Archive for April, 2009

More Fun With Pinwheels

April 29, 2009

Well, I sprained my knee on day one of camp. It didn’t seem so bad. But by the end of day two I was stiff, swollen, and in some pain. Funny this should happen right after my post lamenting the misfortunes of aging. So today I am on crutches!

Ooh, as I was in bed last night not getting good sleep because of the pain, I imagined the following interesting exercise. We had fun with it this morning. This afternoon I’m going to design a game of Last of the Mohicans around it.


Does it really need discussion? Oh it always needs discussion. Most handlers in this country use the pinwheel as an excuse to move badly. That might be okay with some of the BC people whose dogs are self-starters and work at a relentless pace. But for most of us the handler might want to consider being a real catalyst for dynamic energy in the pinwheel.

And it never fails, after I tell a student to run… the next thing I have to tell then is which direction to run.

The Dog Trainers’ Game

The Dog Trainers’ Game is a learning tool for the dog trainer. It is mostly geared at finding the training objective as it presents itself, and teaching the dog trainer to focus on a single training objective. The game provides balance in group work. Balance, for the purposes of this discussion, is every handler and his or her dog getting equal time on the training floor. So the Game becomes an ongoing learning tool that helps the dog trainer focus on training objectives as reflected by the dog’s performance.

Dog Trainer Etiquette on the Training Floor

What the game really is about is finding exercise or training objective on the floor, without regard to what the instructor might have said is the objective of the exercise. What’s most important in this game is that you aren’t overwhelming the dog by fix everything. You find the one thing, and you work on it briefly.

Following is an excellent list of training responses by the savvy dog trainer:

  1. If a dog breaks a stay the trainer will have two or three opportunities to replace the dog in a stay position, take a few steps away then return to the dog to praise and reward. And then end of exercise with warm praise and reward.
  2. If a dog refuses an obstacle (runs by without performing) the trainer might choose one of two paths: a) Continue with the sequence or b) retry the presentation of the obstacle twice two or three times. If the handler chooses “b”, that becomes the exercise, allowing the trainer to finish with happy praise and reward.
  3. If a dog leaves his handler, for whatever reason the trainer should steel herself to taking only one chance to demonstrate her recall. If the dog doesn’t respond the trainer should immediately collect the dog and put him up for a time-out. This is a tough one because the trainer doesn’t get to finish with nice praise and reward.
    When a dog is on time-out it’s not a bad idea to take a loaner dog on your next turn if one is available so that your dog can see you out on the floor having fun and giving treats to some other dog.
  4. If you are being frustrated by your dog’s performance we demonstrate a specific exercise designed to train the dog through the thing that is frustrating you. It will be an offline exercise which means you can have your regular turn on the floor, while getting the number of reps you truly need in the offline exercise.
  5. If a loaner dog is available for your turn (usually one of my dogs) I will be happy to allow you to take your turn with the loaner. Please don’t say anything negative to one of my dogs.


Please note that some handlers will spend upwards of 5 minutes on the floor doing a simple exercise with a novice dog while a more experienced dog and handler might get only about 20 seconds to finish the same exercise. This is an imbalance. And it is remedied by the Dog Trainers’ Rule.

What often happens when you combine a novice dog and an inexperienced dog trainer is a time consuming exercise in correction. It can be deflating or demoralizing to the dog and typically isn’t anywhere close to good dog training habit. While the Dog Trainers’ Rule might seem at first glance to be punitive, it is more accurately a lesson in good dog training habit. It makes the dog’s trainer focus on what is most important in the laundry list of training objectives at that moment.

The biggest failure of the inexperienced dog trainer is missing the opportunity to reinforce correct performance. A dog may miss a jump, so the handler goes back to try the jump again. The dog misses it again so the handler goes back to try yet again. And then finally, when the dog does the jump, the handler fails to praise and reward her dog. We’ve missed the training opportunity. The corrections were a waste. The time on the floor was the benefit of even a modest reinforcement.

Why do I allow the handler to continue, rather than correct, if the dog runs past an obstacle? For one thing, if the handler goes back to correct it will be end of exercise. But I also believe that a constant program of correction is simply not good dog training. I would rather the handler continue her movement, which helps her maintain her working relationship with her dog. I would rather the handler (and dog trainer) spend her energy trying to understand why the dog might have refused the obstacle, rather than continuing to practice her error.

The rule for the broken stay is unique in the list. The handler doesn’t actually get to go on. It’s going to be end of exercise, but not before the handler has an opportunity to have a solid training moment with her dog. In our sport the consistency of training the stay is quite important. No dog should learn that he gets to start the team. Otherwise, the handler will never have a solid stay for competition.

