Dear Old Trainer: I know you have border collies and I need advice. I just adopted a female BC named Proton and want to train her to be an agility dog. I talked to a trainer who said I should keep Proton in her 12-foot pen at all times except for practice. I run five miles a day, and I'd like to take her with me, but the trainer said if I keep her in her pen she will work harder when she gets out. Is she right?
-- Keith, San Jose
A: No. That advice is the precise opposite of what Proton -- or any other dog -- needs to be a competitive agility dog. The idea that you keep working dogs locked up except when they work is nonsense, a hangover from the Dark Ages.
It is the same as keeping a track athlete in a 6-foot cell for months and then expecting him to go out and run a marathon. Proton is like any other athlete. She needs constant training to be able to perform when the time comes.
The first thing you do is ignore that trainer. The second is start getting Proton in shape. She needs exercise and training every day. And I don't mean walk her half a mile on a short leash. To Proton, that is the equivalent of a couch potato getting up and walking to the kitchen for ice cream.
You are a runner, so take Proton with you. She can run 20 miles a day with ease, but start her at two miles and add a mile every third day until she is running the five miles with you. Use an expandable leash instead of short leash, and she will run eight miles while you run five.
Use the run to perfect communication between the two of you. Use voice commands and hand signals to sharpen her response to your orders. Praise her when she responds correctly. Daily walks and runs enhance communication with a working dog.
Agility requires sprinting speed as well as distance endurance, so in addition -- not instead of -- to distance running, hit a tennis ball as far as you can with a racquet and let Proton retrieve it. If you have a hill you can hit the ball down, so much the better.
Running up an incline is excellent training for a working dog.
Mental training is as important as fitness training in agility trials. Proton has to know you so well she intuits what you are thinking and what you want her to do next without a word from you. You develop that in the hours you spend together. Being locked away inhibits mental acuity the same way it does physical fitness.
So even when fitness training is over, do not lock Proton in her run. Have her with you so she can observe you and see how you think and act. The more Proton is with you, the faster she learns.
Jack Haskins writes as The Old Trainer. A trainer for more than 30 years, he has rescued, trained, and placed more than 2,000 dogs. Send questions to: firstname.lastname@example.org