A Boise Conspiracy

On Saturday in Boise we did an exercise with the serpentine and I was able once again to demonstrate that the handling tactic most likely to fail was with the handler working on one side of the serpentine. That strategy, in fact, had an 80% fail rate. And so I showed them as is my habit simple handling that hoisted their success with the serpentine to 80%.

On Sunday with a slightly more advanced group I took a different tactic with the serpentine, endeavoring to show the training steps if the handler/dog trainer wanted to teach a dog the serpentine as though it were a single obstacle, with multiple elements.

Be mindful that there is an important prerequisite skill; and that is to teach the dog to Go On! That means that he should keep his head down and continue working without checking in with the handler for obstacle-by-obstacle micromanagement.

This is a straight line introduction to the Go On! The jumps are arranged very close together with a low jump height. The handler will initially leave the dog on a Stay and lead out to release the dog. Note that the dog trainer tosses a toy or Frisbee in a direct reward line. The toss of the toy should not be a lure to the dog, but a reward. A dog learns next to nothing when being lured; but will learn by heaps when being rewarded for performance.

In subsequent repetitions the handler will move back (not lead out quite so much)… until he is staying behind the first jump, and sending the dog forward.

Once the handler is successfully sending the dog forward for the three jumps we will gradually move the jumps apart a few inches at a time until there is a spacing of about 20′ between the jumps.

Once we have 20′ between the three jumps the dog trainer can insinuate a fourth jump into the 40′ span formerly occupied by only three jumps. When adding a new jump the handler should reintroduce by leading out down the line to support the dog through the entire line of jumps. Then on subsequent repetitions the handler will lead out less and less until he is sending the dog down the entire line of four jumps while remaining behind the first.

Once the handler is sending the dog down the line of four jumps the trainer can begin gradually increasing the space between jumps until the interval is approximately 20′.

Having mastered the dead away send (the toughest distance challenge in agility) by teaching the dog to Go On we can adapt the training set to introduce work on the serpentine. Note that jumps are alternately rotated and only slightly.

The handler/dog trainer should continue using the toss of a toy or Frisbee to reward the dog for working forward. Note that a Frisbee is a better choice of a missile than is a purple octopus.

Continue the rotation of the jumps. Initially we can make big rotations of 15 to 30°; but as we approach the absolutely flat presentation of the serpentine the rotation tweaks should be very slight so that some presentation of a “channel” down the line remains for the dog to see when jumping.

A word on course design: Sometimes the course designer can be completely ham-handed and clueless in the presentation of a serpentine. If the approach to the first jump is completely perpendicular to the line of jumps the inertia of the dog’s movement will introduce a wobble in the turning radius. By the time the wobble is cured, then the serpentine is over; and whatever advantage we might have had in a flat trajectory between jumps has been squandered.


The handler could take some initiative in the badly presented serpentine by creating a vee-set approach to the first jump. This illustration shows the handler drawing the dog in a tight wrap to set up the approach to the serpentine. It will be useful for this handler to have a good “Go On!” if his dog has any speed at all.

This is a marvelous proofing exercise for the serpentine. The handler will work on the opposite side of the first two hurdles (dog on right), using a Tandem Turn to flip the dog away for the approach to the serpentine. The handler is obligated to layer the Tandem, staying on the opposite side of the red line while the dog performs the serpentine, #3 through #5.

After making the turn, the handler should hoof it down the parallel line, giving the dog his directive to Go On!

Land of the Platypus

I remember doing a seminar series in Perth, Australia. At the time I was reminded that the platypus developed in an ecosystem far removed and untainted by exposure to other organisms. Agility handling in Perth was equally removed and differentiated from the mainstream. I taught them a thing they had never considered. In the very first exercise we did, in the entertainment round, they all ran the entire sequence with the dog on heel side (that’s the left side for you who’ve never done obedience). So I introduced them to the interesting concept that they could actually work their dogs in ambidextrous fashion… on either side. I recall that they were excited by this revolutionary concept, and did quite well with it straight away.

I mention Perth in my discussion of Boise because in the vast expanses of the American West exist ecosystems in the agility community that have their own evolution and differentiation as distinct as the Platypus.

The tough thing about places like Boise is that they have too few trials within a reasonable travel distance every year. If I remember rightly, it’s a six hour drive to Salt Lake City. When they do get to a trial they’re under extraordinary pressure. It’s not like, if you drop a bar, you can say “no worries, I’ll get it next week.”

I do not intend this in the least as a criticism of the Boise agility player. They have a small but awesome community of avid fans. I earnestly believe that they should trust their own local coaches; think outside the box; and learn to be playful (and not so serious) in their approach to agility. It is a game in the park on the weekend with a dog, after all.

Questions comments & impassioned speeches to Bud Houston BudHouston@hughes.net. The Country Dream web store is up and running. www.dogagility.org/newstore. You know… I have five volumes (over 100 pp each) of The Joker’s Notebook available on my web-store at an embarrassingly inexpensive price. These are lesson plans suitable for individual or group classes for teaching dog to work at a distance.

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