Notes to the Agility Instructor

Editor’s Note: I’ve uncovered an old lesson plan I wrote a long time ago to set on my floor next week. Serendipitously I made some detailed observations about the conduct of the class. This was back when I had 150 students a week at Dogwood Training Center. I thought it would be fun to share these notes with you.

I’ve always been a great believer that I do not step out on the training floor without a basic plan. Indeed, I published my lesson plans every week for many years. If you’ve ever actually seen me teach, you’ll find that I’m not much bound by the lesson plan, as though it were a script.

I compare this to a thing I tell my students all the time… “Don’t run the plan, run the dog!” It’s very similar when conducting students through a lesson plan. The lesson plan is an instrument of discovery. The very randomness of its nature will expose areas of weakness that cue my attention and efforts.

We always begin an exercise or sequence with what I call the “entertainment round”… that is, my students can attempt the sequence with the handling of their own choosing. They cannot learn a thing, if I spoon feed them the answers. Part of what I’m trying to teach is for a handler to recognize a problem and to draw on their experience to solve it. Also, if I’m not supplying the answer, I can about guarantee that the cleverness of my students will sometimes offer solutions that I hadn’t even thought of. So I too stand a chance to learn something.

I suppose the downside of the lesson plans that I publish on a regular basis is that they are the future vision of the training product. They don’t really reflect the adaptation of the basic plan, and the learning that goes on beyond the written word. Things that I actually learn are generally incorporated in future lesson plans.

The following are notes taken from a lesson plan from long ago that includes adaptations and teaching points I made along the way, (scrawled notes in the margins).

Notes on Progressive Sending

I engage with my dogs for all obstacles a program of progressive sending. In this lesson plan, we are teaching dogs to go on forward of the handler into the pipe tunnel.

Fundamental to any progressive sending exercise is that a) the dog is sent to the performance, and not dragged, and b) the handler should send from a progressively greater distance. Note that when we engage in such training we are in “dog trainer mode”. That means the handler/trainer should be equipped with a good marker for performance (a clicker should do nicely, however a good verbal marker is just hunky dory); and a reward for the dog, whether that be a food treat or a game with a toy.

When leading a group class you’ll find that the devil is in the details. The instructor should have an eye for basic performance and remind students of the little details that will allow their dogs to succeed in the exercise:

4    A distance send really has nothing to do with standing still. Indeed, slamming on the brakes or slowing dramatically are apt to draw the dog back into handler focus and away from the target obstacle.

4    Flapping one’s arm when sending is a small detail that is apt to draw the dog back into handler focus, and away from the target obstacle.

4    The handler should give the target obstacle all of his focus when sending the dog. That means the handler looks at it, points at it, and moves towards it. Note that the pointing is more significant by the handler’s feet… than the arm and hands. The dog pays close attention to the direction the handler’s feet are facing/pointing.

I encouraged my students to make their sends from as far away as they are comfortable and to progress only modestly to assure that the dog is able to succeed. I had to be very mindful of the handlers who failed to mark the performance or were late in rewarding the dog for the performance (I tell my students “to understanding the timing of the reward all you have to do is count: one-thousand one, one-thousand too … late!). I also had to be on the lookout for students who seemed compelled to get the dog to do a jump or two after the pipe tunnel (and before the marker and reward), or to interject an obedience performance between the performance of the pipe tunnel and the marker and reward. If the dog’s trainer piles on other performances and criteria, then it might very well muddy the waters so far as the dog understanding what he’s being rewarded for.

A favorite quote on new years resolutions!

“ … the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual.”

Back to the Abridged Training Plan

Part of the training plan was this sequence, which required the handler to send the dog out to the dogwalk and layer two jumps while the dog worked the dogwalk away from the handler’s position. The hard part here was not so much the dog doing the dogwalk… but getting the handler to understand the dynamics of a simple send.

The most difficulty I had with this exercise was teaching my students the simple discipline of sending the dog away to a performance. Reread that little bit above in which I suggested that the devil is in the details. The simple discipline of sending the dog away requires that the handler actually give the target obstacle his focus.

And yet in this sequence, the handler is far more apt to turn away from focus on the target obstacle in order to run parallel to the dog’s intended path before the dog is actually upon that path. This problem is exacerbated by the handler who so oversteps the containment line that he pulls back because he’s not trapped behind the jump—twisting his body away—in the very moments he should be in concert with the direction the dog is moving. Better not to overstep the line at all; the line is not your friend.

But remember too that however far forward you step is how far forward you are. You don’t increase the distance of the send by backing up.

The handler should also avoid squaring the dog to the opening jump as though there were any obligation to do so. While I believe in a bit of Kentucky Windage (see discussion below) for the dog working ahead of the handler’s position, the handler should in general account for the direct path that the dog should take from point A and point B and, for the most part, put the dog upon that path.

