Coco Academy 2 - the Agility Challenge!

Coco Chocolate Labrador with Adam

Yesterday the air filled with the sound of laughter and applause! I looked around. Was I at the Oscars? Were we in a theatre or at a show? No. I was in a schoolyard surrounded by young adults, a head teacher, and a dog.

Welcome back to the Coco Academy!

For those of you polite and kind enough to follow my blog, a while ago I wrote about my work with Coco, the school dog. Coco is a 16 month old chocolate Labrador bitch who currently resides during the working week at the feet of her owner, Adam Booker, Head Teacher of Willoughby Special School in Bourne, Lincolnshire. Coco was mainly chosen to be a dog that could potentially trained as a therapy dog; to assist the pupils at Adam‘s school – a school for pupils with profound and multiple learning difficulties. We run the Coco Academy, a class of students who learn about safety around dogs, care and grooming, and basic handling techniques. We have made a video of our work and the students are working towards their Duke of Edinburgh Award as part of the project. Coco is taught with a range of hand signals as well as verbal commands and use of clicker. This has the important benefit of helping her to understand students that cannot articulate their words well. As some students are familiar with sign language this is a normal part of their day in any case!

The Academy class are now really using the skills they have learned over the past few months. Their confidence has grown enormously and they hold the lead carefully and keep it loose. They encourage Coco with nice, light voices and remember to pat their leg to keep her at heel, and encourage her to walk with them. I felt they were ready for more.

I always keep small agility jumps in my car (who doesn't?) and placed these in a little course around the playground. 'Today', I said, 'I have a challenge for you all'. The students were to steer Coco around the course and get her to step over the little jumps. This gives them a nice direction and teaches them to observe what is around them whilst walking the dog. It also gives Coco the chance for a bit more social experience and a lot of fun.

And off they went! Each student took the lead and brought Coco around the course jump by jump. Walking pace of course, to ensure that we build up gradually. If Coco missed a jump, patience was in order, as was much laughter. The watching students called out their encouragement and gave a huge round of applause each time a round was completed! Best of all, the students loved Adam and I taking a turn with Coco - plenty of pressure on us to get it right as you can imagine.

Watching carefully for signs of stress is a priority for the dog and the students too. Coco is still young and she works hard because she really enjoys it. As soon as I spot the slightest bit of avoidance, yawning or licking, we break off. In this way Coco has learned to extend her focus for longer periods. She has also learned to 'flop' when she is not working and take a mini nap.

This is a wonderful example of how a pet dog can become a really special companion. Coco trusts Adam to keep an eye on her and protect her from harm. She trusts us to intervene before she becomes stressed. She also trusts us to produce a tasty goodie and a thumbs up when she has done well!

As a trainer this is one of the most rewarding parts of my job. After a difficult behaviour counselling session, where the owner is struggling and finds it hard to follow advice, I can feel very disheartened. However, when I see the words 'Coco Academy' in my diary, I'm bouncing like Tigger all over again.


P.S. It would be great if you could leave comments that I can pass on to the students, so feel free

If you have any questions or would like to know more about Coco and her work, please contact me via my website


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