There is No such Thing as a Free Mule

Okay, I’m working on the suite of agility compulsories. Here’s a simple one… unless you’re the one in the box doing it. I’ll try to go through the entire list. A lot of it is in my archives. Some I’ll have to write new.

Today I have to be down at the Tractor Supply Co. holding down a table for the “Farm Animals” community show. Thank god I live in a part of the country where dogs are still considered farm animals. Anyhow, we’ll be handing out a few fliers… and doing foundation tricks with our pups Hazard and Kory. Maybe we’ll pick up a new student or two.

As a consequence of this obligation I’m writing today’s blog entry yesterday, or more precisely last night. Yes… I am writing this last night. But I will cleverly publish it in today to imbue it with the illusion of timely spontaneity.

At any rate the “Riddle of Two Jumps” is elementary to the kind of problem solving that the keen agility competitor does on just about any course we run in the game. We solve the puzzle backwards… downfield considerations always dictating our choice of handling movement.


“Agility is not a game that can be won; it can only be played.”

— Bagger

A Riddle of Two Jumps

This is a small game based on a riddle. You will observe certain stipulations to solve the riddle:

–       Use two jumps only, spaced about 12’ apart.

–       The jumps can be taken only from the inside of the box, out.


–       No crossing behind the dog is allowed.

–       The entire course consists of only five jumps (that means one jump will be performed twice, the other three times).

–       The instructor will specify the direction of each turn.

Understand the instructions? Ready to go? Let’s play. First handler to solve each riddle wins. We’ll typically set this up with four or five stations of two jumps. A handler is allowed to move into one of the stations only when they think they have the riddle solved. They aren’t allowed to use the station to walk it through and fret the solution.

Here are four turning sequences for the dog.

  1. Left-Left-Right-Left-Left
  2. Right-Left-Right-Right-Left
  3. Right-Right-Left-Left-Right
  4. Right-Left-Right-Left-Left

I use this game for more than the problem solving riddle. I want to see how my students approach a jump with a turn after. The jump before a 180° turn is always in danger of being dropped if the handler isn’t careful. I contend that most dropped bars are not the fault of the dog, but of the handler[1].

The discipline of directing a dog to jump and directing the dog to turn is important. Let’s look at some of the important elements of this discipline that you should teach to your students.

a)     The handler should direct the dog by moving in the direction of the course; move in a smooth straight line to the jump, and work through commitment. That means that the handler should not go flat-footed and wave the dog to go on; the handler should not come to a stop, or turn, or otherwise cue the turn until the dog has committed over the jump. Don’t send the dog to the jump. Be a part of the team.

b)     When doing a 180° Front Cross on a jump the handler should take a tracking step out to the side of the jump before committing to the cross to redirect the dog. This movement tracks the dog out around the wing of the jump. If the handler just doubles back in a cross the actual instruction to the dog is to double-back and back-jump the jump just taken.

c)      When changing leads, it is the handler’s responsibility to call the dog’s attention to the new lead hand. The handler should not simply assume that the dog will appear on one side of him or the other just because he has his arm sticking out like the sign on the side of a school bus. It takes only a modest effort to connect with the dog and show the new lead. But it is a skill that must be cultivated and practiced. In a turn the lead hand should take on a “luring” quality.

d)     The handler should take responsibility for calling the dog’s attention to a turn, and for tightening that turn. The handler should not be an idle and silent spectator to a dog taking a wide and undirected turn. All of the handler’s cues should go into the turn. The handler needs to move in the turn, call the dog, and show the way with the lead hand.

The visual cue for beginning a turn is seeing the dog at the highest point in his jump. A well-timed turn can have the dog beginning his turn before he actually lands. If the handler cues the turn too early, the dog may change his feet in the air and drop the bar. If the handler cues the turn too late, the turn might be wide and time consuming. If you use the visual cue, you will never be too late for the cue, and you will never be too early.

The Riddle of Sides

One of the first and most abiding skills that the handler must learn is to answer the riddle of sides. The dog turns most naturally in the direction of the handler. So it is the handler’s job to figure out how to get position always on the turning side of the course.