Note too that taking a lead-out from the dog essentially uses up real estate that might be better used running with the dog and pushing the dog forward. Since the handler’s objective is actually to allow the dog to go forward of his position then the sooner that is accomplished the better. In an exercise like this it’s usually a better plan just to take off running with the dog in order to give the dog every advantage in getting ahead.

Proofing

The performance of the dogwalk at a lateral distance is an advanced proofing exercise of the dog’s bottom contact performance whether it’s a 2o2o or a running contact. In every class with this lesson plan I tell my students that if the dog gives a good bottom performance then it would be a good idea for the handler/dog trainer to step in (yes, crossing the containment line) to reward the dog. And yet, less than 10% of my students actually complied with this simple dog training advice. No, I didn’t nag; but I made the mental note for each.

Of course we saw a fair number of dogs that missed the down contact, showing proof that they haven’t been trained to nor do they completely understand the bottom contact performance.

Handling

Inasmuch as I required my students to honor the containment line for the final two jumps as for the rest of the exercise; I was consistently called upon to describe the handling of the dog exiting from the pipe tunnel. It was remarkable how many dogs ran by jump #4 because of some small error on the handler’s part. Indeed, a number of dogs successfully got to jump #4 even though their handlers committed the same sort of errors as the handlers whose dogs did not. That just proves the old saying… “It is better to be lucky, than good. “

Redirecting the dog out of a pipe tunnel is a simple discipline. It is a discipline nonetheless. The handler should acknowledge that the pipe tunnel is a cannon and it is aiming somewhere. If it is not aiming in the direction of the course, then the handler should take whatever handling action that is appropriate.

In this sequence the best handling option is probably a Front Cross. I don’t like a Blind Cross in the presence of an option. An option is an obstacle that makes more sense to the dog than the one that the judge actually numbered. Ever seen one of those? We use the Front Cross because of the wonderful counter-rotation of the handler’s body is so compelling to the dog.

In the picture above I illustrate how I do a Front Cross in this scenario. After a modest send on to the tunnel I wheel about as though addressing the dummy jump alongside jump #4. Meanwhile I look back over my shoulder at the exit of the tunnel. The very instant that I see the dog’s nose, I will whip into the Front Cross, counter-rotating quite literally 360 degrees to draw the dog around for the approach to jump #6.

Some of my students actually used a Front Cross… which failed to get the dog to the #4 jump. In each case, the dog was inside the tunnel while the handler was engrossed in his wonderful counter-rotation. Okay… It just can’t be so compelling if the dog doesn’t actually see it. So, the significance of waiting to see the dog’s nose before actually beginning the rotation, is that that is the very instant that the dog sees the handler.

A point I continue to make about timing is that it has nothing to do with time at all. Timing is about physical cues… where things are in space.

Not to belabor this rather simple handling exercise… I also want to draw your attention to a small detail that some handler’s fail to completely grasp or understand. Prior to beginning the Front Cross I actually turn and move in the same direction the dog will be moving as he comes out of the pipe tunnel. Some handlers will actually plant themselves near the exit of the pipe tunnel and face back into the tunnel as the dog emerges. I want to avoid this handling on two accounts:

  1. By facing back toward the dog I’ve used up 180 degrees of rotation that I could be using to help sell the turn to the dog. I save up as much rotation as I possibly can for the moment the dog emerges from the tunnel.
  2. It’s hard to move when facing the wrong direction. While the dog is in the tunnel I actually want to put as much distance between me and the dog as I can. The Front Cross is always a messier affair if I’m planted in the dog’s way and embroiled in his movement. The dog turns when the handler turns, not where the handler turns. I will find opportunities over and over again to demonstrate to my students that a ten foot or twelve foot separation between dog and handler almost always leads to a more elegant Front Cross[1].

This discussion is continued tomorrow.

Jokers Notebook #3

This issue features a four week distance training program for dog agility, complete with weekly league play games. This notebook is a ready resource for the dog agility enthusiast who is intent on a quality distance training program and for instructors who will provide distance training for motivated students of the game.

121 pp.

This work furthers the distance training originally included in the “Go The Distance” training workbook, and updates those methods for more up-to-date training and handling trends.

The Jokers Notebook is the natural progression and evolutions of Bud Houston’s distance training originally published as Go the Distance. These lesson plans and exercises are suitable for classroom instruction or back yard training by the intrepid enthusiast of dog agility.

Jokers Notebook #3 is an electronic book for download only. Retail Price: $14.00; Our Price: $10.00; You Save $4.00!

Find it here:
http://www.dogagility.org/Newstore/index.cfm?fuseaction=category.display&category_ID=7

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Questions comments & impassioned speeches to Bud Houston Houston.Bud@gmail.com. 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.


[1] This really calls for a discussion: Is handling a manipulation or a means or directing the dog? Messy and ham-handed handling tends to be too manipulative and controlling. Elegant and inspired handling nearly always shows evidence of trust in the dog, and isn’t the least intrusive. I promise to speak on the subject a bit before too long.

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