on those skills in a class environment when the instructor and other students aren't interested in learning those skills.

There are negatives to training exclusively at home, no doubt! I don't have anyone to tell me how many stupid handling errors I am making or give me advice on how to correct this. I video as many of our training sessions as I can for this reason, but it would still be nice to have one on one feedback on occasion.

When you have a weekly class that you pay to attend, you tend to be guaranteed to train at least one day a week. At home, sometimes it just seems like a whole lot of effort to set a course, especially when it typically takes longer to set/take down a course than the time I spend actually running it with the dogs. It was great when I had my cousin, Bethany, coming over to train with me regularly because that helped a lot with my motivation. I miss that, for sure. My motivation was kind of lacking this year -- I never even got my contacts out of the garage this whole season! It was the year of jumping drills & teetering; that's about it.

I also miss getting to run drills that someone else comes up with. Many times when you set up exercises for yourself, you tend to set them to your strengths. I dubbed this year the "Year of the Backyard Dog" and set numerous drills from the Clean Run article of this name in order to attempt to push myself out of my comfort zone more often. I love these drills! They are easy to set with a fairly minimal amount of equipment, they tend to fit into a space that allows for easy stationary video and they test a wide variety of skills. If you look, you can even find ones that focus on specific equipment. This came in super handy when it came time for me to train the broad jump earlier this year after we started USDAA!

Living in Wisconsin, I would gather the worst part about backyard training is that it goes away for a good half of the year. Last year ROCKED in that I was still playing agility outside in January and February, but most years bring an end to running outdoors far earlier than that. Not only does winter make training outside difficult if not impossible, but we tend to have long stretches of time where you can't do ANYTHING outside due to ice or extreme cold.

That's why, two years ago, I decided to put down mats on half of my basement. Secret was due to make her agility debut in February of 2011 and I was panicking about the idea of having no way to train her. My basement was half framed in on one side when I bought it (the other side has a finished room, so that couldn't be touched), so my dad helped me knock it all down and I ended up with a 20' x 23' big open space. It's not much, but it has given us a great winter play area.

I can fit a few jumps in this space and usually bring down my table, the teeter and a set of 6 2x2 weave poles. I also keep our exercise peanut in the basement and we burn off some energy on that when the weather prevents us from playing outside. The stairs are also a great way to get some crazies out on a cold day as well as to get some good cardio exercise in!

We are still snow-free going into December, but my new job doesn't allow me the opportunity to train outside before it gets dark. Right now I'm thankful that all of my dogs are more or less able to survive in "maintenance mode" and that we are still able to be successful at trials with the limited amount of training that we have available to us.

We'll see how true that statement holds this weekend, as we have a NADAC trial here in La Crosse! Secret has a shot at getting her NATCH, as she just needs two more Chances Q's. I'm going to try to not feel too pressured and just let the chips fall where they may. Even if she got it in January it would still be less than two years into her trial career, so I'm in awe of her, regardless. Luke also has a shot (at NATCH 4), but he needs two Chances and two Jumpers -- I tend to be far more likely to screw up his Jumpers runs for whatever reason, so we'll see what happens. It could be a very exciting weekend, though, especially on the heels of Kaiser's NATCH at the last trial!


  1. I bet the neighbors wouldnt be happy if you installed field lighting so you could train after work. I am so fortunate to have an indoor training facility in my back yard - it wouldnt really be fair for me to write about backyard training!

  2. Great post! The mats look like nice solution to the winter training dilemma. :)

  3. Ditto to most of what you said about training at home. We gave up on classes several years ago and Lyric has been fully trained at home. And although I still have a horse-he pretty much never gets ridden. He was never a show horse anyway. And although I do sometimes miss showing horses, I pretty much snap back to reality right away.

  4. I was getting discouraged with my once a week classes at agility and the instructors berating me for only taking ONE class a week I cannot find time or money for more so I am trying to build a course over time at home and like with my successful show horses, do it myself. I would love to follow your tips!