A Discussion of Obstacle Focus

Among other things that I study is the resolve of a dog’s focus while playing agility. In general we say that there is handler focus and there is obstacle focus. But, there is also distractive focus which isn’t terribly desirable. Study of focus is a simple matter. Whatever the dog is looking at is the object of his focus.

I’ve been fascinated by the observation that one of the last obstacles for which many dogs learn true obstacle focus is the simple jump or hurdle. This is a bit of a problem because jumps are the most omnipresent obstacle in agility. And so this specific focus, to the jump, needs to be well developed in the dog’s foundation training. Don’t be misled by the observation that a dog will go over a jump when his handler is forward of him, leaning over the bar making an overt presentation. Indeed this is often a symptom that the dog doesn’t understand the job at all.


A simple exercise to build focus is around-the-clock training. We make the jump the central “focus” of the dog training mission. I’ve written about this quite a bit, but need to take it another step. However, before I go on and while we’re here taking a look at the clock-face illustration, allow me to recount some of the simple rules of the training program:

  • This is a progressive sending exercise. We first send the dog from 8” to the jump; then we send from 12” to the jump; then we send from 16” to the jump; and so forth, until we are sending from a considerable distance that at the very least impresses the dog’s trainer that the dog understands the job of the jump.
  • The handler varies the orientation of his send from the numbered stations of the clock-face. This impresses upon the dog that the jump is not always presented squarely and teaches him how to seek out the approach.
  • A dog ahead of the handler tends to curl back to the handler’s position, so the handler should begin with the dog on her side calculating the curl to the jump rather than away from it.
  • It’s not the dog trainer’s intention to “trick” the dog into space. What we really want is for the dog to demonstrate that he understands the job that we are teaching. With this in mind the handler doesn’t want to run at the jump and then put on the brakes using the impulsion of running to trick the dog forward. Instead, the handler might take a single step to straighten the line—pointing the way to the jump—and allow the dog to go forward to demonstrate that he knows the job.
  • Should the dog turn back to the handler for information, the handler’s response should be to immediately take a step towards the jump to provide that information being requested.
  • However far forward the handler steps towards the jump will determine the length of the distance send.
  • The dog’s focus is abetted by the handler’s focus. When sending to the jump the handler should focus on the jump and not the dog. The handler’s focus is: where she is looking; where she is pointing; where she is facing; and the direction of her movement.
  • You have a name for the obstacle; use it.
  • Beware of pointing with the inside foot! That often causes the body to open up and consequently face in the wrong direction. Instead the handler should point with the outside foot. That keeps the body square to the direction of focus.
  • Be a good dog trainer. Do not fail to mark the performance and reward the dog for going away to perform the jump.
  • As you work with the dog you should consider a verbal “Go On!” or whatever command you want to use to mean “you go on without me!”

There might actually be more to this list. For right now it seems overwhelming enough without getting bogged down in the minutia.

Let’s take it to the next step.

Two Jumps


The goal of the two jump drill is to send the dog to the first jump and then ask the dog to perform both of the jumps while the handler (at first) is moving on a parallel track in a lateral path. Initially a dog may immediately return to handler focus inasmuch as our introductory training has been a one-jump then praise-and-reward protocol.

However now our training ambition has been expanded to encompass both jumps and so the only way the dog will be rewarded for the performance is to match our more advanced criteria.


When in dog training mode our objective ever is to bring the dog as painlessly as possible to the “light-bulb” moment. That is the moment in which the dog understands completely what is the performance or task. In this exercise the handler initially assists the dog to jump #2 by applying pressure of movement towards the jump. You’ll note that the handler will gradually apply less forward movement to the jump and open up the angle of lateral movement until the pressure isn’t towards the jump at all, but somewhat parallel to the dog in a more lateral path.


1. I did not use a target or any sort of “gadget” in this training with the dog. While a target might be initially useful for shaping a performance it also introduces the problem of fading (the gadget) from the performance. I am interested in a dog that approaches the problem thoughtfully and with clever ambition. It simply doesn’t require a clever animal to run to a target with a treat on it… or even a target that triggers the handler to deliver a reward (like the button on a food pez.)

2. The numbers on a clock are arbitrary placement. Indeed the A-B-C-D of the lateral distance pressure to the second jump is also arbitrary. The dog trainer surely is responsible for understanding the reasonable incremental steps that must be taken to bring the dog as painlessly as possible to the light-bulb moment of comprehension of the task. For the record, a clever dog trainer will seldom advance at such a pace that the dog fails to a greater extent than he succeeds.

The Front Cross Controversy

Another excellent post out in the blogosphere: http://lorriemaxx.wordpress.com/2009/04/23/front-cross-controversy/

It would be unlike me not to chime in on the controversy.  I was alerted to this “controversy” several years ago when Chris Miele told me that she tends to avoid the Front Cross because the movement “compresses against the dog’s path” and slows the dog’s performance. That brought me up a little short at the time because I’m a considerable advocate of the Front Cross.

As an inveterate empiricist It didn’t take long for me to come to the conclusion that Chris was quite correct inasmuch as most American’s have a completely flawed Front Cross in which they slam back on the dog in a moment of confrontation rather than slipping lithely away from the dog in the new direction of the course. Consequently I’m quite careful in my teaching of the mechanics of the Front Cross to my own students.

As it turns out Lorrie is at the same time presenting a Rear Cross controversy as one camp would have it that the Rear Cross slows the dog. I must submit that a flawed Rear Cross too will slow the dog. For any dog that gets his speed cue from the handler’s speed (something on the order of 90% of them)… the performance is spoilt by the handler putting on the brakes and slowing down in order to direct the dog with fast dog handling; (do you see the irony of the moment? The handler comes to a stop in order to do fast dog handling?)

I’ve just finished camp and while some of my players were quite novice we had a spirited discussion—and matching exercises—for speed changes and understanding how selection of movement influences the working speed of the dog.

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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