Development of an Exercise

My year is heating up with seminars and camps and so forth. I’m thinking through different training materials and objectives that I’ve honed over the years.

I never know precisely where I’m going with the training curriculum in either camp or seminar. I base direction entirely on what I perceive to be the immediate needs of the group. This philosophy has me inventing and experimenting a good deal. I bring up old exercises and give them a new spin and even create new adaptations which somehow escaped my notice before.

Everybody wants to learn distance work. The real difficulty of distance work is two-fold: a) the dog must know how to perform obstacles independent of the handler; b) the dog needs to be given permission to work at a distance from the handler. The latter isn’t always so much a matter of dog training, but a problem of getting the handler to let go.

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A basic obstacle conditioning exercise is a thing that I call “Around the Clock”. The handler works at positions on the clock-face sending the dog to seek out the aperture and go through. Upon which the handler will mark the performance (praise or clicker) and then reward the dog. The first position is at 6:00 and then at 5:00, then at 4:00 and finally at 3:00. 3:00 o’clock is perhaps the toughest position because the dog will have to go out, give himself a square approach and the jump through.

As we work, the clock-face should expand. At first the handler works closely, represented by the white numbers; and then sends from a greater distance, represented by the black numbers.

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We expand the exercise into an opportunity layered Tandem (landing side cross). Note that the handler approaches jump #3 at a lateral distance from the dog in order to show the change of directions. However the handler doesn’t actually cross the landing side of the jump, but layers back to the take-off side. If the dog really understands the Tandem Turn and has an equal understanding of the performance of the tire, this is a delightful way to solve the sequence with the greatest efficiency.

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Incongruously, I bring everybody back down to earth by doing a tight technical handling exercise. This is a thing I call the “Figure of Eight”. I set two cones out on the floor and ask simply that the handler draw the dog in a figure of eight pattern around the two cones, giving the dog a constant stream of rewards (treats) out of his lead hand for attention to the lead-hand.

Note that the agility Figure-of-Eight is decidedly different from the obedience Figure-of-Eight. In agility the handler will take the lazy inside path while the dog takes the more robust outer path. That means that the handler must Cross going into the center of the “eight” to get the dog on the opposite side as he goes the opposite direction.

This is an important exercise for many handlers, because many have not taught their dogs to give their lead hands close focus in tight technical moments on the course. While I like a dog that will work away on fast and flowing sequences; when things get tight and technical I really like when the dog understands how to come in close to get his direction from a control point.

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The next exercise we might do is a thing I call the “exploding pinwheel”. The double pinwheel is an exercise I’ve done for years, but got a different appreciation for in several years ago when I trained a bit with Patti Hatfield-Mah. She recommended that the dog be taught the pinwheel with the jumps closely spaced together, and then “explode” the pinwheel (moving them gradually farther and farther apart) over time.

Note that the handler maintains a position in the central quadrant of the double-pinwheel. It is the handler and dog trainer’s fondest desire that the dog to out to do the work and to “own the pinwheel”.

The way I explain it to my students is this… in this exercise we will view the double pinwheel rather like we do the weave poles. The weave poles are not 12 separate obstacles (though many people treat them as such). The weave poles are only one obstacle. If I want to teach the dog to own the pinwheel, I will be keen to keep my criterion for performance sharp and reward the dog for understanding of his job.

The most difficult part of this exercise from a handling point of view is teaching the handler that he should give focus to the obstacle the dog is working on. This is accomplished basically by facing it, pointing to it, and moving to it.

Pointing as we discover only slowly as a handler is accomplished more with the feet than with the hands. Very often a handler will point the hand one direction, while opening up with the feet to point 90 degrees or more in another direction. The dog is more likely to take the cue of the feet than the cue of the hand. Also, you’ll find, if the handler’s feet open up on a new direction it is almost impossible to actually face the obstacle the dog is working on.

Okay… the question of moving towards the focus obstacle is a bit difficult for many handlers to understand. The fact of the matter is that distance handling has very little to do with standing still. It has more to do with the economical use of the available real estate. So as the handler sends the dog to a jump, the handler should be ready with a single step (at least) to give the dog enough pressure to get out to the next jump.

I’m happy to report that with the jumps initially set fairly close together, and “exploded” only gradually, dogs will have terrific success with this exercise.

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We change directions just a bit in order to work on the Tandem Turn. Note that the Tandem is a cross behind the dog on the landing side of a jump (or on the flat). Many dogs understand quite naturally the implications of the handler’s change of directions and will turn away so that both handler and dog will flow in tandem in the new direction of the course.

The hardest bit for some handlers to understand is that the handler should not introduce mechanics that are not natural to the person’s movement. The handler should simply flow naturally into the turn; simply turn the corner and not try to manage or manipulate the dog into the turn.

It’s also important to recognize that the Tandem is not an arm signal. It is a whole body signal which includes the arm, the rotation of the body, the step and the acceleration into the new direction of the course. Once the handler understands all of these elements it is a completely natural kind of turn.

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It’s quite an easy adaptation of this exercise to turn it into a layered Tandem. This is a rather advanced movement in which the handler allows the dog to work away while layering obstacles between his position and the dog’s.

Note that if the handler is planning to use a layered Tandem that he will approach the jump at which the Tandem will be used at a comfortable lateral distance from the dog and the jump. At the moment of the Tandem the handler must use the extra real estate to sell the turn to the dog. And in that moment that the dog is turned away from the handler’s position he must rely on the dog’s ownership of the jumps and give the dog permission to work away.

You’ll note that the handler must give focus to jump #4, but move rather briskly in a path parallel to the dog’s path to sell the dog to jump #5.

In this exercise as in the previous, the handler uses a Front Cross to help the dog make the turn to the final jump.

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Our next adaptation on this sequence is the “own the pinwheel, figure-of-eight”. In this exercise we combine the skills from two separate exercises into a new and interesting exercise.

Note that the handler maintains a position in the center between the two pinwheel parts. The dog is allowed to work out and away to do the jumps in the pinwheel, but the handler must call the dog to close work for a Front Cross – related to the tight and technical figure-of-eight work with which we started the day.

It’s important for the handler to understand that that he can shift moods and modes between distance work and tight and technical handling. Often courses require these very skills.

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I wanted to share these exercises with you in case you’d like to practice them in the privacy of your own back yard, or in your training center. It is always a pretty good idea if you allow someone who understands the movement of dogs and people to have their eye on you as you work in order to give you advice on the finer points of your movement.

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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