Distance Training Notes

I’ve always been a great believer that I do not step out on the trainer floor without a basic plan. Indeed, I publish my lesson plans every week. But if you’ve ever actually seen me teach, you’ll find that I’m not much bound by the lesson plan, as though it were a script.

I compare this to a thing I tell my students all the time… “Don’t run the plan, run the dog!” It’s very similar when conducting students through a lesson plan. The lesson plan is an instrument of discovery. The very randomness of its nature will expose areas of weakness that cue my attention and efforts.

We always begin an exercise or sequence with what I call the “entertainment round”… that is, my students can attempt the sequence with the handling of their own choosing. They cannot learn a thing, if I spoon feed them the answers. Part of what I’m trying to teach is for a handler to recognize a problem and to draw on their experience to solve it. Also, if I’m not supplying the answer, I can about guarantee that the cleverness of my students will sometimes offer solutions that I hadn’t even thought of. So I too stand a chance to learn something.

I suppose the downside of the lesson plans that I publish on a regular basis is that they are the future vision of the training product. They don’t really reflect the adaptation of the basic plan, and the learning that goes on beyond the written word. Things that I actually learn are generally incorporated in future lesson plans.

Notes on Progressive Sending

The following are notes taken from an old lesson plan along with adaptations and teaching points I made along the way.

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I do with my dogs for all obstacles a program of progressive sending. While the basic obstacle that I might teach a dog to go on to perform is the jump, the training program for the dog should not be limited to a single obstacle. In this lesson plan, we are teaching dogs to go on forward of the handler into the pipe tunnel.

Fundamental to any progressive sending exercise is that a) the dog is sent to the performance, and not dragged, and b) the handler should send from a progressively greater distance. Note that when we engage in such training we are in “dog trainer mode”. That means the handler/trainer should be equipped with a good marker for performance (a clicker should do nicely, however a good verbal marker is just hunky dory); and a reward for the dog, whether that be a food treat or a game with a toy.

When leading a group class you’ll find that the devil is in the details. The instructor should have an eye for basic performance and remind students of the little details that will allow their dogs to succeed in the exercise:

  • A distance send really has nothing to do with standing still. Indeed, slamming on the brakes or slowing dramatically are apt to draw the dog back into handler focus and away from the target obstacle.
  • Flapping one’s arm when sending is a small detail that is apt to draw the dog back into handler focus, and away from the target obstacle.
  • The handler should give the target obstacle all of his focus when sending the dog. That means the handler looks at it, points at it, and moves towards it. Note that the pointing is more significant by the handler’s feet… than the arm and hands. The dog pays close attention to the direction the handler’s feet are facing/pointing.

I encouraged my students to make their sends from as far away as they are comfortable and to progress only modestly to assure that the dog is able to succeed. I had to be very mindful of the handlers who failed to mark the performance or were late in rewarding the dog for the performance (I tell my students “to understanding the timing of the reward all you have to do is count: one-thousand one, one-thousand too … late!). I also had to be on the lookout for students who seemed compelled to get the dog to do a jump or two after the pipe tunnel (and before the marker and reward), or to interject an obedience performance between the performance of the pipe tunnel and the marker and reward. If the dog’s trainer piles on other performances and criteria, then it might very well muddy the waters so far as the dog understanding what he’s being rewarded for.

Notes on Lateral Distance Work

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Another exercise we do regularly is a basic lateral movement drill from the bootlace configuration of obstacles. The handler stays entirely on one side of the set of obstacles, assuming that the dog will naturally work in a parallel path. Note that some dogs do this very naturally; though it is important to remind the handler that movement is key. If the handler stops to flap his arm and try to talk his way through this exercise, it isn’t likely to work.

If a dog will not do this, I would endeavor to teach it. The teaching steps are kind of grueling… but that can be said of most dog training tasks. If you don’t do the work, you can’t have the product of that work. Basically it’s just a matter of targeting the dog to the landing side of the final jump and then gradually working farther and farther away. As soon as possible the training stops luring (with the target) and begins a program of rewarding the dog for working away.

Questions comments & impassioned speeches to Bud Houston: BudHouston@hughes.net. And Check out my new publication the Idea BookAgility Training for a Small Universe available at www.dogagility.org/store.

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