Agility Chi

Fundamental to the work of agility is the connection between the dog and his handler. The handler’s job is to direct the dog while the dog actually does all of the real work and, indeed, is the member of the team that is judged in competition. The dog’s attention to the handler while focusing at the same time on the work at hand is a matter of delicate balance.

For the most part the dog’s awareness of the handler should be nearly peripheral, meaning that the handler shows the way with the subtle pressures of direction and speed of her own movement, and the more overt use of timely verbal directives. Occasionally in the face of a technical challenge the handler may direct with precision with the use of hand and arm.

When the handler is too demanding of the dogs attention the dogs focus is taken away from the flow and work of the course. This robs the dog of speed and increases the risk of performance faults.

On the other hand, if the dog is not attuned to the handler and pays little heed to the subtle cues of direction, then the handler’s ability to conduct the dog upon the course of work is diminished, if not impossible.

You Get What You Pay For!

The dog’s training should be approached with a clear vision of the finished product. If the handler intends to work at full speed with fluid grace and complete trust in the dog, with delight and energy, and with a joyful spirit, then perhaps these things should be practiced with the dog early in his training, and often throughout his career. Indeed, if these attributes are to be the hallmark of the team, then they should be integral to the trainer’s philosophy of conduct and training.

It is not likely that a hard-hearted and heavy-handed trainer will ever inspire a dog to delight. More likely the dog will do the work carefully and slowly to avoid the dark disappointment of his person. Often this dog can be bribed through training with food-treats. But in competition the dog will soon discover that there will be no bribes and no treats. And the only other principal motivator-the handler’s bitter disappointment and anger-may not be enough to save the team.

It might appear to the outside observer that the dog was not much of a candidate for agility in the first place. In truth we will never know… because it is the dog’s trainer who so artlessly worked to break relationship and robbed to the dog of any joy or possibility of delight.

The Lightbulb Moment

One of the most gratifying things about teaching agility is when one of my students experience a lightbulb moment. It might have been a thing I’ve said a hundred times, but suddenly they get it and everything falls into place.

I recall a lightbulb moment from my youth. In the sixth grade I was in band. I played the trumpet, with which I was frankly struggling. I was actually moved back by the instructor to a beginner seat, a fact that made me a bit shameful.

Then one day, in band, while studying the music sheet in front of me something happened. I snatched the music sheet off the stand and went to the front of the room to the band teacher, Mr. Flores. “They are in order!” I blurted to him. “They are in order, they go up the scale in order!”

Mr. Flores made a face as he struggled with the contradiction of being proud and happy for a retarded child. “Yes,” he said. “They are in order.”

It was quite a moment for me, because with the revelation of order, within only about a week I was able to solo “Long Long Ago,” and “Give My Regards to Broadway.”

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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