Archive for June, 2019

Black Box Course Design

June 16, 2019

I had a course design discussion with an associate not too long ago. Our conversation had mostly to do with methodology for designing courses. The course designer always begins with a completely blank slate or tabula rasa, an awesome and sometimes intimidating challenge.

Once you get a start, of course you have foundation for nesting and variations on a theme. But getting a start really can be the hard part.

Anyway, I gave her an idea or two about how to get the creative juices flowing and in a timely manner lay out a design that is interesting, and fun, and challenging. I left off our study by wishing her luck. And I told her… “remind me some day to tell you about the Black Box method.”

She wrote back directly and was intrigued by the Black Box.

This is a unique opportunity to kill several birds with the same stone. I can answer her question; publish to my blog; and get a course designed that I will use next month.

Truth be Told

I’m going to take inspiration from an existing course that especially inspires or fascinates me. It might be unkind to suggest that I’m going to steal someone else’s course concept. I’m going to use it as a beginning point. And I will repurpose it and make it uniquely new.

It’s easy to camouflage what you borrow, if you’re feeling slightly guilty. I prefer to send a note to the original artist and give them kudos and tell them OBTW I’m going to use your course concept. Usually they are gratified by having their genius acknowledged.

FOR THIS TUTORIAL I went out to a website called and just flipped pages until I found something that grabbed me. has a provision for contacting the original designer to get permission to download the course map.

I found a course designed by USDAA judge Tami McClung that was played as a Team Standard course on June 24, 2006.


What drew me to this course was the meandering nature of the course from side to side. If a sequence undulates, in serpentine fashion, the handler is able to work the course without having to race the dog. These days we see a lot of severe straight lines running back ‘n forth the length of the floor.

I’m charged with designing a course for a 60′ x 90’ space, for play in the National Dog Agility League. There appears to be ample room for Tami McClung’s course North & South. But side to side I will have to make accommodations. I hope to be faithful to the challenges presented on this course. Tami debriefed the course, pointing out the wrong course options. My ambition is to preserve those challenges.


Because of the compression from the sides there wasn’t room for the opening sequence to be identical. A single jump did the duty of the #4 and #6 jumps on Tami’s original course. This accommodation sacrificed the first wrong course option from Tami’s debriefing.

And after jump #8, there was no room for a pipe tunnel on the right-side wall.


I’ve turned on the option to show path lengths between obstacles. When I design courses for the NDAL I like to see about 20′ for transitional distances between obstacles. I’m a little nervous about the short transitions to the A-frame, and on the dismount of the A-frame.

I’ve numbered this course through the dogwalk. The smaller space has depressed the number count for this course. But, I’m not done yet.


There’s no collapsed tunnel at the back of the ring. Tami McClung’s course was designed something like 14 years ago, while the USDAA still used the chute. These days the collapsed tunnel is just about extinct. We are happy to get rid of it… and there wasn’t room anyway.

I’ve replaced the #13 jump with a pipe tunnel. This introduces a wrong course option after jump #9, and makes up for losing the wrong course option after jump #14 in Tami’s original course.

On the dismount of the dogwalk a bit of sequencing has been added that will lift the obstacle count for the course. This change also breaks up that long line that finished the original course.

The A-frame has been nudged a bit to open up the transitional distances on approach and dismount. Moving the A-frame makes the A-frame a more compelling option after the #5 pipe tunnel; one of the wrong-course options from Tami’s original course.

Some of the jumps have wings removed. While I like the visual presentation of a winged jump, sometimes those wings create both visual clutter and complications for the handler’s path.


Finishing Touches

This course has been rotated 90º. My personal preference in designing courses is for the long ends of a course to go left and right. I worked designing this course longways up & down because I was constantly referring to the original course.

Another change, which might be kind of jarring, is that the course has been flipped or mirrored. This might be a bit sneaky, obscuring the notion that you’ve purloined somebody else’s course concept. But my motivation was a bit more pedestrian. The dogwalk was on the other side of the floor last month; and I wanted it to be completely repositioned.

On my course map I have written “with apology to Tami McClung”. You will see these notes of apology on my courses from time to time. These notes invariably mean that I have Black Boxed a course that fascinated or intrigued me.