While I have placed an emphasis on positive reinforcement for performance, you should note that a good dog trainer will give a positive marker for correct performance. It’s a mistake to tell the dog “yes” when he didn’t actually offer a correct performance. This is a dog training error. I will be keen to point out this error should you commit it.

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

Jenny Damm Rerun

April 27, 2009

I’m pulling out a weblog entry that I wrote something like two years ago. I read some of the old stuff with a real pleasure especially when I take the time to talk about what’s going on in life, the people I meet, and so forth. In that respect what I write can be a real journal, when I’m not being a pedantic kind of detail oriented teacher.

I had not remembered that while I was musing about the teaching of Jenny Damm (her training videos are excellent, by the way) that I had done a seminar up at Rondout in New York. I’m scheduled to go back up there in for three days this June.

But the funny thing, I teach the Front Cross leading with a pulling hand today as though I’ve owned it most of my life. But clearly we can mark the point in time that I incorporated it into my teaching, by the blog entry. I did understand that a properly conducted Front Cross should begin by withdrawing with the inside shoulder, rather than punching at the dog with the outside shoulder (one of the most common handling errors in our sport). But I hadn’t settled on the simple elegance of the pulling hand. I used to say hard-to-digest things like “turn first, then show”.

I include the entirety of the blog entry below. I have a lot of old writing still trapped in the dusty tombs of AgilityVision that I want to dust off and put into accessible archives of a more frequently traveled blogosphere.

The Pulling Hand of Jenny Damm


We began our last day at Rondout with an exercise in which I explained to the group that I am going to use them to try out a thing that I’m not familiar with, and probably contradicts my teaching. I confess to being a little fascinated with the “pulling hand” presented in the Jenny Damm training dvds (available at

I am an empirical learner and need to see a thing over and over again in action in order to gauge whether the movement is natural and easily understood by any number of dogs.

The awkward sequence above requires a handling moment in which the dog is drawn out of obstacle focus and into handler focus for a fully 360º turn at jump #3. We actually practiced it in both directions because I am a fan of ambidextrous training.

The way the pulling hand works is this. The handler starts with a lead on the side of the dog and them draws into a cross, keeping the same hand to draw the dog tightly around the handler’s body. This contradicts my own teaching because I’m usually an advocate of using the hand nearer to the dog as the lead hand (the on-side hand). And yet, during the course of the exercise it was clear to me that this was completely intuitive to just about all of the dogs without resorting to any program of compensatory training.

I am ever seeking those things that dogs intuitively understand. If you think about it… a good handler would understand how to run just about any dog… not just his own dog.

I guess I’ve become a fan of the Jenny Damm Pulling Hand. It works. Dogs understand it. It’s gotta go into the repertoire.


This is a variation of a post turning exercise I’ve done in the past. I designed the original exercise to illustrate the phantom Blind Cross in the post turn from #1 to #2 and from #4 to #5. A phantom Blind Cross is an inadvertent thing. The handler over-rotates and abandons connection with the dog causing the dog to tuck up on his opposite side (taking the wrong-course into the pipe tunnel). I must admit I designed this to be illustrative of the error because those who are opposed to use of the Blind Cross will say sappy things like “the Blind Cross disposes the dog to tuck up on your opposite side” when, in fact, the phenomenon is caused by an error in another movement entirely… the Post Turn.

I further made a stipulation that the handler would make a Back Cross at jumps #3, #6, and #9. I never say require handling to say that “this is the one-true way”. I believe nothing of the sort. I specify handling in order to work on a specific skill.

I showed the group at Rondout how to use a Post & Tandem presentation of the jump in order to do the Back Cross. I did notice that Jenny Damm does exactly this… but this is not unique to Jenny Damm. Many handlers in the world do a signature pull & roll in order to precue the dog to the handler’s intention to change directions at the jump. This becomes specific language to the dog and pretty much eliminates many of the ills of the Back Cross (dropped bars, refusals, and inefficient turns).

The two pipe tunnels on either side weren’t really supposed to be a part of the exercise. But since they were there and since they worked with the symmetry of the exercise I left them there and was completely delighted with the discovery that they added additional challenge to the exercise. The handler after the Back Cross had to do something to draw the dog away from the pipe tunnel for the next correct obstacle.


With a little bit of tweaking we finished the day with this course (or something very close to this). After the rather agonizing handler training in the previous exercise everyone really needed something fast and flowing so that they and their dogs could finish the day with a fun romp. Of course this course wasn’t without challenge. If I had had another day with these guys I’d certainly have done a break-down of this course.

It’s amazing to me how Novice handlers will find a way to put a lot of gratuitous Back Crosses into their course work. I personally love to have a Back Cross in my repertoire for the emergency. But every single emergency should not be of my own creation. A Back Cross on any tunnel is problematic anyhow. On the entry it can create a refusal. On the exit it can be a wobbly movement because there’s no way the dog can get any kind of precue from the handler while in the tunnel. It’s a very very technical kind of Cross.

