Does your dog trust your handling? Do you trust your dog to follow your handling?
Agility courses are like puzzles. I love puzzles. I love looking at a course map and predicting how my dog’s natural path helps me and how his natural path should be changed so he can stay on course. I love experimenting in training with different handling strategies, testing myself that I can solve the puzzle while running ahead of my dog, behind my dog, and at a distance from my dog. My main goal in agility is not a paper result; it’s about solving the puzzle correctly.
It’s important for me to understand how each handling technique I use effects my dog’s path. If I know this and the path I want my dog to take on the agility course, I can put together a handling strategy that is likely to be successful.
Recently, I taught a lesson for my in-person classes a course on following the handling. This course was designed to encourage the handler’s to never slow down; they had to choose their handling strategies based on the lines they needed to create to keep the dog’s on course and trust that their dogs would follow the handling, without sacrificing their own speed to manage their dog’s paths, even when many off course traps were presented to the dogs!
Here is that course and the handling analysis:
#1-10 focuses on the use of either-or training, building up speed for the dogs and forcing the handlers to think about how they would cue #8 differently than they cued #3, emphasizing that calling the dog after they land #8 isn’t an effective handling tool long term.
Most students chose to complete front crosses at #8 and #9 to cue the turns, keeping their dogs from ever looking at the trap-obstacles along the way. Another popular choice was to use a reverse spin at #8 and running on the dog’s line at #9, to show the correct line to the #10 tunnel.
The next sequence, #11-16 was a really fast line – and any handler that slowed down to try to “manage” the dog’s path, was not going to make the blind cross they had planned for #14.
A backside send to front cross was chosen by all students at #11. Handler’s needed to keep good connection over their right shoulder but trust that the dog would turn to take the tunnel instead of continuing on their line towards the backside of #9.
It was a 50/50 split of handlers that chose to blind cross the exit of the #12 tunnel and send to #13 and those that rear crossed #13. Both of these options set the handler up in a good position to complete the blind cross at #14. Rear crossing #14 also worked well!
#17 – 21 was the most difficult part of the course that caused panic in many of the teams. I observed handlers swap from trusting their dogs on #1-16 to managing their dogs through the rest of the course.
The dog’s natural line from #17 takes them directly to the off-course jump. Handler’s had to make an educated guess on what kind of turning cue their dog needed before #17 to ensure that the dog would land on the correct line to get to #18 without fault. Turning cues ranged from saying the dog’s name to false turns to reverse spins. The handler’s position in relation to the tunnel/jump discrimation also played a huge role.
As the dog is exiting the #18 tunnel, he cannot see the correct obstacle. Handlers had the choice of standing near the exit of #19 and connecting their dog to their hand before sending them into the tunnel or staying on the outside of the #19 tunnel and using movement to commit their dogs to #19. Either way, the handler was in a good position to cue a turn at the exit of the tunnel.
Proactive vs Reactive & why it matters
It’s important to be able to give proactive cues to the dog to build their confidence in your handling. After all, they can’t read the numbers; they only have the information we choose to give them to make their decisions with. If part of the time we are building up their obstacle focus and rewarding them for taking obstacles and another part of the time we are calling them off of obstacles reactively, we are potentially degrading our dog’s confidence in our handling & their obstacle focus and speed.
Focusing on giving timely cues and paying attention to your dog’s responses increases understanding at both ends of the leash. Training with trap-stacles is a great way to learn to coach yourself.
On your first attempt, if a wrong obstacle happens, reward your dog. Even if you think you were cueing correctly, your timing could have been off. It’s best to give the dog the benefit of the doubt at least once 🙂
Next, you will handle to the “wrong” obstacle on purpose and reward your dog. This way, you can compare the cues from your first attempt to your second attempt and analyze what the dog was reading in each rep. Then, decide what you will change about your first attempt. If you decide that your dog was following the handling in the first attempt, but your cue was incorrect, decide what you will change about your cue. If you decide that your cue was correct, but the dog misread it, how will you train him to respond to that specific cue?
Remember, your dog doesn’t know the numbers – he only knows what you decide to tell him. In nearly all cases, the dog is following the handling. They can’t speak in our language and tell us what they do and don’t understand. It is up to us to interpret their responses to our handling and make choices in our training from there.