Secret Weapon for Distance Work

We can’t really divorce working a dog from a distance from “handling”. Handling of course is what the human member of the agility team does to communicate the order and direction of performance on the agility course. It is the verbalization of that handler ; it is how the handler cavorts in physical movement in his dance with the dog.

Imagine a handler movement, then, that creates acceleration in the dog and separation between dog and handler. Imagine a handler movement that is considerably more powerful and dynamic than a flat-footed send! That movement is rightfully the handler’s secret weapon for distance work.


The Tandem Turn

I’ll present the YouTube recording first; and then a comprehensive (long-winded) discussion.

CedarsTandemTurn ~

A Tandem Turn is a cross behind the dog on the dismount of an obstacle (i.e. landing side of a jump) or on the flat. It’s important to differentiate the Tandem from the Back Cross, which is a cross behind the dog on the approach to an obstacle.

We rely on the premise that our dogs already understand how we move. So in the Tandem we turn towards the dog, distinctly and boldly. The dog, understanding our movement should make the turn in this new direction although the turn is toward his side.


This illustration shows the “counter-arm” Tandem. As the dog comes up over the jump the handler brings up his opposite arm, pointing out in the direction of the turn.

Of course, the turn is more than just an arm signal. At the same time the handler is rotating his body, turning, and moving in the direction of the turn. It’s also a good idea to develop a verbal command to coincide with all of these other cues.

Note that the handler’s position should be only slightly forward of the dog. The handler must be ahead enough for the dog to actually see the cues for the turn, while at the same time not so far ahead that the handler can’t step behind the dog.

There is a bit of a controversy with the Tandem Turn, that is, which arm should be used to signal the turn. It’s reported that Susan Garret once called the “counter-arm” the “evil-Ohio-arm,” and advocates using only the inside arm. Okay, “inside” arm sounds kind of obtuse, something that might belong to a Martian. To simplify, the “inside” arm is the arm nearer to the dog.

The inside-arm Tandem was originally shown to me by a lady from Los Angeles (Barbara Mah.) I thought it looked so silly that for a long time I called in the “La La” turn.


However, I discovered that one of my dogs, who I’d been struggling for over a year to teach the off-arm Tandem, understood the “inside” arm immediately. He got it the first time he saw it, and made the turn perfectly. So, I no longer call it the La La turn. This is now the Inside Arm Tandem.

All the other elements of the turn are the same. The handler should rotate his body, turn the corner, and move in the direction of the turn.

Another significant difference between the counter-arm and inside-arm presentations is that the off-arm signal becomes the new lead hand at the moment of the signal. When using the inside-arm, the handler needs to switch to the opposite arm immediately after making the signal with the inside arm. He also has to remember to rotate his body. One thing that using the off-arm does, it forces the handler to rotate his shoulders. The inside-arm signal doesn’t do that.

Oh, as to the controversy about which arm to use. I like to operate under the assumption that we’ll use the arm that our dog implicitly understands. There are no “one size fits all” solutions in agility. The Tandem Turn should always be learned with experimentation.


In fact, with some dogs respond to both signals, but give a different response to each. This illustration shows a scenario in which the turn is still away from the handler’s position, but the true course is the gentler path up to jump #2.

I would always use the inside-arm Tandem in this situation. I have a dog (Bogie) who takes the off-arm as a “hard and deep” instruction. He’d flip back to jump #3, giving jump #2 a pass. He’d interpret the inside-arm Tandem as a gentler turn, and would be, properly, directed to jump #2.

These aren’t hard and fast rules of the performance. The handler should experiment with both arms and understand the dog’s response to each. Know thy dog.


The technical Tandem can be used on the dismount from technical obstacles, on the exit of a tunnel. The biggest danger is that the handler’s turn mightn’t have enough “push” to get the dog away before turning back. A Tandem is only successful when the dog believes in the turn. It must be convincing, and compelling.


Oh, one final detail worth mentioning. The Tandem Turn “creates” distance. It’s a great movement to use to open up the real estate between dog and handler. In this illustration the handler is working parallel to the dog over the first two jumps with a bit of lateral distance. At the “corner” the handler surges into the turn showing the arm signal for the turn.

To the dog’s point of view the handler is making the turn; and the dog frankly won’t know until after jump #3 that the handler did not attend. It doesn’t matter. The dog should work faithfully in a path parallel to the handler to get to jump #4, even at a substantial distance.

Some dogs don’t immediately “get it.” They’ll turn towards the handler, rather than in the direction of the turn. Sometimes this is due to an error in the handler’s motion. But more often, it’s a plain fact that the dog turns most naturally in the direction of the handler.