Leaving New York

I’ll be leaving New York in the morning. It has been a great pleasure to work with the folks up in this part of the world. Many of them come to camp to train with me frequently. And I count them among my friends in this world.

I was happy to contribute to the delinquency of Miuki, the Japanese intern. She’s a very nice young lady. She does not have good language skills (either in content or pronunciation) and those closest to her have been occupying themselves with teaching her stupid idiomatic expressions and cuss words. She told me last night… “If you mess with me… you mess with the whole trailer park!” Tho I subbed the word mess.

Working with a lot of people who do rescue work is always humbling to me. They do hard work and tough work in our world. I do not have the temperament for this kind of work because I cry too easily at the inhumanity to dogs that is so prevalent. So I learn from them…and they learn from me. It’s a wonderful arrangement because I get paid for it.

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

Bootlace and the Next Generation

April 27, 2009

An interesting thing about bringing up a new generation of agility dog, on some level you’d really like to just pick up where you left off with the last. I mean all those many hours of training and relationship building should be conveyable from one generation to the next. Right? Ah well, it doesn’t work that way. You must start at the beginning of the path and walk the entire path.

I also find that you should walk the entire path with new generations of agility students. You know, as a bit of a filler in yesterday’s mini clinic I put up a bootlace exercise, something like this:


And just to have fun with it, I challenged my students to put all of their movements forward and pulling, to preposition themselves on the side of every turn.

Somewhat to my amazement, they struggled with this basic Front Crossing exercise. The amazement came from the fact that I’ve put up this exercise dozens and dozens of time over the years as a basic skill builder for the Front Cross (and a variety of other skills as I intend to demonstrate over the next few days).

But then it sunk in with me. I simply have not presented this generation of students with this particular skill-building exercise. This has led me to consider a bit what other basic skill exercises I’ve not put up in awhile. My students and I can all just discover this stuff together again.

Camp is starting in about an hour. I gotta get going!

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

Who Dares Wins

April 25, 2009

Who Dares Wins was invented by Francis Harvey to satisfy a judging examination for the Australian Dog Agility Association (ADAA). Who Dares Wins is a game of daring in which the handler must understand the capabilities of his dog.

Following is a detailed discussion of the game that will determine the Champions of the TDAA Petit Prix 2009. While it is a numbered course, it is anything but a standard course. After a simple accounting of the rules I shall provide a comprehensive discussion of strategy for the game. I’m fairly certain that the winner of this game in the Championship round at the Petit Prix this year will either have read this discussion, or will have written it.


The object of Who Dares Wins is to accurately estimate how many points your dog can score in the standard course time (50 seconds). After walking the course all handlers must estimate, using a 3-2-1 scoring system, how many points they can score in 50 seconds (the standard course time). The handler and dog can complete more than one circuit of the course and may start anywhere on the course providing they run the course in the correct order.

3 points for contact obstacles

2 points for tunnel, and tire, and short set of weave poles

1 point for jumps

Handlers must report their estimate to the scorekeeper prior to any dog running the course. Handlers are not to use their wristwatches or stopwatches to gauge their time. Neither spectators nor timekeeper are to indicate time to any handler while running the course.

In their turn, the handler and dog proceed to their chosen starting point on the course.

Dogs are started with the timekeeper’s whistle and will not accumulate points before the whistle. Dogs are not faulted. They just do not accumulate points for an obstacle faulted or taken as a wrong course. A dog must attempt every obstacle in turn. There are no refusal faults. Jump bars are not replaced. However a dog must run between the uprights if attempting a hurdle with a dropped bar a second or subsequent time.

There are no specific faults associated with the weave poles. However, the handler must correct an improper entry or a missed pole in order to earn points for that obstacle. No points are awarded for any partial performance of the weave poles, and continuing without completing the performance will be deemed a wrong course.

The timekeeper will signal the end of scoring at 50 seconds. The dog may not earn additional points after the whistle and the handler must direct his dog to the table. A dog loitering near the table will earn a 10 point earned-points penalty unless the penalty improves the dog’s score.


Who Dares Wins is scored points only. Points earned = Points Scored minus Points error minus Time error. The dog with the most points earned wins. The tiebreaker is the dog with the highest estimate.

Errors – At the end of each run, errors are calculated.

Points errorthe difference between the estimated points and the points scored for the run.

Time ErrorThe difference between the dog’s time and the standard course time is calculated. The dog’s time is rounded down to the nearest second.

Total Errors – Time errors are added to the point errors.

Points Scored – Points the dog earned for successful performance of obstacles on course.

Points Earned – Total errors are deducted from the points scored. This total score determines placing.

