JUMPING THE AGILITY HURDLE
“Sit” and “Stay” are commands that Yap Swee Yen knows that dogs understand well with training.
For one who started her career as a dog trainer 10 years ago, she knows that it is not doggone easy but what tickled her pink recently was when she saw circulating on social media this poster that takes a dig at us humans!
Yen couldn’t agree more.
Homo sapiens, or wise humans that we would want to think we are, have of late proven how difficult it is to take heed of simple instructions of “sit” and “stay”. We allowed ourselves to be the convenient hosts for the invisible lurking virus to multiply and spread causing the worrying spike in Covid-19 infections.
While such circumstances open up windows of opportunities for a trainer like her, Yen wouldn’t even want to give it a thought. “I rather keep to training furkids,” she quickly added.
Yen’s foray into dog training that also opened up money-making prospects was unplanned. “I had a very reactive dog who was barking and lunging at all dogs, people and vehicles - behaving how most training clients describe to me now as ‘aggressive’. What I didn’t know at the time was that he was reacting out of fear, not aggression.
“After trying to ‘fix’ the problem myself by using the only way I knew (which was force), I consulted four ‘force-method’ trainers who showed me even more ways to threaten my dog into submission. None of it worked. My dog was still a reactive mess.”
Undaunted, Yen began her own extensive research on dog reactivity which led to her life-changing discovery of science-based, positive training.
“My lightbulb moment was when I learnt a better way to train for effective results was not in punishing the dog but working with more reactive dogs like mine.”
Yen set off to Netherlands to obtain her certification as a Certified Behaviour Adjustment Trainer (CBATI). She then took an online course from the “Harvard” of dog trainers -- The Academy for Dog Trainers – where she clinched her most valuable qualification Certificate in Training and Counselling (CTC).
Yen said with pride : “The curriculum is graduate level Applied Behaviour Analysis and I’m still the only Malaysian to hold the certification since graduating in 2015. While the programme prepared me for training obedience and behaviour modification, the most valuable module was client counselling. The dogs are easy, people are the hardest hurdle to clear.
“In the beginning, the challenges presented to me were astronomical. Dog owners were so used to the quick-fix force training method that force-free was such a hard sell.”
Another hurdle was the disdain of her mother. “My mum still does not see what I do is, from her perspective, a legitimate job. To her, I am no better than the street sweeper!” she confided.
A firm believer in continued education, Yen keeps investing in furthering her knowledge as science evolves through time and she has to keep abreast. Her latest qualification is that of a Fear Free Certified Professional.
In 2011, her dog training career took another turn when she caught a YouTube video on a dog agility competition. One look was all it took for her to be bitten by the dog agility bug.
Dog agility is a dog sport in which a handler directs a dog through an obstacle course in a race for both time and accuracy. Dogs run off leash and the handler can touch neither dog nor obstacles. The handler's controls are limited to voice, movement, and various body signals. The sport requires exceptional training of the animal and coordination of the handler.
What started as a personal passion soon developed into a drive to introduce the sport to Malaysia and Malaysians. When the club she trained with disbanded, she started her own – Velocity Agility -- initially for training her own dogs but gradually to expose other dog owners to the sport.
“There are two other clubs in the country -- one in Klang Valley and the other in Penang. We have been represented in the 2019 World Agility Open (WAO) competition by two competitors from Penang.
“Competitors fund their own expenses. It can come up to RM40K per competition so it’s not really something everyone can afford. Most are just weekend gladiators. Very few are hard-core like me,” said Yen.
She lamented: “Compared to countries where the sport is so much more well developed, Malaysia is sadly light years behind.” According to her, dog agility clubs in Malaysia and Singapore started about the same time in 2009 but our neighbour down south has grown the sport faster.
“Today, Singapore has so many more agility clubs training on leased parks and futsal fields. They also hold international competitions. The exposure goes a long way in bringing up the sport. In 2019, they had 20 competitors at the WAO.
“But I am not disheartened. I’m looking to Singapore as my goal and yes, the sport has a future in Malaysia.
“Local competitions are hard to come by so we try to get the Malaysia Kennel Association (MKA) involved. One cannot organise and compete as well. It is too taxing. Furthermore, the MKA can help to absorb some of the organisation cost. It takes a village!”
On a personal level, Yen revealed that she is saving up to take part in the WAO. In preparation she trains her four dogs and herself daily. “I train my fitness so that I can match my fit dogs. After all, agility is a team sport!” A full agility course consisting of contact obstacles weighs several hundred kilos!
So, how is Yen combining her profession with her passion given the fact that she has fallen in love with a sport that is challenging financially and perception wise?
“The constraints are 100% financial. If I had the money to build an indoor space, a barn for agility, I would do it in a heartbeat. Frankly, that is the goal and, hopefully, it would materialise.
“My biggest challenge now is finding a space to train consistently and to develop a corps of enthusiasts who will form the foundation of the sport. Currently, we get complaints from residents in neighbourhood parks or even public parks. Many do not understand the sport and see dogs running off leash as dangerous. The indoor space I plan to build will solve this problem,” added Yen.
While her pet dog training practice and the fees she charges for agility classes help to some extent to off-set the expenses, they are but a drop in the ocean. “In spite of my dog-training qualifications, I still have to price my services really low in order to be competitive. On the other hand, I cannot charge too high for my dog agility training because I want to promote the sport,” lamented Yen.
But she is undeterred. “For now, pet dog training is my bread and butter but my passion is dog agility. In a few years with the agility barn in place – hopefully -- I envision myself to be training for agility predominantly with pet dog training on the side.”
Given her determination, passion and drive, dog agility as a sport is set to be the next hot sport in town.
You can check out Yen and her passion at the following social media handlers: