The secret to staying ahead is good timing 🙂 I think of timing as a loop. Good timing is all about predicting behavior, and I do think this gets lost in agility. We are so often waiting to see something specific, but if we wait until we see it, we will be too late in our response. We have to understand our cues and our dog's responses to them well enough that you can predict when they will land and how they will land based on the cues that have been given. This is the same predictive behavior that we require in good training, like Hannah talks about in her podcast: www.hannahbranigan.dog/podcast/151
I really suggest you listen to that episode, because it's so great, and there's a lot of parallels from good dog training to good agility handling.
But, back to agility:
There is connection between obstacles. There is commitment to the current obstacle. There is a proactive cue given for the current obstacle that puts the dog on the correct path to the next obstacle. It is consistency within this loop that builds confidence in our dogs and in return confidence in ourselves. When the dog learns that they can rely on this timely information, you can rely on their predictable responses to information, which makes planning your handling strategy so much easier.
These obstacles are spaced really far apart so that I have space to adequately show what I’m about to explain.
Our goal is to give relevant information between the obstacles, not while the dog is trying to complete the behavior. Giving relevant information while the dog is trying to jump (or weave, or hit their contact) can cause dogs to slow down, knock bars, slip/fall, or ignore cues altogether.
Think of every obstacle as a startline. You lead out to a position that gives clear information about the first and second obstacle. You are looking at the dog and you can see that your dog is going to take #1. As your dog lands #1, you are starting to give information about how they should take #2, because your leadout position already committed them to it.
The whole course is like that from the dog’s perspective, so you have to think like that, too! If you think about your dog landing every obstacle in a sit stay – how would you choose to handle the next obstacle? What position would you choose to be in? Which handling technique would you decide to use?
Back to timing: The first piece of the loop is connection: seeing your dog’s eyes as they land or exit an obstacle. As your dog lands/exits an obstacle, they are asking “what’s next”? Your connection to them is confirming that they are heading towards the correct obstacle (based on your previous proactive cue). Looking at the correct obstacle is the dog saying, “I’ve got it, I’m going to take it, but how do I take it?”, and that is your chance to give them the handling technique that tells them how to jump, that will put them on the correct line to the next one – and the loop continues. A large part of “seeing” your dog commit is *knowing* that your dog will commit. We learn to know that our dogs will commit during training basic skills, not during sequencing.
Let’s talk a little more about commitment. I’ve mentioned that trust in our proactive cues increases the dog’s obstacle focus so that they land looking at the correct obstacle. What we are doing when they land or exit an obstacle (hopefully) confirms their thoughts of commitment and allows us to continue with the cues for the obstacle they are looking at. There are three ways we can confirm that the dog is looking at the correct obstacle:
Motion. When we are moving parallel with our dog’s path, as they are landing the previous obstacle, that motion forward confirms the correct obstacle for the dog. No other handling is required.
Position. When we are close to an obstacle when the dog is landing the previous obstacle, that confirms the correct obstacle for the dog. No other handling is required.
A step towards the take-off point. This is most commonly used when we want the dog to stay committed to one line while the handler moves away to a new line, like in backside sends or cueing any turns.
A verbal cue: This is not natural and must be trained, but a verbal cue can be taught for the dog to use independently from the handler's physical cues to confirm commitment.
Once committed, dogs need that proactive cue at least one stride before take-off. Why so early? Because they are planning their next take-off the moment they land/exit the previous obstacle. If they get to their take-off point unaware of where the next one is, they will likely take-off in extension (unless they’ve learned out of self perseverance to automatically collect/prepare to turn no matter what), and at the very least turn wide after they land and get the information they are looking for. If they have all of the relevant information about where to go next before they reach their take-off point, they can (and in most cases will) adjust their speed, stride length, take-off point, and land looking in the correct direction of the next obstacle.
Once you are sequencing, good timing of your proactive cues is mostly about predicting where your dog will land and knowing that they will commit to the correct obstacle because your proactive cue has put them on the correct line. Good timing is about prediction. Good predictions come from evidence that is found in training.