A Discussion of Strategy


While this is clearly a big dog course, it gives us an opportunity to study and understand Who Dares Wins. I’ve included on the course map a line measuring the dog’s path at 138 yards. This is significant and important. Though what you’ll discover at the Petit Prix is that you will not know the length of the course. Indeed it does not have to be measured by the judge.

It is important for the handler to know the speed at which his dog works. For example, if a dog works at 3.5 YPS. We know that in the 50 seconds granted for the course he can travel 175 yards. Well this sample course is only 138 yards. That means that the handler has 37 yards to improve his guess. Or, the correct way to look at it, the handler needs to correctly guess what obstacle to begin with that is 175 yards from the table.

Calibrating the Dog’s Working Speed

There are a variety of games in agility in which the handler needs to understand how much work his dog can do on a per second basis. Typically we talk in terms of Yards Per Second (YPS). But it is actually much more rational for the handler to learn to measure a course in Paces Per Second (PPS).

Prior to the Petit Prix you should use every opportunity in competition (and maybe in practice) to calibrate your dog’s speed so that you always know the answer to the question… how fast does my dog work?

  1. Begin by walking the numbered courses that you run. Use a natural stride… we’ll call that your “Pace”. I must emphasize that the stride be “natural”, because it’s too difficult to maintain an artificial stride of precisely 1 yard.
  2. Now calibrate your dog’s speed. Run the course, and get the recorded time for your dog. Knowing the time the dog was on course and knowing the length of the course as measured by your paces, you calculate the dog paces per second (PPS) that the dog works. The formula for this measurement is # paces/time on course. And don’t forget to deduct 5 seconds for the table!If a course gets wobbly for your dog, the value of the measurement will be put in question. You should take into consideration any wobbliness. If the run was exceptionally wobbly, you should disregard the results and go on to the next numbered course.
  3. A practical test: Challenge yourself to test your pace against the dog’s speed. Continue to pace courses that you run, and calibrate your dog’s speed. But as soon as possible you should begin guessing how fast your dog will perform. And don’t forget to add 5 seconds for the table!

If you really want to get scientific about calibrating your dog’s working speed, you should pace and measure all sorts of courses. What is the difference in PPS when your dog is working a Jumpers course as compared to a standard course? What about Touch ‘n Go (contacts and tunnels)? What about Tunnelers? Indeed, you may want to compare PPS measurements of your dog’s working speed in the big dog venues versus his working speed in the TDAA. There is an illusion created in the big dog venues that a dog is actually working faster than he works in the TDAA. But the truth of the matter is that technical obstacles (contacts and weave poles) are an excessive drain on a dog’s PPS or YPS. In the big dog venues a dog will have a lot of additional room on the flat to drive those numbers back up. Not so in the TDAA. Not only are our obstacles diminutive, but the transitional distances between obstacles tends to be considerably tighter as well. He might be working just as fast (or faster, as most dogs do), but it will not be reflected in the YPS or PPS measurement.

Be a scientist. Calibrate your dog’s working speed. It will pay off.

The Alternate Option Strategy

Now we’ll see who is paying attention!

Most handlers will, in pedestrian fashion, understand that they don’t have to start with jump #1. But the will figure that the last obstacle they do before heading for the table is the last obstacle on the course. In the case of the sample course we go from jump #18 to the table.

But the fact of the matter is that nowhere in the rules of the game does it actually say that the dog has to go from the last obstacle to the table. Indeed, the “last obstacle” is defined as the last one the dog does, not the obstacle with the highest number. The sample course has an excellent alternate option. The dog might very well be directed to the table after jump #11, rather than jump #18.

Why does this matter? If you study the 5 obstacles prior to the #11 jump as compared to the 5 obstacles before the #18 jump you’ll note that from #6 it’s a ripping kind of sequence. Starting at #13; however, the dog will have a rather technical and rough sledding kind of sequence. While the dismount from #18 has more cumulative points—considering the 5 predecessor obstacles—the dismount from #11 will be faster and may allow the handler to back up even more than a mere five obstacles to begin the dog.

Know thy dog.

Final Words

This is what I call a leveling game. It doesn’t really matter how fast or well trained the dog is or how keen and deft the handler. If the handler cannot correctly guess the performance of his or her dog, then it’s very unlikely that they shall take home the win. The slowest dog in the field has a chance of winning.

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

A Busy Week

April 25, 2009

I have my first camp of the year starting on Monday. That means I’ve been busy prettying the place up and doing considerable back-breaking work. I moved the lumber pile and have reorganized it behind the green tractor shed. I’ve also done a lot of mowing and a miscellany of repair work.

