The objective of the following exercises is to teach dogs to work at a distance. These exercises are presented as a program, to be engaged at whatever pace the dog is reasonably learning. It is always important not to push a training program faster than a dog can assimilate the new skills. As far as that goes, a handler should not move on before he or she is perfectly comfortable with the skill being learned. There is no hurry, after all.
Working With the Pillbug
A pillbug is the pipe-tunnel, curled around to resemble one of those little armored bugs you can find in your garden or under the crawl-space in your house. The pillbug is intended merely to be an imposing object which your dog must make a special effort to avoid.
Note, from Figure 1, that the handler will make a direct approach to the pillbug, with dog at side. They should always approach the side on which the two ends of the tunnel are jammed together. It will be easier to keep the dog from trying to squirm into the tunnel if it is close to the handler, than it would be if the openings were on the far side of the pillbug.
The exercise is very much like the barrel exercise we have described from time to time in the Clean Run. The barrel is an obstruction in the dog’s path. Our intention is simply to send the dog around the obstruction, without the handler having to resort to running around it himself. Figure 2 shows the basic maneuver. We will use the maneuver to teach the dog to Get Out!
The action of the handler is to:
- Approach the obstruction with the dog at side, then
- Step into the dog, encroaching on the dog’s path
- Give a hand signal (picture hand on dog’s side, flicking out deftly)
- Say Get Out, a commanding imperative.
- Give the dog a reward and praise for getting it right.
After several repetitions the dog will begin to anticipate the handler’s action and skitter out around the pillbug with the voice command only, and perhaps a hand signal, and the body of the handler stepping perpendicularly into the dog. It is not desirable to dispense with the step… stepping into the dog. Get Out literally means, get out away from me, and take a wider path. And yet the handler should remember that the word spoken by his movement is ever more powerful than the word spoken by his voice.
Figure 3 shows the handler maintaining a pretty much static position and using the G (Get Out) to quickly alter the dog’s path, out and away.
Once the handler has decided that the dog understands the basic command, the handler should mix up the performance by pushing the dog out left, and pushing the dog out right, around the pill bug. Alternate calling the dog to tuck in at the handler’s side (Come) with pushing out and away (Get Out). Be very patient with this step because we want to build on the dog clearly understanding what the handler means when the Get Out command is used. It doesn’t hurt for the dog to have a pretty good idea what Come means either.
Now we change the exercise, by adding a jump. See Figure 4.
The exercise is complicated to the extent that after the initial Get Out we add a command for the dog to jump. The handler’s sense of timing needs to be pretty good. As soon as the dog sees the tunnel, the handler should give the command. Again, work both sides of the set. After a pretty good work out on Get Out, include alternating repetitions using Come to pull the dog around the pillbug on the side closest to the handler. Then, change the exercise again.
Now we begin the exercise with a jump, getting the dog to approach the pillbug at some speed. The handler maintains the inside position, relying on a well-timed Get Out and then Jump when the dog first spies the jump on the opposite side of the pillbug.
The exercise is no problem for the dog. We simply have additional speed, making the handler’s timing more important. But again, let’s change the exercise, and present the opening of the tunnel to the dog.
Now when the handler gives the Get Out command it is to push the dog away from the possibility of entry to the tunnel.
After several repetitions of this, begin alternating calling the dog in, Come into the tunnel. When it is clear that the dog has learned and understands this exercise, we change the exercise again.
Now, rather than the jump, we put an additional tunnel behind the pillbug. This is easier than a jump for most dogs in any case. Start with a tunnel only.
Then add a jump to start the dog with some speed.
In the next sequence the pillbug is framed by two jumps. To add some push, and distance, we put the second pipe tunnel out to capture the dog, and turn him back into the set. This also gives the handler the opportunity to add a new command to the working repertoire. Tell the dog Go On! [Affect a Cockney accent and say softly “Gowan then!”]
In this exercise the handler learns to keep working his dog. Initially the exercise is the same Get Out we’ve been doing all along. But we expect the dog to continue working away.
After the second jump the dog might turn back in short, and lose the sequence. The handler’s responsibility is to remind the dog to Go On, or if the dog really turns in sharp, the handler must push in with his body, and use a strong Get Out command.
As the dog enters the tunnel, the handler should fade back, into the path of the oncoming dog. Use the Get Out command for a brisk change of direction from the third jump, to the fourth and final jump.