Questions comments & impassioned speeches to Bud Houston Visit our web store: You’ll find in the web store The Jokers Notebook, a series of comprehensive training workbooks intended to teach a dog powerful skills of independent performance. –

The Exploding Pinwheel

June 13, 2019

The dog training objective in this exercise is to teach the dog to take ownership of the pinwheel, as though it were a single obstacle with multiple elements, rather like the weave poles. The exercise, and the diligent practice of doing the exercise, has several other benefits:

  • The dog will adopt a powerful obstacle focus for jumps and hurdles;
  • Teach and reinforce a powerful directional command: “Go On!”
  • The dog will learn to work independently at a distance from his handler;
  • The pinwheel becomes an element in competition that allows the handler to gain advantage in field position.

“Exploding” pinwheel possibly conjures an image of wings and jump bars flying everywhere as if blown up dynamite. Just to settle down the imagery… exploding means in this context that the pinwheel gradually expands away from a center position.

The Basic Set


We begin with a pinwheel drawn tight and close together. When making this introduction the bars must be kept very low so that it is safe for the big and fast dogs. As in all progressive exercises the steps should be small and incremental to ensure that the dog continues to succeed.

The handler will work the dog out in a clockwise direction, then stop to praise and reward the dog, and then resume in the anti-clockwise direction and then again praise and reward the dog.

As a basic objective is to teach the “Go On!” directional, the dog trainer should give that verbal cue to keep working. Rather than saying “jump – jump – jump – jump”… after the initial command to jump simply to tell the dog “Go on! Go On!”

The dog being unsuccessful in a training exercise is as important to our training method as is the dog being successful. When the dog is successful, he gets praise and reward. When the dog does not succeed, he is denied both praise and reward. We rely on the cleverness of the dog to sort out what he must do when the handler says a certain word, and holds his body thusly, to earn that reward.



As the pinwheel explodes to a greater extent the focus of the handler becomes more important. For the purpose of this discussion the handler’s focus is indicated by what is he looking at, what he is pointing at, what he is facing. The focus of the handler must agree with the focus of the dog.

The extent to which the pinwheel gets bigger depends on success. If the dog “gets it”… next time you make it a bit bigger.

Not every session will be perfect. That is the nature of dog training.

Though While the basic four-sided pinwheel was the training vehicle, the performance skills learned by the dog apply to jumping sequences with more jumps, occupying considerably more real estate. A basic objective from the beginning was to teach the dog to seek out jumps and get over them without requiring the handler to run in and micro-manage the simple performance of each jump.


A proofing exercise, as in the video above, gives important closure to the introduction of the exercise. Be very clear though, that this is a skill that needs refreshment and reinforcement over time.


The proofing exercise was conducted on our NDAL league course in May, 2019. All of our league courses suggest opportunities for very basic training objectives.

Note that I do this training with young dogs. I am convinced that training in the first year of a dog’s life cements the dog’s understanding of performance and behavior.

I have in my library a hundred or more recordings of dogs training with this exercise. I started doing this training and developing methodology roughly 20 years ago with my old boy Bogie. I really miss my boy and appreciate everything that he taught me.

The recordings selected here are intended to provide a concise overview of the methodology.

Something Fun

Phoenix Chasing Kory 1.wmv


Playful Pinwheels ~ Thinking Outside the Box

Editor’s Note:

I want to share with you something I wrote more than ten years ago. I wrote this before I was afflicted with arthritis. You’ll note a bit of disdain for moving “badly” as though it were a matter of sloth, rather than a physical limitation. In any case, it should be a good read for you who will play the game at a full run.  

While it’s true that I practice an “own the pinwheel” kind of training with my dogs, when push comes to shove I will reserve moving badly for some class that absolutely demands it. Think Gamblers, for example. In routine course work however I will endeavor to move in a way that inspires the dog and ensures that he is well directed.

I’ve written a great deal about pinwheels over the years. There’s something about a pinwheel that inspires the handler to move like an old musty stump in the middle of a swamp. Moving badly is good training… but it is not good handling.

The conundrum is ever that the dog’s path is this big robust thing while the handler’s path is more diminutive and restrained. Even a slow handler can outrun a fast dog in a pinwheel. The real painful match is when a handler is working a dog of moderate speed and handler is so completely defined by the inner limits of the pinwheel that the dog gets no sense of excitement or electricity at all from the handler. Just between you and me and the wall, if your dog isn’t one of those ballistic self starting everything-at-top-speed kind of dogs, then handling him as if he were is an error.

