It is my opinion that distance training for an agility dog is incomplete until the dog knows “Left” and “Right”.
So far our homework has focused on teaching the dog to work independently at a distance. That’s a great start. But the handler must have the capacity to indicate the direction of performance.
To hazard a guess as to the percentage of agility dogs that today know “Left” and “Right”… I would say less than 10% and reckon that I am being generous in that estimation. This low percentage is not the fault of any dog. It is the fault of the dog’s trainer.
Approaching this training objective yields two positive results: building a distance dog, and making you a superb dog trainer.
The first Introduction to “Left” and “Right” I ever published was an appendix footnote in Go the Distance entitled “Linda’s Kibble Toss.” I will credit Linda Mecklenburg with this very basic introduction.
This is a free-shaping approach. The handler sits in front of the dog and utters the verb “Right”! The dog of course has no idea what the word means and may offer a series of behaviors while seeking out what the handler wants. Any indication to the dog’s right… will be marked and rewarded by his trainer (tossing a bit of kibble).
Before too long the trainer will want to draw the dog into the “Right” turn. This is essentially a luring action, drawing the dog into a spin. Please note that Right is always a clockwise movement. The trainer may not be too fixed or dependent on the luring motion although the hand and arm signal can be a supplemental cue to the dog. Remember that the objective is to teach the dog a verbal command.
The video below shows a point in training in which physical cues are extinguished:
Adding a “Left” Command
We started with “Right” and only “Right” to avoid the complication of making the dog try to grasp two new complicated skills at the same time. This may or may not be right. Regardless, it’s how I approach this training.
When introducing “Left”, the trainer goes right back to the free-shaping step just as we did when we introduced the “Right” command. It looks something like this:
Note that most of my training with a young dog is meal-time training. As I feed my dogs twice a day it allows me to be routine and structured in any training objective. And it allows me to train a dog that is keen and clever (coinciding with meal-time, of course).
Putting together the Mix of “Left” and “Right”
When we put both “Left” and “Right” into the same training session the dog’s trainer is obligated to keep statistics. The dog has learned to spin both Left and Right; but now we give a choice with only the verbal command. Initially the dog will be right just about 50% of the time. But you will become fascinated and thrilled as the statistic begins to rise above 50%!
Putting Left and Right on Agility Equipment
Ultimately we want more than a dog that faces us and spins either left and right, as impressive as that is by itself, our objective is to put those directionals onto the agility field. The following recording shows the introduction of directional commands in relationship to the agility jump.
Note in the video that in introducing the turning commands on a jump I always put myself on the side away from the turn. A dog turns most naturally toward the handler. So, I wanted to test the power of the verbal directional without regard to my relative position.
Clearly we are missing dozens of training sessions that didn’t actually get recorded. Teaching the dog to turn a specific direction on a verbal command is a deliberate process that takes time and patience and humor. The reward for this teaching is having the capacity to give the dog a cue to turn on a verbal cue and not have to always “handle” the dog into every turn.
I already shared this recording with you when we were talking about “Named Obstacle” training. Now that we look back at it you should appreciate how absolute directionals are a constant feature of dog training and help us test other skills while working the dog at a distance:
This is an ongoing series intended as homework for Canine Manners distance seminar students; March 20 and 21 2017 in Broken Arrow, OK, (and others interested in training great distance skills who might visit these pages).
Questions comments & impassioned speeches to Bud Houston Houston.Bud@gmail.com. The web store is up and running. www.dogagility.org/newstore. You’ll find in the web store The Joker’s Notebook, an invaluable reference for teaching an agility dog (and his handler) to work a distance apart.