Oh, and yesterday I killed about 30 carpenter bees who’ve descended en masse on my log cabin home as though it were a large luscious chocolate cake. As a consequence I gave myself a severely inflamed rotator cuff which kept me up basically all night long. It was a dreadful injury because it screamed with pain if I tried to lay down on my back. But it would really feel okay if I just sat up. Here’s the trouble with all of that… I can’t sleep when I’m in pain, and I’ll be darned if I can sleep when I’m sitting up either.

And so I’ve been working all day without the benefit of much of a night’s rest. In about an hour I have a private lesson with a couple ladies who’ve driven down from Cleveland taking our “cottage package”. They are staying in one of our two cottages out on the property and will, aside from our private lessons, attend tomorrow’s Sunday clinic.

In the mean time Marsha has taken in a foster dog who we have named “Mercy”, a petit Aussie girl who’s just had a rear leg amputated probably as a result of a run-in with a car. The people that had the dog couldn’t afford to take her to a vet, and so allowed her to drag her broken dead leg around for a month before someone decided to intervene. I reckon Marsha is a complete sucker for this dog and she’ll wind up as a permanent member of our pack.

I suppose I’m getting farther and farther away from going out into the world to get me a top notch competition dog. You know I teach agility for a living; but the world is fickle about giving respect or credence to people who aren’t knocking down the big competitions. Aside from Hazard, a sometimes shy and fearful little Sheltie, I live in a household full of rescues. On one level I figure I’d be “copping out” if I chased after the world class dog. But OTOH I also know how the game is played. It’s reasonably impossible to be a “genius” or even a credible player, if you don’t get a dog to validate those notions.

I expect that I’ll have to finish the step-by-step Tandem training methodology in blog this week. Today I’m too mentally tired I think.

Last night I was thinking about getting older. The pain in my shoulder was clearly traceable to my awful overhand swing with a bad-mitten racket. I’ve had a similar injury when I was younger when I hit too many buckets at a driving range. There’s only so much abuse that the shoulder can take. I feel okay this very minute. But I have no idea what tonight will be like. I’ve popped an Alleve or two and I reckon (I do my own meds planning) that a couple of beers will fortify my pain threshold just fine.

Okay, just so you know. Getting older really sucks. Things just don’t work like they used to work. If you’ve followed along with my blog over the last couple years you’ll remember when I gave my ankle a severe sprain (in a fishing accident)… well you know, I’ve never gotten my stride back 100%. I now have a hobble that I’ll probably take to the grave with me.

And frankly from time to time I’ll get some random pain in some part of my body, the knee, a shoulder, my neck, or wherever…. That’ll keep me up all night. I did a TDAA judging clinic up in Washingtonville this past year in which I literally didn’t sleep for two nights because of a raging and constant pain in my back, which, a couple of days later mysteriously vanished. You know, I think I pulled off the clinic but I felt dull and lethargic and unconnected. The “my bad” part of it is that I don’t take any pain meds with me on the road. A similar thing happened to me judging out in California a couple years ago; and I was so exhausted I actually judged a Starters class under Advanced rules for 15 dogs or so. I had to sort it all out at the score-keeping table and I felt awful about it.

Even though it’s only a game… the agility judge isn’t playing at all. It’s a job that requires a certain amount of keenness.

When I’m at my best I figure I have a mind like a steel trap. But this is the thing about getting older. We begin to have these periods in which we just aren’t at our best at all. Our best is a memory only.

I think I told a friend once that I’d take the Hemingway solution if things got so bad that I couldn’t function. If I understand the story right about Hemingway, he was in a small airplane crackup and it was so completely clear to him that life for him would be reduced to being crippled and in pain that he ended his own life. And now that I think about it I’m pretty sure that I’m not going to going to apply for a pilot’s license.

Writing a web log makes one kind of a stats junkie. Most days I’ll check how many have read my blog, from where they were referred, what external links they clicked… and so forth. On Saturdays and Sundays my stats take a complete nosedive. In my tribe (the agility world) most of us are out playing on the weekends. And so if I’m going to write something really unagility-like, like this entry, the weekends are the best time to do it. Nobody reads them anyhow.

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

Obsession of the Anorak

April 24, 2009

An important distinction in the Tandem is that we disregard the rule of thumb that the handler should always be positioned on the side of the turn, because the dog turns most naturally in the direction of the handler. There are times when the clever and evil judge will design a course that intentionally positions the handler on the wrong side of the turn. The handler needs an answer to that riddle.

We rely on the premise that our dogs already understand how we move. So in the Tandem we turn towards the dog, distinctly and boldly. The dog, understanding our movement should make the turn in this new direction although the turn is toward his side.


Natural Movement

I have to slow down and make this point. When watching a student practice any movement I like to view the movement through a filter of rational comparison with how that person might move naturally through the conduct of life.