Blind Cross as a Pinwheel Movement


The trick in a pinwheel is to find a way to move. That means more real estate. Frankly there’s only so much real estate inside the pinwheel. But if I think outside the box, there’s plenty of new real estate for handler movement. In this first playful attack on the pinwheel I have the handler step outside the box in the transition between jumps #4 and #5 using a Blind Cross to race the dog to the outside. The transition and the moment of the Blind Cross are indicated in this illustration by the red colored paths for dog and handler.

Tandem Turn as a Pinwheel Movement


Another important skill in a pinwheel is the Tandem Turn. The Tandem is a cross behind the dog on the dismount of an obstacle or on the flat.

To play with this the handler will approach jumps #2 and #3 with dog on right, crossing behind the dog into the Tandem on the landing side of jump #3. Note that if the handler intends a Tandem Turn then he should endeavor to arrive at the jump at the same instant of the dog. The Tandem tends to create a wide sweeping turn in the dog’s path and accelerates the dog’s movement. These are perfect attributes for a pinwheel. Though you might get into a bit of trouble with it if you have an Afghan Hound or a leggy Border Collie.

Using All of Our Pinwheel Tools


Both tools, the Blind Cross and the Tandem Turn can be applied to the same pinwheel. In this illustration the handler executes the Blind Cross in the transition from jump #3 to jump #4 and then promptly uses a Tandem Turn to step back into the box after jump #4. The Blind Cross is indicated by the red paths for dog and handler; the Tandem Turn is indicated by the green paths for dog and handler.

This is an interesting handling choice that requires a speed change. The handler begins with slow dog handling (forward and pulling) into the Blind Cross; and then abruptly transitions to fast dog handling (behind and pushing).

Note that in the conduct of the Tandem Turn the handler actually wants to arrive at the jump at the same instant as the dog. We might argue that a Front Cross would be better than a Blind Cross because the Blind Cross is a racing movement and might make the handler arrive at the jump prematurely. However this is really a “know thy dog” condition. If the dog slips forward of the handler prematurely out of a Front Cross then the handler is behind the dog at the turning jump and so a Blind Cross would have been a better choice of movement.



Questions comments & impassioned speeches to Bud Houston Visit our web store: You’ll find in the web store The Jokers Notebook, a series of comprehensive training workbooks intended to teach a dog powerful skills of independent performance.

Named Obstacle Discrimination

June 10, 2019

You know, I remember the first time I ever saw a tunnel under an A-frame. It was at the USDAA Nationals in Houston Texas in 1993 on a course designed by Kenneth Tatsch. My boy, Winston the Wonder Dog, took the wrong-course obstacle. <sigh>

I went home determined to solve the riddle of to the “obstacle discrimination”. And frankly, I studied and developed some very reliable handling solutions.

At the end of the day, turns out, it shouldn’t be a matter of handling at all. What if I were to actually teach my dog the names of the obstacles so I didn’t have to handle at all? Instead, I could just give my dog the information and trust in training.

Dog Training Riddle

Having arrived at the wild notion that we will teach the dog the names of the obstacles the dog trainer has to figure out the methodology.

First the Tunnel


We start with the tunnel with the handler blocking approach the A-frame. Give a strong “Tunnel” command and release the dog. Praise and reward, so long as the dog goes in the tunnel.


In very small incremental steps the handler begins each rep slightly farther from the tunnel. This takes the handler out of a blocking position. The training will rely on the very basic training principle; the dog gets praised and rewarded when he gets it right. But when the dog gets it wrong the trainer very neutrally denies both praise and reward.

While the drawings above are nice and neat, I would be remiss not to share some of the painful beginnings of the dog training journey. It’s not all perfect and pretty, to be sure. Keep statistics. Over time the numbers will lift your spirits.

The following video comes from meal-time training.

This video is a bit of a training mix. It illustrates a dogged training approach to our Named obstacle discrimination journey.

Move on to the A-frame


After fairly mastering the tunnel, the same method needs to be applied to the A‑frame. Initially the handler positions the dog directly in front of the A-frame while taking a blocking position on the tunnel.


Again, very gradually move back the starting position so that the tunnel is exposed as a wrong-course option. Be mindful that you only praise and reward successful tries.

Mixing and Random Alternating

Up to a point you concentrate on one obstacle or another. The repetition gives immediate reinforcement. But the dog might be cleverly extracting reward from her trainer. So, before too long you have to ask the question… do you know what it is I’m asking for.


This is a good time to begin keeping statistics on rate of success. You know that if you’re working around the 50% mark you should probably go back to a previous step for remediation. But if that number rises, you know you’re on the right track.

