Teaching Distance Handling

I’ve been on a distance training bent for a couple months now, making sure to incorporate some kind of distance objective in every lesson plan. I’m working very hard to cure the Velcro-dog micro-manipulation that comes from insisting that the dog work constantly 18″ from the handler. I know that it’s possible to excel with an 18″ tether. We’ve even had national champions that basically run with their dogs glued next to them. It’s not a bad thing at all… so long as you have long legs and you can run like the wind.


This week was about layering the handler’s position and lateral distance work. You can see in this example that while the dog is working away over the teeter/weaves/chute, the handler layers to the opposite side of the tire/weave/tire line.

The line of performance obstacles is actually a lot tougher than it looks. The teeter obviously will give some dogs quite a bit of trouble, even if they’ve been taught a bottom position. If the dog is confused by the handler’s distance then he’ll be inclined to come off the teeter side-ways, possibly missing the down contact and possibly not even tipping the board. Even if the dog does work smoothly over the teeter the fact that the handler’s position is next to a dummy set of weave poles, it mightn’t be easy for the dog to stay out for the set more in line. Then, even if the dog does both the teeter and the weave poles, getting on to the collapsed chute isn’t automatic. The weave-poles is a technical obstacle and does not accelerate the dog. If the dog doesn’t have a clear get out directive he might be just as inclined to tuck in to the handler’s position (and the tire) rather than going on to the chute.

This exercise had to constantly be adapted for the immediate needs of the dogs in each class. We had only a dozen or so dogs that solved the lateral distance challenge on the first try. The rest, we had to shape and pattern. For some dogs it was a mission of targeting and baiting the performance of the teeter. For others it was graduating the lateral distance at which the handler worked, in small incremental steps.

The biggest mistake that a handler makes in teaching the dog the performance of obstacles is to embed his body in the context of presentation and performance. For example, some dogs don’t really know how to do the weave poles without the handler working along side giving cues for continuing the performance. This has a couple of drawbacks… aside from the handler being a part of the performance it’s a lot like teach the dog that a set of six weave poles is actually six obstacles when, in fact, it is only one. Another good example is that bottom performance the handler teaches his dog on the contact obstacles. Some dogs really only understand the performance only when the handler is hovering over the dog’s head; remove the handler, and the performance evaporates.

These are errors that are quite easy to fix. The key is that the handler should train the dog with ever escalating criterion.

A Found Poem

I’m never much locked into a lesson plan. It should be ever-adapted to the needs of the students. Look at the lesson plan as a starting place rather than an ending place.


The original exercise called simply for the handler to work the opposite side of the containment line while the dog worked away over the dogwalk. The real error of the exercise was a queuing error. The exercise dumps the students and her dog off in space on the other side of the room. Some students will take a considerable long time coming back to the front of the room (where the rest of the queue waits patiently). So a thoughtfully designed exercise will bring the dog back pretty much to the point that he started.

So I designed a bit of interesting handling after the performance of the dogwalk. This involved immediately a weave pole pull-thru, or threadle. Ah, didn’t this turn out to be an interesting moment in the exercise!


When faced with such an obscure approach to a set of weave poles what many handler’s will do is this, they’ll push the dog out (way out!) in order to create a square and straight approach to the weave poles. Surely this will get the job done… so long as your definition of “the job” is to survive a sequence and have very low expectations of the dog.


What I pushed my students to do is this… make the least of the dog’s path, and trust the dog to understand the entry. Some dogs proved that they couldn’t actually be trusted, that they didn’t really know how to find the entry to the weave poles and get in. But the truth of the matter is that this is not a failure in the dog, it is a failure in the dog’s training.


This is a very specific training protocol that I work with all of my dogs, on all agility equipment. I call it “around the clock”. It is intended to teach the dog to find the entry and get in, without regards to the handler’s sending position. The whole point is that the handler shouldn’t have to artificially shape the dog’s path if he would just take the time to teach the dog his job.

As a consequence several of my students got this homework assignment: teach the dog the entry to the weave poles unattended by the handler!

Please note that when in train the dog mode the system that I use is to praise and reward the dog for giving the correct performance. For an incorrect performance I give nothing and maintain a completely neutral attitude. These might seem to be a statement of the obvious. But a lot of dog trainers don’t seem to understand it at all.

Shades of Prof. Harold Hill!

Some while back Barbara Ray and Chris Eastwood shared a link with me to a unique agility training sight promoting a new approach to teaching and handling distance work.

This book is entitled (and I kid thee not): Directional Control for Dog Agility and Training With Mental Telepathy.

I think that the author should send me a copy of the book for review purposes. The older I get and the more wobbly my legs become the more I think I should consider actually using mental telepathy to communicate with my dog. And if you think back on it… wasn’t this the system used by J.C. and Hazel Thompson? Oops no… now that I think about it I can clearly remember both of them using verbals to communicate with their dogs.

The intuitive bond that is developed to produce synchronized movement in the competitive working team can be used as a back door approach to create telepathic communications. The initial intuitive process is built using structured exercises that permits an individual to receive physical feedback of the intuitive process from the dog’s physical performance on an agility course. This intuitive process is strengthened with synchronized mental timing skills that are developed between the dog and handler to achieve the competitive team. Once the intuitive bridge is in place between the dog and handler, the handler can extend the process to two-way telepathic discourse. The dog is the active agent in this process.

That’s the spiel from the website.


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.


%d bloggers like this: