The Art of the Natural Handler

I’ve been working for several days now in central Illinois. There’s been stuff racing through my head as I watch them all. So what follows is a nearly stream-of-conscience accounting of those things that have been in my mind as I watch these earnest players of the game. Two days is really inadequate. I want them all as my students for several years… and maybe for longer than a single generation of dogs. There’s a lot to learn, and it’s not all learned easily.

Sometimes I make this simple science sound like its technical and terrible to the brain. But in fact it’s no big deal. For the most part our dogs will teach us very nicely how to run, how to interact, and how to communicate. I look at all these young green dogs and I can only see the Champions that they will be in a few short years when the Chi and connection between dog and handler will be so magnificent it can only make the heart soar to watch them on the field. I’ve observed this phenomenon for more than a couple decades now… and I’m sure enough of the outcome.

A teacher’s job is to sweeten the path only that we have to take fewer arduous steps in the discovery of this natural thing.

A Quick Tutorial for Natural Handling

Between the dog and handler exists an extraordinary bond. The dog is a canny student of his person and will translate every act of the handler into language. Recognize the importance of studying the language that is natural to the dog. The language is for the most part non-verbal… and so the person must resist the compelling illusion of verbal control.

The study should begin with a definition of the handler’s job. The obvious definition might simply state “too direct the dog.” But I would expand that definition to “conduct” the dog… using “conduct” to be more like the conductor of an orchestra. The handler seeks “symphony” with the dog.

So in the expanded definition of the handler’s role the job as conductor includes:

  • Connection
  • Enthusiasm
  • Speed
  • Direction
  • Focus
  • Control

The training foundation (shades of Prof. Harold Hill)

The conductor of the orchestra must seem more competent when the fellow with the tuba and the lady with the flute have been trained upon those instruments. Conducting hasn’t much magic with the untrained musician or the untrained dog.

So, we presume a foundation of independent obstacle training for our student, the dog. Upon this foundation the dog and handler engage in an advanced study of language arts. “Independent” obstacle performance is a beginning, not an end.

Precue Vu (mean “seeing the immediate future”)

[I’m so sorry, I’m saving this for future development. I must go elsewhere now. Everybody knows what Déjà vu is… Some know what is Jamais vu and Presque Vu. But almost nobody knows what Precue vu is… because I just made it up. ]

Focus

We begin with the job of teaching simple focus to the dog. For the most part a dog needs to be focused on the obstacles arranged in his conducted path. But, often enough, the dog has to give brief focus to his handler…. To cue a turn, or to demonstrate the handler’s choice when multiple options are presented to the dog.

It’s interesting that similar concepts and foundation methodologies have occurred in so many different places during the development of our sport. It’s almost like all of these different people had the same marvelous idea all at the same time.

There’s another way of looking at it. It just could be that our dogs have been neatly training us. The thing that works in California is the same thing that works in Texas, Ohio, England, Finland… and Japan. And the reason it works is the propensity of the dog to understand something that is natural to him. So the innovators who show this bit of foundation genius or that, didn’t so much invent it, as discover it through simple observation and under the careful tutelage of the dog.

Arms and the Object of Focus

In our discussion of the matter of the dog’s focus I don’t believe I have for awhile talked through how we use our arms to communicate simple information.  This is a simple system based on the dog’s natural inclinations and understanding of our movement and habits.

The “attitude” of the arm refers to the height of the lifted arm and the degree of the angle created by the lift. A high attitude is at shoulder height; a low attitude is against the pant leg.

As the handler runs lifting the arm and pointing forward is a basic cue for the dog to stay in obstacle focus and, frankly, constitutes permission to work at a considerable distance. Don’t get me wrong here. The arm is not the primary cue. Consider it a detail and confirmation of the more abiding cues (running, for example is the most important cue).

Note that the arm stays arrow-straight and points on in the direction the dog is to move if not directly at the obstacle the dog should move to.

Now the handler slowing down, presumably in anticipation of a turn draws his arm down so that the hand is about belt level. However the arm stands out away from the body. The arm remains arrow-straight and points directly at the obstacle the dog is next to perform.

Again we ask for the dog to be in obstacle focus. But clearly we’re giving other cues. Indeed the dog might take a little steam out of his movement in response to the handlers braking movement.

To draw the dog into tight handler focus the lead hand should drop flush against the handler’s body. When conducting a tight movement in redirecting the dog we want the dog watching us closely. Now the lead hand probably becomes the predominate cue.

Oh yes, and by the way. We also use our arms to keep our balance when running. Pointing the way for the dog and keeping balance at the same time become a skill worth practicing so that you can maintain your dignity while playing the game.

The proposition that the attitude of the arm is language to the dog is all well and good. However, the use of any “conversational” language with the dog should be fortified by training and practice.

Sublime Movement

As we begin to understand and apply movement and pressure as language a reevaluation of our own movements to direct the dog is in order.

What is sublime movement?

It is not fussy fussy overhandling or micromanagement. It is quick neat, fluid, to-the-point, get the job done… quickly returning the dog to his job to focus on the obstacle arranged in his directed path: Sublime – Quick and cool, unhurried grace, just-in-time, everything lined up and in position.

The problem with many handler movements is the person’s propensity for introducing into the movement mechanical confabulations that have no real benefit to performance. Indeed many flails and gesticulations serve only to make the handler woefully late with any meaningful cue. Many flawed handler movements introduce a miscue… or, to put it another way, the wrong advice.

Let’s take the Front Cross as an example of an often flawed movement. At the moment of the Cross the handler steps into the dog’s path,, lunging forward with his opposite arm pointing for all the world in precisely the opposite direction than he’d like to turn the dog. So, clearly, this is all wrong.

Following a new instruction for more sublime and economical movement will be for most people fighting against well-practiced muscle memory. But it’s the good fight and also should be practiced to the extent that it resides in the comfortable memory of the muscle.

Here’s the way a Front Cross should start: The handler will slow down to begin the movement by stepping sideways and backwards. At that precise moment his lead hand drops precipitously to his knee (note that dropping the arm is language calculated to draw the dog into handler focus). As the handler finishes the rotation he continues to move through space… in the direction of the turn. At the moment the rotation is completely finished the new lead (what had been the counter arm) comes up to return the dog to obstacle focus.

Speed Cue

A dog gets his speed cue from the handler’s speed. The obvious translation of this is that the dog will run fast if the handler runs fast. [If the car has an accelerator, it surely too will have brakes. Both have significance in directing the dog, and both are speed cue.]

We like speed in agility. We want a dog who runs fast, attacking the course with joy and fervor. One of the most important cues for making the dog run his fastest is for the handler too… to run; making his own display of joy and fervor.

Agility dogs come in many types. And so the handler and moreover the dog trainer should be a thoughtful scientist experimenting playfully with the application of movement intended to make the dog move at his best speed. [There is a type of dog that loses his keenness for the game if the handler gets too far ahead.]

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Questions comments & impassioned speeches to Bud Houston: BudHouston@hughes.net. And Check out my latest publication the Just For Fun Agility Notebook #30 available at www.dogagility.org/store.

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