The Phantom Tandem

This past Sunday I got to witness a Phantom Tandem (form of the rear cross). For the sake of definition, in dog agility a “phantom” movement is a cue or instruction taken by the dog the handler is unaware of having given.

Following is the case study.

As Kelly ran her dog, Siren, in this sequence she had every intention of Rear Crossing at jump #3. Yet her dog turned away after jump #2 as though he’d been given a Tandem Turn cue. She tried the sequence several times and he did it every time.

I’ve studied phantom movements for many years now. They absolutely fascinate me. I could not see the physical cue that should mean “turn away”… and Kelly was not aware of giving it.

But dogs are much more clever at reading and interpreting human movement than we are. Frequently, a movement will evolve from a chain of physical cues which the dog will learn to read in back-chain fashion.

Ultimately the dog will learn to act on the first indication of the cue rather than waiting for the denouement. We see this in dogs breaking a stay at the start-line all the time. It’s not that the dog doesn’t know how to stay… it’s that the handler has introduced a series of predecessor physical cues upon which the dog learns to act.

Speculating that we were witnessing a phantom movement, I suggested a course of action to test the hypothesis.

I told Kelly to forget the Rear Cross at jump #3 and simply turn her dog to the A-frame, as numbered here. Kelly’s dog did not so much as suggest a turn away… but neatly worked through jump #3 and made the turn to the A-frame without incident. With the turn away completely out of the handler’s mind she did not, of course, have in her movement the quirky and virtually invisible physical cue to turn away.

The theory is: In the original exercise the physical cue to turn away was certainly in the handler’s movement. But it all started in the brain. If we take the impending turn (away) out of the handler’s mind the physical cues will not exist and the phantom movement disappears.

After we’d done the proofing analysis we returned to the original Rear Cross exercise. Kelly was to simply to approach the #3 jump as though preparing to turn to the A-frame; but in the final moment go the other way instead… do the Rear Cross. It worked like a charm. No problem; and no phantom Tandem.

Notes on the Rear Cross

In Duluth I had the group do a complex handling sequence using exclusively slow dog handling movements (no Rear Crossing allowed); and then run the same sequence using exclusively fast dog handling movements (no Front Crossing allowed.) I have quite a laundry list of teaching points for this training tactic. I won’t go through the entire list here. Suffice to say that most everyone is shocked out of their comfort zone; and most everyone is gratified that they can do both.

An interesting riddle in the practice of the Rear Cross is typically verbalized by one or more of the anxious student handlers. “How can I cross behind my dog when he is behind me?”

The answer to this riddle is sublimely simple. Put your dog in front of you. Tell your dog “You! Go jump!” Then of course the handler will step up behind the dog and cross behind him.


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2 Responses to “The Phantom Tandem”

  1. Rose Says:

    This is where being able to view video in slow motion comes in so handy for those of us who can’t quite catch things like this in real time.

    I did a blog post, “Flicker Refresh Rate or Why Dogs Can Turn on a Dime” some time ago. Part of the reason our dogs catch these “phantom” cues is due to the fact that they see life at the rate of 70-80 frames per second. Humans see it at 60 frames per second on average. For our canine partners, that 10-20 fps difference translates into a huge advantage in catching motion cues.

  2. budhouston Says:

    Yah, that post was here:

    If we add to the flicker refresh rate the fact that a dog has about 270d peripheral vision, there’s not much that escapes his notice.

    This morning I was mulling over the notion that the “phantom” movement becomes so when I can’t see the movement with “my eye”; which begs the question that it is phantom because of an untrained eye. But your reminder of the flicker refresh rate bails me out… the phantom movement is a subtle cue that the “human eye” cannot see.


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