What does it look like when a person turns a corner?

Many handlers will introduce mechanics to any movement in dog agility that has no foundation in natural movement. It takes much longer to teach a dog to abide the cues of the handler when false-mechanics are introduced to the movement. But it is possible… because dogs are clever and engage naturally in a system of compensatory learning.

But wouldn’t it be better if we understood how dogs perceive our movement and use those natural cues to communicate with the dog?

Which Arm should Signal the Tandem?

There is a bit of a controversy with the Tandem Turn, that is, which arm should be used to signal the turn. It’s reported that Susan Garret calls the “off-arm” the “evil Ohio-arm,” and advocates using only the inside arm (the arm nearer to the dog.)

Of course, the turn is more than just an arm signal. At the same time the handler is rotating his body, turning, and moving in the direction of the turn. It’s also a good idea to develop a verbal command to coincide with all of these other cues. Often in seminar I will have a handler stick her thumbs in her back pockets and conduct the dog through the turn with no arm signal at all. The more compelling bits of the cue come from the rotation of the handler’s body, turning the corner, and stepping in the direction of the turn.

Whether evil or not, the advantage of the off-arm signal is that it draws the opposite shoulder in towards the dog and into the turn. When using the inside arm signal the handler must be keen to draw the outside shoulder into the turn of his own volition.

Oh, as to the controversy about which arm to use. I like to operate under the assumption that whatever works is correct. There are no “one size fits all” solutions in agility, though we may discover that inside-arm and counter-arm have different attributes.

Attributes of the Movement

This is a word that I use that isn’t in much currency in the world. An attribute might be defined as the quality of the dog’s response to a handler’s movement.

I made the claim yesterday that 90% of the time the Tandem Turn is better handling than a raw Rear Cross… but sometimes, only a Rear Cross will do. This is an acknowledgement of the difference in attributes between the two movements.


An attribute of the Tandem Turn is that it creates a wide sweeping turn. Whereas an important attribute of the Rear Cross is that it creates a tightened turn. The illustration above shows the dog earning a refusal at jump #3 because the handler uses a Rear Cross rather than a “wide sweeping” Tandem turn. Don’t get me wrong here; people get away with the Rear Cross in this scenario all the time. But if the dog does tighten the turn, which he actually should, there’ll be very little the handler can do to prevent the refusal.

To tell you the truth, if we move the #3  down to where jump #4 is,  then the Rear Cross makes considerably more sense than the Tandem Turn. But then, even with a Rear Cross a dog with powerful obstacle focus would be tempted to take the option jump and not pull through neatly (suggesting that there’s quite another handling movement with attributes more ideal for this challenge.)


So while we’re speaking of attributes, I want to introduce the possibility that a Tandem Turn conducted with a counter-arm signal might actually have different attributes than a Tandem Turn conducted with an inside-arm signal.

In this illustration I’m showing exactly what  my old retired boy Bogie would do (and did do) should I come up with a counter arm signal in the turn from jump #2 to  jump #3. He always took the counter-arm signal as an instruction to turn hard aback.

So if I truly wanted the considerably more subtle turn to jump #3, then the inside arm is the way to go.

* * *

I’m getting a bit away from Mary’s request for me to talk through the training steps. I think that tomorrow I should talk about how to deal with problem dogs. A problem dog, in terms of the Tandem, is a dog that insists on spinning towards the handler in the conduct of the turn. Ideally, we want the dog turning neatly away from us.

Though to tell you the truth, not everything has to be broken down in the granular bits and the compulsive “foundation work” of the obsessive anorak. Sometimes we train by playing and we learn by doing.

Thanks to Bernadette

I must thank Bernadette for the word “Anorak”. I had to Google up a UK-English to American-English translator to figure it out. But it’s a lovely word and especially cute because I am one and didn’t know the word for it. LOL

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


Training Steps for the Tandem Turn

April 23, 2009

Mary leaves a comment on my blog posting that I should share the training steps for the Tandem Turn. I think I should take a couple of days to cover this.


The Tandem Turn is a form of the Rear Cross or Back Cross, whichever of those terms you subscribe to. What makes it different from the Rear Cross is where it is conducted. You’ve done a Tandem when you cross behind the dog on the dismount of an obstacle, or out on the flat, rather than on the approach to an obstacle.

Frankly the Tandem is better handling than a Rear Cross about 90% of the time. But sometimes only a Rear Cross will actually do.


A couple years ago Pati Hatfield Mah wrote this article for the Clean Run teaching a thing she called the “Reverse Vee”. Silly woman… she was documenting flat-work for the Tandem Turn. It works like this…. You start with the dog on side; then using a treat you draw him across your body to your opposite knee; and then you lure the dog into a turn away from you.

