No Offense to Old Women… but

I have studied for a number of years the fascination and fixation dog agility enthusiasts in America have for the “serpentine”. It has become a popular practice to require the handler to maintain a path on one side of the serpentine; and to teach the dog to treat the serpentine as though it were one obstacle with multiple elements, rather like the weave poles. The practice has fallen into some widespread acceptance to the extent that I’ve actually heard handlers and instructors in our sport use the term “do a serpentine” to refer to this handling strategy rather than to the actual arrangement of obstacles. You must know that hearing this distorted phraseology nearly always makes me wince.


And so, I will at seminars nearly always put up a serpentine exercise calculated to show my students the error of their ways. It’s quite predictable that the handler working from one side of the serpentine is a strategy that will fail 40% (or more) of the time among people who practice it constantly. And you’ll note in this illustration of the serpentine that on the return trip the handler is expected to negotiate a skip-a-jump handling riddle. It’s funny how many handlers will attempt to layer to the opposite side of the serpentine… having clearly taught the dog the compensatory mission of treating the serpentine as a whole and single obstacle.

Weekend in Buffalo

Okay, so I put up this very exercise at Jeannine Jay’s Canine Sports Center if Buffalo NY last weekend. I even began the exercise saying “I know what I’m going to see”. These were famous last words. The group in Buffalo had overall very nice skills. I pretty much spent the weekend fine tuning and concentrating on what’s the next step kind of logic. It was an interesting mix of dogs; most of them highly motivated and an interesting mix of breeds, mostly dominated by Labs… yellow and black. When I set up this exercise I pretty much expected to see what I’ve seen for the past five years or so as I’ve studied the serpentine: Most handlers would work from one side of the serpentine; and a 40% (or higher) fail rate.

As I predicted… most handlers worked from one side of the serpentine. What I did not expect, however, was a stunning 90% success rate through the first eight obstacles. My bad!

The closing became a bit trappy in the skip-a-jump riddle. But I really can’t blame the dogs who’ve been so nicely trained to treat the serpentine as a single obstacle with multiple elements or, frankly, the handlers who simply needed coaching on how to demonstrate path to their dogs.

I was completely ecstatic about what I’d seen. I’ve been waiting for this for a number of years now. And this is what I told them …

You guys have done a magnificent job teaching your dogs the serpentine as though it were a single obstacle with multiple elements. It is a marvelous accomplishment in dog training. It’s smart dog training. However, the handler working one side of the serpentine is not particularly good handling, and I’ll tell you why. Your dogs could not have performed more slowly. It’s absolutely impossible for the handler to give any kind of speed cue to the dog or supply any energy to the team while taking such a short and diminutive path, scuffling along while the dog goes out and comes in, doing all of the real work.

If a handler has a “ballistic” dog… a dog who works at top speed without regard to the contribution of energy of the handler, then the handling system is a bit of a wash. But the great majority of dogs in agility will get their sense of mission and urgency from the handler’s sense of mission and urgency. A dog gets his speed cue from the handler’s speed. No offense to old women, but… why should we constantly handle like we were a bunch of old women, incapable of movement, incapable of motive, incapable of speed?  

I know the logic. We teach the dog that the serpentine is a single obstacle to flatten the dog’s path into nearly a straight line. Contests are won on the brevity of the dog’s path. But you must also know that contests are won by the handler attacking the course with energy and purpose elevating the chi of the performance as though our desire is to win rather than merely to survive.

Having done such a remarkable job teaching your dog’s the serpentine… let’s take the next step. Let’s go on the attack. Let’s lift the energy. Let us play to win.

Playing to Win

The chief difference between the handling initiative in the serpentine and the compensatory training mission (for the dog) is that the handler will endeavor to race the dog through the serpentine, weaving in and out between the jumps, staying on one side only when a speed transition is called for; that means we switch from slow dog handling to fast dog handling as the dog actually surpasses the handler’s position.

We played with it awhile in Buffalo. And I worked at fine tuning each handler’s assault on the serpentine. This was strange stuff to them, because as a group they were unaccustomed to practicing handling (especially dynamic handling) in a serpentine. They were more accustomed to practicing the dog training and proofing aspects of the serpentine. This was really quite fun for me. Performances were improving by as little as 2 seconds … and by as much as 5 seconds through the sequence.

The Labs especially responded with new enthusiasm and energy. It was a predictable response for them to engage a new gear when suddenly they found themselves playing with their people rather than for their people.

The best success of the weekend was showed by and older lady with her keen young Border Collie. Mostly her dog has ever needed merely the constant pressure of movement just to know where he was going next. So the concept of adopting a killer handler strategy for her became success, and they settled suddenly into becoming a team. Movement is motive, to be sure. Movement is direction too.

To tell you the truth I showed very few Blind Crosses in this serpentine exercise. By my own calculation of well-placed movement the exercise might call for a single Blind Cross, and that one not particularly critical to overall success.

Aren’t you just dying to know what handling we practiced? LOL


Questions comments & impassioned speeches to Bud Houston: And Check out my new publication the Idea BookAgility Training for a Small Universe available at

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5 Responses to “No Offense to Old Women… but”

  1. Erica Says:

    If only this old woman could integrate even a fraction of your theory into practice, a happy dog and handler pair we’d be. Thanks for a great seminar and see you in the spring.

  2. Stacie E. Says:

    I’m a newbie here, so be kind 🙂 I have been training with a well respected agility trainer, and have also watched videos of another well respected and what I understand from both of them is that they NEVER want you to use a blind cross. Is this what you would just call “creative differences” between what they think and you think?

    Thanks for your time and attention

    • budhouston Says:

      Hi Stacie, I don’t mind them disagreeing with me, if they don’t mind being wrong. In another 10 years it’ll be commonplace that the blind cross wins contests. For right now Americans are just being retarded about it. I say “Americans” because in Europe (always a good 10 years ahead of us) there is no silly prejudice against a Blind Cross. You know, if you don’t train to it, it will forever be a weakness in repertoire.

      Bud Houston

  3. budhouston Says:

    OMG! Did I really call them retarded?

  4. Stacie E. Says:


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