Use this set to work both sides. Alternate working the Get Out command with working the Come command.
Remote Control Dog
The movement of the handler away from the dog is identical to the movement of the handler up close to the dog. Very often this is key to working the dog at a distance.
To test this bold assertion, let’s look at this sequence of four obstacles. The handler initially works with his dog at side; as the dog commits to the tunnel the handler slides to the right while the dog is in the tunnel, then pushes in to reverse the dog’s course over jump #3. The handler continues to move to his right, and as the dog turns back in towards the handler, the handler gives a Get Out command to push the dog off to the table.
Now, let’s say that someone (say, for instance, a judge) has drawn an arbitrary line beyond which the handler should not pass. How would the handler manage his dog through the sequence?
As you can see, the handler’s movement is virtually identical. The chief difference in the handling is that the handler uses the time the dog is in the tunnel to back-pedal. This creates room for the handler to push forward as the dog comes out of the tunnel, so that the handler will not cross over the arbitrary containment line.
As the dog turns back to jump #3 the handler slides out right, and as the dog turns back in towards the handler, the handler gives a Get Out command to push the dog off to the table.
This is only an analysis and not really a training sequence. It is somewhat speculative at that. I’m pleased that I have a variety of students on whom I can test my wild ideas.
If you want to train a dog to do this kind of sequence, consider all of the individual pieces (which can be trained individually):
- Happy tunnel – will your dog push off to the tunnel without you having to baby-sit him every step of the way? Your dog’s performance of this obstacle should be thoroughly proofed. Spend hours just sending your dog off to the tunnel and rewarding him for the performance. You want it to be so spontaneous and such a happy occasion that when you whisper Tunnel your dog will turn and run and find the tunnel, any tunnel, to please you and earn the reward.
- Turn-Back – Did you get that nifty little reverse direction as the dog came out of the tunnel? Some handlers actually have a Turn Back command. Surely teaching you how to teach your dog this command is an entire issue of the Clean Run by itself. But it’s certainly a handy command.
- Get Out – After jump #3 we told the dog to Get Out to change his direction out to the table. Well, that’s what many of these pages are all about. By the time we get to use it in this context we’re really hopeful that the dog is going to get it.
- Happy Table – Will your dog go out happily to the table when you give your command for that obstacle? If not, you need to learn to play happy-table with your dog. I’m always amazed to see people’s dogs being reluctant to jump up on the table. All you have to do is stand next to the table with a bag-full of your dog’s favorite treats. Throw one up on the table and say Table Up! Then call him off the table again. Do this about 2,245 times… and your dog will be very sure of what to do when you say Table Up, or whatever is your command for the table.
One of the most effective ways to teach a sequence that has the dog working away from the handler is to back-chain the exercise, starting with the last obstacle, multiple repetitions, and adding an obstacle in the back-chain for progressively more repetitions. Start by sending the dog to the table (happy-table right?). Then do the jump and table sequence, using the Get Out command. Then add the tunnel, working on teaching the dog what Turn Back means. Finally, put it all together with the first jump.
Certainly no judge will let you practice a distance challenge by carefully back-chaining it. However, working the sequence in this manner will get your dog used to the fact that you might want to work at some distance while he works the sequence of obstacles.
Simple Sequence, Complex Obstacles
Now that we’ve learned to put a bit of distance between handler and dog, we can apply some of what we’ve learned to this simple sequence. The seesaw, in the sequence, is a complex obstacle. That means that the performance requires a complex chain of events from the dog. In this case the dog is required to touch the ascent side contact zone, run up the plank, tip it and allow it to settle, and finally touch the descent side contact zone. That is a complex performance. Other complex obstacles include the A-frame, the dogwalk, and the weave poles.
In this sequence a dummy jump is obstructing the handler’s path at the critical moment that the dog needs to be directed on to the seesaw after jump #1. This is an opportunity for the handler to push the dog out with a solid Get Out command.
After this initial challenge the sequence is relatively straight-forward. The major difficulty is for the dog to finish the performance of the seesaw even though the handler is not standing at side, attending to the dog’s descent.
For a dog/handler team to be able to successfully perform a sequence like this in competition, the dog should be proofed on the performance of the obstacle, while the handler is working at a distance.
Questions comments & impassioned speeches to Bud Houston: BudHouston@hughes.net. And Check out my new publication the Idea Book – Agility Training for a Small Universe available at www.dogagility.org/store.