Nancy Gyes, first published in January 2003
What is “flatwork”?
The terminology “flatwork” comes from the horse world. Flatwork is a generic term but often refers to the dressage part of equine education as opposed to jump training. Equestriennes are on the “flat” when working on dressage or other schooling movements which do not include jumping. Dressage could be considered similar to our competitive obedience work, as opposed to agility training.
Most horse education begins with some kind of “groundwork”. The horse might be shown these skills with a trainer working from the ground with the horse, instead of sitting in the saddle.
Some instructors call the preliminary education they give their dogs before they begin obstacle training as “flatwork”. In the agility world, ground or flat work includes the obedience and other skills we need; ie; come, left, right, turn, “go-on”, “out” and various body movements that we might deem vital to our dogs prior to agility training. But your flat work can also include equipment, especially if you are starting a young dog or repairing skills with an older one.
If you are having a problem with your dog’s speed on the a-frame, we often take the frame down to it’s lowest level, and re-teach the skills before raising the height. It is typical for puppy class training to teach the pup to first walk on a flat board, then on a baby dog walk, possibly only inches high, before progressing to competition height equipment. Dogs taught to run through the standards of a jump or a tire resting on the ground, are primarily keeping their feet on the ground while training.
Speed and skill training should be taught not while the dog is being asked to spend his time in the air jumping and climbing. Running speed needs to be taught while the dog is running loose or beside you, not by being presented with a row of jumps.
As an instructor I often see students for private consultation to fix some kind of specific problem. Often the handler is interested in having the dog perform a course or specific obstacle with more speed. I always find it shocking when I get the answer to this question, “How often every week does your dog exercise at a run?” Typical answers range from “once or twice a week in agility class and competitions”, to “never, he is a couch potato.”
If your dog is not running at full speed while jumping, or performing obstacles, then you need to “take it to the ground”. You cannot start any kind of a program to develop quicker ground or contact speed without first beginning on the “flat”. If you put your dog on leash and take off at a run, will your dog lag and pull the leash taut in avoidance, or does he forge ahead and at least make an effort to keep up with you. In a big open field, with your dog off leash, can you take off and run and have your dog joyously try to catch you? If your dog never breaks out of a breed ring trot when he is on your side, he needs to be taught how to run with you!
We run our new dogs or pups loose in a field to exercise. This is not running in a pack of dogs, but running for the joy of running, chasing us as playmates might, doing hide and seek games, restrained recalls, stay exercises where the dog must run 100 feet or more to our sides, or toy or food “memory games”.
Recall, send and Run
Everything we teach our dogs in agility we do in these three separate ways. When you are working on the ground Recall portion it can be done using restraint, or stays. Try doing the triple restraint with your friends to really get your dog jazzed up. Hand your dog to a pal, and take off and run away, just after you take off, have your friend release the dog and when he catches you, have a party with cookies and toys. Then hand him off to the next waiting friend. Runaway again, and this time call the dog from a greater distance just before you stop moving. Have another party, and hand him off to one of the first helpers or another one, and take off and run again. This time wait until you have stopped running, face your dog and recall. By the time you get to the third recall your dog should be frantic to catch you up!
One of the kinds of toy games I do with my dog I call Memory Games because I want my dog to remember where we left the toy or cookies. Start small. Show your dog a toy, or cookie container like a Tug N Treat. Take him gently by the collar, and turn him away from the toy, then excitedly release him to run and collect the reward. Build this up until you can drop a toy at the far side of the park, and walk or jog even a few hundred feet away with your dog. Release the dog to run to the reward, and run back to you, then start the game from that end of the field. This is a good multiple dog game. See who gets to the toy or goodie bag first.
Once your dog will happily run with you anytime, anywhere, you are ready to start working on lines of jumps and contacts placed flat on the ground. Use the same techniques for jumping that you used to get your dog to chase or recall to you. Put up a line of 4 jumps with the bars on the ground. Build the dog up very slowly to his competition height. Put the jumps at least 15 feet apart. You are not working on jump skills yet, just the speed portion. The moment your dog is not running at full speed over the jumps, drop your bars and make it easy and fun again. This may take months not days!
See Wood Run
Lower your contacts to the ground, or as low as you can possibly get them. You will probably need to enclose the dog walk with pens or fencing in order for the dog to actually stay on the board. Put your toy, Tug N Treat or target at the end of the board so your dog runs all the way to the end. You may play all the normal games your dog knows that you first used teaching him to run. Restrained recalls down the board to you, motivational stays and a recall to you, sends to toys or targets, and full speed running with your dog playing chase. If your dog still moves slowly over the board, throw your toy as the dog exits the board for a few sessions until the dog travels over and through the contact zone at a run before you let them go back to some kind of a stop. Or place your dogs entire food bowl at the end of a short board, and put something incredible in it.
Slowly raise the dog up to full height, and quickly begin introducing your normal contact technique of 2 on 2 off, or whatever method you have chosen. Don’t wait too long to introduce the technique, or your dog will not want to stop ever again!
If your dog is having problems turning tight on front crosses, or spinning the wrong direction on cross behinds, lower your jump bars to the ground and perfect your techniques before raising the bar. Sometimes even a few sessions with lowered bars can help your dog to understand what you want. Make sure your dog has a good understanding of turning to you, (front cross) and turning away (rear cross) ON THE GROUND before you take it to the AIR!
Nancy Gyes, January 2003
Reprinted with permission of Clean Run Productions.