When I first show this flat-work to some students they will basically stand still and spin the dog in front of them. I don’t find this exercise particularly useful. What I’d really like to practice is turning the dog away from me while we are both in motion.


And so we move forward together; and then I draw him past me; and continue to support him in a turn away from me. This is a simple Tandem Turn on the flat, or as Pati Hatfield Mah would have it… a Reverse Vee.

It’s fairly important to do this flatwork turning in both directions. You’ll find that some dogs will turn readily in one direction, but will be resistant to turning in the other.

I’m not really a big fan of luring. Luring is useful for shaping a performance. As a dog trainer however I abandon luring as soon as I think I can get away with it and switch to a program of praise and reward for the performance. When being rewarded for guessing right a dog begins to learn in leaps and bounds. He doesn’t learn quite so fast when constantly being lured… because it doesn’t really take a clever dog to follow a hand with food in it.

Introducing the Tandem on the Hurdle


As soon as possible what I should like to do is transfer the work I’ve done on the flat in teaching my dog to turn away from me into the more robust movement associated with jumping.

There’s always a risk that a dog will shut down in this kind of training. If you think about it the handler tends to curl up as though to strike his dog in a menacing fashion on the landing side of the jump. So if the dog is shutting down a bit it might be a good idea to go away from the raw skill training for a bit by shifting the context to other obstacle performance or just plain running with the dog. And then you come back to this little bit to train and to proof.

The best way to avoid shutting down the dog is to remember that if the handler intends to do a Tandem Turn on the landing side of the jump, then he should arrive at the jump at approximately the same instant as the dog. If the handler gets to the jump early (as in, before the dog) then there’s not much he can really do but assume the menacing posture as he coils to take the step into the dog’s space.

The Lateral Distance Step


The next practice with the Tandem is what I call the “lateral distance” step. What the handler wants to do is work parallel to the dog from a comfortable distance of 10′ or so. The cues are the same and the timing is the same. And still, the handler crosses on the landing side of the jump.

The biggest mistake a handler will make when practicing this is not actually using the lateral distance which has been so carefully saved up for handler movement in a convincing fashion. Although working at a comfortable distance from the dog it’s the handler’s job to sell the turn.

The Layered Tandem


This is a rather advanced application of the Tandem Turn. The handler shows the turn and gives the dog a strong command to turn away. But rather than going all the way around the jump the handler will layer to the inside of the jump.

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I expect that I will write more on the Tandem tomorrow.

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


April 22, 2009

You know I’ve pretty much stopped doing leveled agility training camps. It used to be that I’d have camps for as many as three distinct and well-defined skill levels from very novice to masters. What I’ve discovered though is that most exercises within themselves can be leveled to work on that thing that the individual dog and handler need to be working on. And so my camps tend now to be free-for-all in terms of level.

I hope that doesn’t put you off on the notion that you can learn a lot and have fun. Frankly balance is the instructor’s job. Balance is that assurance that everyone gets equal attention and equal time on the floor.

To tell you the truth back when I was doing leveled camps they were never purely leveled at all. People will often not understand what level they are competing at, and may fib about their level if they do. So now friends can travel together regardless of level and have a hoot of a good time.

Most good agility instructors understand the concept of escalation. If a handler and his dog are struggling with an exercise it might be simplified. If, on the other hand, the dog and handler perform in the exercise with sleepy/dreamy ease then the exercise could be, and should be, made more challenging and complicated. It’s not that I am opposed to simple success in an exercise. What I really want is to raise the criteria enough that the handler and dog have an opportunity to learn something new and make their game that much more keen and sharp. There is always a next step.



Last night’s fixation exercise became a study of the Tandem Turn. I’ll go back to the original exercise if you want to show you where the Tandem was implicit. What I found (at  least one of) my students doing was falling into safe and familiar movement even though the movement elevated risk, slowed the dog, and wobbled the lines.

So, we worked on the Tandem.

In this sequence what I want is for the handler to address the first two jumps dog on right, and commit to the cross (a Tandem Turn) on the landing side of jump #2. And then, taking the big long run to jump #4 with dog on left, the handler gets the dog to turn left again with a Tandem Turn.

Some of my students are so comfortable with their Tandems that they will invariably layer the Tandem. That basically means that they don’t actually run full around the landing side of the jump. They show the turning signal on the landing side but fade back to the take-off side or layer the jump altogether.

I should go through my step-by-step rules for teaching the Tandem. If you want to hear it again, let me know. I remind people from time to time that I’ve earned dozen’s of USDAA master gamblers qualifying scores by using the Tandem as the initial movement of separation and acceleration.

Same Thing at a Distance?


If the sequence really looked to easy for some… I’ll remind them of our original distance containment line. Can we run the same sequence  with the handler working at a considerable distance?