This exercise is a bit like throwing horse shoes. We introduce the approach to the A-frame/tunnel with a jump to establish movement. And then we ask the question… “do you know what I’m asking you to do?”

Increasing Distance

Don’t be too happy and content with simple tests of your training. What you really want to do when training Named Obstacle Discrimination is to test the skill from a fair distance. The whole point of the training was to have confidence in your dog’s understanding of which obstacle to take without the handler being in the middle of the picture micro-managing that performance.


What I would like to do here is stay behind the dotted line while my dog works forward. From a fair distance, I can ask the question… “do you know what I’m asking?”

This exercise has a couple prerequisite skills… notably, left and right.

While Cedar had a successful workout, demonstrated by the video, I am very aware that skills like this need constant reinforcement and refreshment.

Editor’s Note: There were several other recordings of this training series. To present them here would have dragged the story down a bit with the repetitive nature of dog training. That being said, look at these pictures and videos as an overview. It is worthwhile to note, however, that the entire training endeavor took less than three weeks with daily practice.


This was an NDAL league play game back in August of 2015. It’s a distance gamble kind of game. The dog earns bonus points for working the dog at a distance. Obviously, this demands proofing of “Named Obstacle” discrimination.

My boy Kory had a pretty good showing. And I feel no embarrassment that I designed a game for league play that tests a skill that I take pains to teach my dogs.

In retrospect, I’m amazed that Kory could hear my commands with all the barking (my other dogs) in the background.



Questions comments & impassioned speeches to Bud Houston Visit our web store: You’ll find in the web store The Jokers Notebook, a series of comprehensive training workbooks intended to teach a dog powerful skills of independent performance.

Progressive Sending ~ Exploding Line of Jumps

June 9, 2019

An important early training objective with an agility dog in training is to create powerful obstacle focus for a winged hurdle, commonly called a “Jump”.

To tell the truth the Jump is often overlooked in training. You’ll see novice dogs in competition running around jumps but eagerly veering off-path to get into a pipe tunnel, or park themselves on a contact obstacle. A dog will go where they have a high reward association.

But we are not going to over-look the jump.

In the illustrations I’ve drawn here the young dog is introduced to the “Go On” command using Hoops (an obstacle notably used by NADAC in competition). My expectation is to begin the training with a very young dog… young enough to learn, but not old enough to be jumping. Later we’ll make the transition to jumps with displaceable bars.


The moment you add a second Hoop… you are officially doing “sequencing” with your dog. This is actually an important introduction for the dog to the idea that performances will be a chain of events.

We graduate to two Hoops. The handler begins near to the seconds hoop before starting the dog. Each repetition the handler will start slightly farther back, until the dog is sending forward through both hoops while the handler stays behind.


We start with the hoops placed very close together. In this drawing the hoops are only 3′ apart. Initially the handler will leave the dog on a stay and lead out nearly to the #3 hoop before starting.



Only gradually the handler moves back toward the front of the line of hoops to send the dog forward.

You’ll notice in the video that our dog is very young and not every send has a successful conclusion. The basic training tool is to praise and reward when the dog gets it… a being very neutral, deny praise and reward when the dog does not.

From time to time you might use a “framing” obstacle at the end of the line of hoops or jumps. This is a dandy opportunity to accustom your dog to a progressive send into a pipe tunnel, for example.


Only gradually the hoops should moved apart. And each time they are moved apart the handler will begin forward of the dog near the final hoop. And in each successive repetition the handler will move back down the line until he can make the send from behind the first hoop.

The only reason we’ve been using Hoops is that we were working with a very young dog. If you begin this with training a dog that is already grown and steady, you might begin with jumps. In any case, ta some point, the trainer will have to make a transition from Hoops to Jumps.


Don’t lose sight of methodology. When the basic exercise changes the handler will begin forward of the dog, and only gradually move back toward the front of the line of jumps to send the dog forward.

In a few short months the exercise needs more and more room. That was the intention from the beginning. We want to teach the dog powerful obstacle focus for jumps and give the dog permission to go forward of the handler in the performance.

While we have not in this forum shared every grizzly moment of training, we’ve shown just enough to demonstrate that it is a continuity and a discipline.

In this video the dog trainer was clearly happy with his dog pleased with himself for his work. keep in mind that this is a basic skill that needs to be refreshed over the dog’s active career in agility.


This blog post is dedicated to my small but enthusiastic Beginners class (Tuesday nights!). I’ve described this training exercise to them. A far better training tool is to provide them with pictures.