What may seem trivial to the more experienced handler is an enigmatic riddle to the novice agility handler. In the sequence shown in this illustration the beginner is more than likely to get caught at jump #8 with dog on right, with no real answer for turning the dog in the direction of the side the dog is working. The turn goes away from the handler’s position if he approaches jump #8 with dog on right.

The more experienced handler works out the mechanics easily, seeing the opportunity to change sides to the dog during the performance of the pipe tunnel.

Changing sides to the dog is the basis of many handler “movements.” Changing sides would not be necessary if the handler is much quicker than the dog. The handler could work his dog on one side and just race through the long bits. This is not really a very practical solution. If the handler works the dog on his left (heel) side, the handler would have to run completely around the pipe tunnel. With dog on right the handler’s path from jump #8 to #9 would be over 30’ as the dog takes the lazy inside path, and the handler the much wider outside path.

We can establish early in our agility career that the handler should never run the long way around a U-shaped tunnel.

Indeed, neither of these handling path options is completely satisfying because, in fact, the dog tends to be considerably faster than the human member of the team. It is unlikely that we can outrun 98% of the dogs in this sport taking the long path.

So we have two rules now for the Riddle of Sides:

  1. The handler should seek the side of the turn (because the dog turns most naturally in the direction of the handler.)
  2. The handler should seek an economical path, as compared to the dog’s path (as most dogs tend to be faster than the handler.)

The next step in solving the Riddle of Sides has to be selection is a specific movement to solve the change of sides. In this first illustration the handler has the luxury of making the change of sides while the dog is engaged in the performance of the pipe tunnel. The handler makes the approach to the pipe tunnel with dog on right. When the dog exits the handler will be on the opposite side (dog on left.) This calls for a Crossing Turn, or a Blind Cross. The difference between the two is that in the Crossing Turn the handler rotates towards the dog to pick up on the opposite side. In a Blind Cross the handler rotates away from the dog (and in the direction of the course.)

It doesn’t take too much to make the riddle more complicated. For example, in the following drawing we use essentially the same set of obstacles, but have added another jump at the end of the serpentine sequence.


So in addition to solving the right turn following jump #8, the handler must solve the left turn following jump #9. He must be on the dog’s right, and he must be on the dog’s left.

This sounds as though the handler has to be two places at once. But that’s not really so.

The handler’s true mission is to figure out how to be ahead of the dog at each turn. You can’t cross in front of the dog if you’re behind the dog. That sounds like a statement of the obvious. But it is the crux of the Riddle, after all.


The sequence is solved by management of real estate. The handler has to get to position “H” by the time the dog is coming up over the bar at jump #8 (marked “D”.) The handler’s position forward of the dog and lateral (to the right) puts the handler ahead enough that again a Crossing Turn or a Blind Cross solves the final turn in the sequence.

What makes this sequence doable even for handlers of very fast dogs is the inclusion of the pipe tunnel. When the dog gets into the pipe tunnel the handler doesn’t have time to stand and admire his work. He has to quickly get on the opposite side of the tunnel’s exit and make for jump #8 at a speed that will get him to position “H” at precisely the instant the dog is getting to position “D.”

This sequence breaks down if the handler doesn’t observe simple handler discipline. It doesn’t pay to rush. The handler shouldn’t turn to jump #8 before the dog has committed to the pipe tunnel. That will, as often as not, earn the dog a refusal at the pipe tunnel. Refer to “Teaching Movement” in the Just for Agility Notebook, volume III, #19.

Olde Poem

“Remember, remember,
The Fifth of November,
The gunpowder, treason, and plot.
I know of no reason
The Gunpowder Treason,
Should ever be forgot.”



Questions comments & impassioned speeches to Bud Houston: And Check out my latest publication the Just For Fun Agility Notebook #30 available on the Country Dream Web Store.


[1] I’m certainly at odds with certain top agility seminar leaders on this point. Watch carefully though, almost always the person telling you that the dog is responsible for the jump is some smart aleck with a Border Collie who is satisfied to have a dog who is 90% of the team. It’s disheartening to watch them scold their dogs when the dog drops a bar on account of bad handling


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