For a dog like this you should take exceptional training measures. You’re in luck if the dog is toy or ball motivated. The handler can shape the turn away by throwing the toy or ball at the corner of the turn. This should be repeated, over an over, until the dog is taking the movement of the arm as a cue, even before seeing the toy go whizzing by his nose.

Next the handler will approach the turn and pretend to throw the toy. But immediately after the dog makes the turn the handler should throw the toy. The handler/trainer has made a transition from “lure” to “reward,” a very important concept in dog training. Just because a dog understands the turn in one direction, that doesn’t mean he understands it in the opposite direction. Both turns should be trained repeatedly. Don’t forget to experiment with both the off-arm signal and the inside-arm signal.

Errors in the Tandem

This is a variation of the Tandem that I call the “New Jersey Left,” or the “Whiplash Turn.” Have you ever driven a car in New Jersey? In order to turn left you actually have to turn right three times. What’s that about?


Sure, it gets the job done. The handler changes lead hands and goes on without mishap. The bad part of this movement is that it chews up a minimum of about three seconds without actually going anywhere. You can see people do the New Jersey Left in competition all the time. It’s really quite funny.

Sometimes the New Jersey left is done intentionally. Sometimes it’s done by accident. Refer to the same drawing, above. What the handler is doing is picking up his right arm, the lead hand change used to signal the dog into the turn. The problem is that the arm is pointing the wrong direction. Sometimes the handler will actually lean in the opposite direction of the turn, or take a little sidestep that way, and then push into the turn. Of course by this time the dog has already turned in the wrong direction.

The only fix for this is to demonstrate how people turn corners. You move to the corner, and then you turn and go in the direction of the corner. What you don’t do is flap in the opposite direction, or lean first in the opposite direction. Remember, dogs already understand how we move. That includes how we turn corners. The handler, in a Tandem Turn, should turn the corner the very same way he’s been turning corners his entire life.


In this sequence the handler steps in front of the dog, intruding on the dog’s path, turning the dog more sharply than intended. This is not a Tandem Turn. The handler isn’t in position to do anything about it. The Tandem is a cross “behind” the dog. If there’s any question of anatomy, the “behind” is the bit with the tail, a difficult concept for those who own Aussies or Corgis.

In this sequence the dog has taken the off course jump. The Tandem Turn tends to go wide in the presence of an “option” or a “trap.”


This might be saved first of all by showing a very aggressive rotation of the handler’s shoulders. In the illustration the handler is using an inside-arm Tandem. It might be better to use the off-arm so that the turn goes hard and deep.

The real problem here is the selection of movements. On the approach the handler probably should plan on a Back Cross rather than a Tandem. One of the attributes of a back cross is a tightened turn on the landing side of the jump. This is an instance in which a tightened turn might be desirable.

Note that there are dogs that hate the Tandem Turn. On a percentage basis they are relatively few. But if a dog hates the Tandem, the handler should be advised to find another answer. You can tell when a dog hates it. The dog will come to a complete stop or otherwise simply shut down. It’s never the handler’s objective to shut down the dog.

When teaching the dog the Tandem a handler who consistently steps in front of the dog rather than behind the dog may shut the dog down. Great care should be taken to keep the handler from doing this to the dog.

The Tandem Turn is fast dog handing. The handler is mostly behind and pushing.

Notes Aside

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).

I am chagrined to realize that this comprehensive discussion of the distance handler’s “secret weapon” was not included in the Jokers Notebook issue #0. Consequently I’ve included the full text in this Blog. And I will edit issue #0 to include this discussion. [The text was written so long ago that I was still using CorelDraw to illustrate my lessons for agility.]

This topic is expanded and continued tomorrow!

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3 Responses to “Secret Weapon for Distance Work”

  1. James D. Porterfield Says:

    Either you are becoming a more lucid, better writer (after all these years) or I’m becoming a better reader. I no longer do agility, but I enjoy somewhat keeping up on what’s going on.

    • budhouston Says:

      Thanks Jim. Sorry to hear you’ve retired. The distance topic should be of interest to you… should you decide to make a return to the game.

      • James D. Porterfield Says:

        Before I retired from agility, my bc and I had (necessarily) pretty good distance skills–distant contacts were a problem. He got into AKC excellent. He was a delightful, serious prospect. (When he Q’d, it was always a first placement–jumping 26″.) What has surprised me is how quickly skills deteriorate without practice or maintenance.

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