A couple of important teaching points will invariably come up in this escalation of the exercise. The dog turns when the handler turns not where the handler turns. So in general a student might be surprised at their ability to sell the turn (a Tandem don’t you know) from jump #2 to the pipe tunnel at #3 even though they are 15′ away from the dog’s turning point.

But where the handler is most likely to fail is in the send to the pipe tunnel at #5. There is little or no room for movement ~ so running with the dog is out of the question. What actually fails here is the handler doesn’t know which direction he needs to face when not moving or not moving very well. You’ve seen this discussion from me before in the discussion of pinwheels.

Most handler’s will turn their shoulders as though they were moving parallel to the dog and so will be facing back into the 10/50 corner in the upper left of the course map. But the handler isn’t actually moving at all and so all the rules about moving parallel to the dog are out the window. The handler needs to face T-square to the dog’s path and frankly face the 50/50 corner in the upper right of the course map to properly apply pressure against the dog’s path.

What? Even more escalation?


Now the exercise really becomes a matter of understanding pressure, movement, and focus direction. I’m a stickler form students using their occupation of the containment line with energy and movement rather than with standing still, arm flapping, and shrill verbalization.

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


April 21, 2009

I had an excellent, if small, seminar in Chicago over the weekend. I got back somewhat exhausted as I drove on Sunday evening for as long as I felt I was awake enough to be safe then pulled over at a roadside where I slept in the back for about three hours before getting up to finish the drive home. I’m really getting too old for this kind of traveling. And so today I’m doing mindless muscle chores and getting rested as I can.


I’m a little fixated on this set of obstacles. The numbered sequence might have a number of different handling solutions. The idea of layering the #7 pipe tunnel must natural occur to many handler’s for shaping the approach to jump #3. I’d also be interested in seeing if the handler could negotiate the entire sequence on this side of the red containment line.

I stumbled upon an agility BLOG post entitled: “But I Don’t Play (Insert Distance Game Here). So I Don’t Need Distance, Right?” The title of the post drew me up short. It’s an argument I’ve seen from agility handlers for a couple decades. So I decided to check in on the poster to understand their logic. As it turns out I shouldn’t have presumed to think I was going to read an essay on why not to learn to work a dog at a distance. The author (Lorrie) provides an excellent discussion of the value of distance training. Read it for yourself:

In about 20 minutes I need to be in the training building for my Tuesday privates. Maybe I’ll talk more about my fixation sequence again tomorrow.


From the movie Rocky Balboa “A legacy is what you get instead of getting paid.”

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

George of the Jungle

April 20, 2009

When designing for a space that has poles I often find myself singing under my breath the old theme song for George of the Jungle[1]… which includes the important advice “Watch out for that tree!”

The trick to working with posts is to provide adequate room for dog and handler movement all around it, or press a jump or pipe tunnel up against it so that it’s not actually in the handler’s path or the dog’s path.

I find it very difficult to adapt to poles and posts on the fly. The design must be premeditated.

One of the most pressing challenges in designing for a small space is creating any sense of flow whatever. The small space tends to be too crowded and frankly overly technical as though “technical” is the most important objective of the agility challenges. On the contrary, a training sequence should encourage running to allow the dog to discover what agility is really about.


This sequence has three distinct parts. The first 6 obstacles represent a flow builder in which the handler is encouraged to run with his dog. Then the course takes a turn toward the technical beginning with a series of Front Crosses in the serpentine to the A-frame. After the A-frame through the end of the sequence this is probably more about Rear Crosses. So it becomes an interesting workshop for practicing rather fundamental handler movements for agility.

Considering the Opening Line


With my own students I’m constantly aware of how they approach the opening of a course or sequence. And I put in considerable teaching to get them to see the opening line. It is frankly sometimes quite a novice error to square the dog for the first hurdle. But you know, even people who understand that if the first hurdle were a jump, seem to lose sight of the concept if the first hurdle is a tire.

Especially as I have small dogs I will study the feet of the tire which tend to be significantly bigger than for a bar hurdle. I want to make sure that my dogs have unfettered room to take off and land. And, as we all know, as we give rotation to the tire the aperture diminishes significantly in size as the approach becomes more oblique.

Lining the dog up for the A-frame (an inadvertent error) predisposes the dog to consider the A-frame. Lining the dog up for the pipe tunnel predisposes the dog to the pipe tunnel. That seems the smarter thing to do… to predispose the dog in the direction of the actual course.

These are reasons you’ll see savvy handlers studying that their dogs see when positioned at the starting line.

Simplifying the Sequence


So how would this sequence run if we skip the pipe tunnel?

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

[1] Well, I know the words to the theme song for Tobor the Eighth Man as well. But that’s just me. Chances are more people can sing along with George of the Jungle.