Of all of the agility obstacles, teaching the tunnel is perhaps the most straight forward. With a bit of “tunnel vision”, you’ll get your dog to run through an obstacle tunnel, but it will take an open mind and patience, too, because it takes time to establish the habit.
Before trying to get your dog to run through the tunnel, you should get a friend who will sit at one end of the tunnel with your dog while you sit at the other. Partially crawl into the tunnel with a treat.
When tunnel training, you should keep in mind that your dog will more than likely be reluctant in entering the tunnel at first. Your approach will be key, as your own personal starting position will affect the outcome for the dog.
When your friend releases the dog into the tunnel (getting the dog to enter may take some extra encouragement and persuasion with a treat), lure the dog with a treat in your hand. As the dog approaches your hand for a tasty reward, retreat back through the tunnel to encourage the dog to follow your lead. You can increment the process by rewarding inside the tunnel, backing through and then for a complete pass through. For each repetition, mark the behavior with a click, if you use a clicker, or a positive “yes” as the dog achieves your training goal and then give him his reward.
Next, we’ll venture into the actual process of running your dog through the tunnel with a leash.
Let’s consider the starting position and approach with more detail, as you won’t be going anywhere without it. We want to begin directly facing the obstacle tunnel. This is where many people make their first mistake.
Often, beginner dog trainers will either start their dogs slightly to the left of the tunnel or, as they run, they themselves will run at a slight right angle, leading the dog to the right of the tunnel. This will confuse your dog and make it hesitant to enter the tunnel.
Ideally, start by facing your dog directly towards the tunnel—a straight line for a straight entry. Based on the dog’s straight position, you then want to place yourself slightly to the right of the tunnel, as to not interfere or draw the dog one way or another that is not directly in route to the tunnel’s entrance.
When accelerating toward the tunnel’s entrance, you will keep a tight grip on the dog’s leash until right before the dog reaches the tunnel’s entrance. When the dog is released at the entrance, it will run through the tunnel and meet you on the other end. Start with the tunnel shortened so it’s a short travel into daylight and keep things positive with plenty of rewards and repetition. Once your dog becomes reliable, begin adding the cue “tunnel”. Plenty of practice will cement the cue to the behavior and allow the conditioning to take place.
Your dog will become better with a straight tunnel quickly. As this happens, begin curving the tunnel into a u-shape to add more of a challenge. You can also change the location of the tunnel in your training area to show your dog a different picture and clarify the objective.
With enough practice in speed of approach, timing your leash release and building your dog’s confidence, you will be able to slowly move your dog back further and further and even offset your position relative to the opening. Eventually, you will not need a leash or have to run along side your dog as they enter the tunnel.
Remember, this process can take awhile, especially with novice dogs. Patience, reward and enthusiasm are key; mistakes and lack of clarity are normal initially. Above all, agility is for your enjoyment and your dogs, not just with the tunnel obstacle, but any agility activity you tackle. You will get out of it what you put into it. Go get it.