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My dog barks during agility

My mutt Ace has become much more vocal and excited during agility practice within the last six months. He barks wildly nonstop, as you can see in the video below. Watch it on mute if you don’t want to be totally annoyed.

I haven’t addressed Ace’s “talking back” issue until now because I don’t know how to handle the problem. In the meantime, his “attitude” has gotten worse.

What concerns me the most is not his barking, but how his excitement escalates to aggressive behavior such as nipping my hands. He has left bruises several times. It’s hard to see it in the video, but he bites at my sleeves during the weave poles.

My mutt is out of control.

Agility trainers I’ve worked with tell me that Ace wants to run as fast as he can. Because the obstacles slow him down, he gets frustrated when he has to maneuver them. The room we practice agility in is also too small, leaving him little room to get up to speed. His barking is his way of telling me “Let’s go!”

One trainer (Hi Sandy!) has told me all along that I’ve been causing these problems by literally taking too big of steps with my feet. Like Ace, I want to go fast. After all, we are both runners.

But my large steps cause me to stop suddenly as we reach each obstacle, causing Ace to do a jump or pop upwards. This popping motion that Ace did led to barking, which led to nipping. I don’t notice that I’m doing any quick stops in the video, but I’m sure I still do it on certain course layouts. Either way, Ace has formed the habit to jump at my hands and bark.

Ace’s crazy, continuous barking began several months ago on the teeter. This is an obstacle he is still nervous on. What a big baby! He would bark on the teeter because he didn’t want to walk across it. He used to try to skip the teeter entirely and then grunt and bark when I forced him across it.

The barking on the teeter led to barking at the weave poles. He wanted to run right by them instead of actually weaving. When I slowed him down to do them correctly, he began grunting and soon after that he was full out barking. Now he barks nonstop throughout the whole course, even when he is in a down-stay position on the table.

He used to be better at agility, and now he has gotten worse and tries to skip obstacles. Is my dog bored or what?

The way Ace is acting in this video is pretty typical, although his excitement often escalates to more than this. That’s when he fixates on my hands and mouths them like they are a toy.

Unwanted behavior is never the dog’s fault.

I joined an agility class for something my dog and I could do together – a way to increase our bond while exercising and challenging ourselves. One of the reasons I haven’t addressed Ace’s barking is because agility is supposed to fun. We aren’t serious competitors, so I’ve never worried about his behavior too much. Also, in a class setting, it’s hard to slow down and take individual time to work when others are waiting for a turn.

But now I’ve reached that point where enough is enough. It’s hard to have fun with a barking dog, especially one beginning to show dominance and aggression. It’s hard not to take it personally when Ace hurts my hands. It’s hard not to lose my temper when he can’t control himself enough to hear basic commands, let alone respond to them.

Of course, I don’t blame Ace for his behavior. It’s totally my fault for not addressing these issues before they became habits. Ace can’t rationalize what he’s doing. He’s just being a dog, and he’s trying to be a good dog. All he wants to do is follow me around and make me happy.

I had my boyfriend Josh run Ace on the course last week to see if our dog would respond differently to him. He did not. Ace was probably even more excited because Josh was out there with him for the first time. Ace even tried to go for Josh’s hands.

I’ve had more experienced trainers do run-throughs with Ace on the course, and he is much better with them. He does not bark or become fixated on their hands. He is able to focus better because he is less excited. One member of our class suggested Ace gets more excited around me because I’m his person, and he likes me so much. But I think he does better with the other trainers because they are more assertive, and he sees them as authority figures.

My dog is not a vocal dog outside of agility. We practice obedience in the same building, on the same floor, and he is a totally different dog then – quiet, laid back, responsive! He seems to really enjoy both obedience and agility but for different reasons.

Obedience is about calmly following my lead and commands, something Ace enjoys. Agility, on the other hand, brings out one crazy dog! Although he looks happy on the course – his tail never quits wagging – I worry that his excited behavior at agility is similar to his obsessive behavior around a tennis ball. The fact that he fixates on my hands and gets a glazed stare is not a good sign.

What should I do differently with this dog?

We are taking this session off from agility because I need to give myself a break, but we will be back again to weekly practices in May. I really enjoy agility and want to improve. However, I don’t see that happening unless I can get more control over my dog on the course.

Does anyone have any suggestions for Ace and I?

One option is to slow Ace down and even practice with a leash on him for awhile. That way I have more control and can put him into down-stay positions whenever his excitement escalates.

I also see that Ace and I need to work on distance. If he can learn to listen and read my signals better from a distance, he will be able to run the course without me right by him the whole time. That way he won’t be able to fixate on my hands so easily. He will also have to think a little more rather than just follow me the whole time. Distance work is something we can practice in general at home and in areas other than on agility equipment.

Finally, I need to be more assertive with my dog with both my voice and body posture. I am too laid back with him. My voice is not firm and either are my hand signals. The more passive I am, the more powerful he becomes. I don’t have to yell, but I have to be the authoritative figure that I am.

A nice, long bike ride with Ace before we go to practice should also help. 🙂

If you bike with your dog, you may be interested in a dog bike leash.

Does anyone else have a dog who is crazy at agility? How about crazy in general?

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