Over 25 years ago, my husband Glenn and I lived in a suburban environment where there were few options to exercise our four large dogs on a daily basis; therefore, I began looking for ways to develop our dogs’ skills in using their physical abilities. We soon moved to a somewhat rural area where we commenced designing and building obstacles for the dogs. More moves and more obstacle courses culminated in our current extensive course which required a great deal of time and effort to construct.   Dogs' Playground

Then, as now, I believe that learning to navigate obstacles helps a dog develop confidence and judgment, teaches him to solve problems, and imbues him with the joy of personal achievement.

By Charlene Dunlap

Written for and published in
The International Parti Poodle Gazette
July 2007 Issue

When I first began obstacle training our dogs, I knew of few people who did this – mostly those who trained dogs for search and rescue or police work. However, teaching dogs to navigate a series of obstacles must have been an idea whose time had come because not long afterwards, we began hearing about the sport of dog agility . . . which went on to become a highly popular competitive sport.

Many dog owners (me included) are not interested in the competitive aspect of agility but do enjoy engaging and challenging our dogs. Those who don’t have the time, space, or desire to construct large permanent obstacles (such as we have) can nevertheless create a clever and effective obstacle course by using a variety of objects that are pre-made or ones that are not difficult to construct. Also, they can look for "obstacles" when on outings.

All of our dogs have learned to walk across these stacks of cement squares that Jyah is using. 

 When confronted with a similar looking obstacle, my three late Standard Poodles Keila, Stoney, and April had the confidence and judgment to use these stepping stones over a pond.

Away-from-home obstacles we have taken advantage of: hay bales in the farmer’s field, pier walk at a park,  willow maze at the museum, and fallen trees in the woods.

Jyah going over flip/flop board

Sydney going over horizontal ladder

· Tunnel: old tires, 50 lb drums with ends cut out and rolled (drape sheet off one end for collapsed tunnel), cardboard boxes with holes cut in two sides

· Mazes: barrier plastic stapled to stakes, three (or more) cardboard boxes with holes cut in sides – duct taped together to make maze tunnel

· Patterns: weave poles, cones, patterns outlined by flags, stakes, and ropes made in zigzag, figure eight, and 90-degree-angle shapes

· Spaced platform jumps: 16" x 4" blocks stacked three high and 16" apart, tree stumps on end

· Surfaces: stones, sand, plastic, water obstacle such as a kiddies' wading pool, etc.

Stoney, Keila, April, and Bleu on tree stumps

If you have a number of obstacles, you can arrange them in a course where the dog must navigate each article from beginning to end.

When teaching the dog to navigate an obstacle, proceed slowly allowing the dog’s body to become conditioned – muscle memory and balance can only be attained slowly by repetition. Gradually increase the length and difficulty of workouts. If the dog is not obedience trained, you can begin by hooking a leash on his collar and guiding, NOT forcing, him over the obstacle . . . and NEVER EVER yell at the dog. With the dog on lead, walk him through the obstacle. It’s only a matter of practice before he will traverse the obstacle by himself. If he doesn’t, then you will have to build his confidence slowly by shaping – which means rewarding (usually with food) incremental approximations of the desired behavior.

Jyah and Sydney using a picnic table as an A-frame

Unlike the sport of dog agility where speed in negotiating each obstacle is of the essence, confidence course training is performed at the dog's own pace where safety, enjoyment, and building self assurance are the main goals.

When designing either an individual obstacle or a whole course, the dog's safety should be of prime importance. There should be no sharp objects or protrusions anywhere on the obstacle that could injure the dog. The surface where the obstacle is placed should be carefully chosen - jump obstacles should have safe take-off and landing areas.

Listed below are different categories of obstacles with ideas for each.

· Slides: straight (as opposed to curved) plastic kid's slides are best

· Ramps: boards or logs to make ramps

· A-frames: half-buried old tractor tires (see Front Page picture) for going over and through, lumber in “A” shape

· Broad jumps: made from lumber and/or PVC pipe, ditches

· High jumps: hula hoops, old window doors (for large Poodles), PVC pipe makes great jumps, barrels, broom handle laid on two boxes

· Dog Walks: cinder blocks with an 8' x 1' x 2” board laid on top, horizontal ladder walk, flip/flop board (like a tiny seesaw), packing crates

Learning to navigate obstacles helps a dog develop confidence and judgment, teaches him to solve problems, and . . . it's just plain fun for both Poodle and owner!

Food rewards are very helpful in the beginning to show the dog he is doing the correct thing.  The key is to reward what the dog is doing well and ignore his mistakes.  Build the dog's trust with patience and kindness, never forcing or getting angry, and he will be willing to try whatever you ask of him.

However, don't think you have to have a whole obstacle course or spend hours training your dog.  Obstacle training for confidence building works just as well when incorporated into walks or playtime: picnic tables make good A-frames; drape a sheet over three sides of a table and teach your dog to go in and out (put a bit of food inside in the beginning); teach him to go away from you around a chair (or outside, around a tree) and back to you for a treat (lure him around the object with a treat in the beginning before giving it to him); teach him to crawl under a coffee table (again, lure with food in the beginning until the dog understands what you want).  You don't have to spend a dime to help your dog gain confidence . . . just use your imagination and have fun with your Poodle.