Dog Trainer

While engaged in this training the handler should exercise very basic dog training discipline.

  1. Focus on that thing you’re teaching:  Go On! This means that the dog should continue working forward.
  2. Have a good marker for performance. Use a clicker! Or, give a good verbal marker… “What a good boy!”
  3. Always reward a successful performance. This could be a food reward and it might be a game with a toy.
  4. If the dog fails you should back down on the escalation of the exercise. This might mean the hoops should be closer together; or the handler’s starting position should be farther forward.

Training Notes

  • The handler does the most significant “pointing” with his toes. When sending the dog straight away the handler should keep his toes pointed in the direction of the end obstacle. The most common error in these exercises will be the handler who not only turns in the wrong direction as the dog moves away, but actually moves at an angle away from the dog’s path.
  • The objective of the exercise described here is to teach the dog “Go On”, which means to continue working in the same direction. USE THE COMMAND to condition the dog to its meaning. the handler can’t teach the command to the dog if he doesn’t actually use it.
  • Discourage the use of an obedience command after successful completion of the sequence. This introduces a basic confusion in the dog’s mind. What is the reward for, doing the sequence, or responding to a recall?
  • the handler should begin with the dog on side (either side) facing in the direction of the send. The handler might take one or two steps only to straighten the line. As soon as possible the dog must be allowed to move forward. It’s a big error to run forward of the dog, and then slam on the brakes expecting the dog to continue working.



Questions comments & impassioned speeches to Bud Houston Visit our web store: You’ll find in the web store The Jokers Notebook, a series of comprehensive training workbooks intended to teach a dog powerful skills of independent performance.

More Lateral Distance Skills

June 8, 2019

I’m working at rebuilding the Joker’s Notebook. The Notebook is a comprehensive reference for teaching an agility dog to work at a distance without micromanagement.

The Notebook contains a trove of methodologies I’ve designed and documented over three decades. I’d like to improve the Notebook using video to demonstrate the various methods. Most people are visual learners anyway. If I get the design right; the reader won’t have to translate my writing… they’ll have pictures[1].

The organization of the Joker’s Notebook foundation issue needs a central checklist of important foundation skills. That checklist will include links to all of the supporting videos, documentation, and discussion.

I’m faced with a technology issue. Out of my blog the video links spawn to YouTube. The PDF for the finished document should have embedded videos that do not require internet access. I’m studying how to do that. Bear with.

In the next few months I will be organizing material for the Foundation issue right here in my blog. Pardon me if I focus on skills and exercises for my Beginner students. They need both direction and clarity.


Lateral on A-frame

In all lateral distance training the basic methodology is for the handler to work farther and farther from the dog at a lateral distance. This video shows our boy Phoenix getting a good workout with the A-frame.

Marsha’s criteria required Phoenix to hold a finish position until released, even as she moved. She was consistent in holding to that objective.


Lateral on dogwalk

In these sequences Marsha is working with two of our dogs, Katniss and Phoenix.

An interesting riddle when doing work with the dogwalk is to find a “flow” or sequence that introduces a square approach to the dogwalk allowing the handler to establish and hold a lateral path at a distance.


End Notes

In the introduction to this topic ( I closed the discussion with this cryptic sentence:

It’s worth noting that Kory was trained to his independent performance skills.

It strikes me that I avoided stating the obvious. The agility skills that we desire in our dogs have to be taught. That means the dog’s trainer must intentionally establish a training goal and then define methodology accomplish the goal.

And then the hard part… the trainer must to go out and do the work, with premeditation, methodology and criteria, and patience and humor. It’s not really very hard work, giving a dog five minutes a day. It’s a small chore that needs your discipline and commitment.

I’ve taken to saying a rude but honest thing to my few clients and students these days. I say; If you want your dog to have this skill, you have to do the training. If you don’t do the training your dog will not own the skill, and you won’t deserve for your dog to own it.



Questions comments & impassioned speeches to Bud Houston Visit our web store: You’ll find in the web store The Jokers Notebook, a series of comprehensive training workbooks intended to teach a dog powerful skills of independent performance.

[1] On the down side, in some of the video’s I’ve taken over the years I might be in my morning robe or bed-clothes, having dragged myself down to feed and train my dogs while still having my morning coffee.


Teaching Lateral Distance Skills

June 6, 2019

You know in dog agility “Distance Work” is really a misnomer and a miscomprehension. You seek in your training to teach independent performance. That means that the dog knows how to do an obstacle without the fussy-fussy micromanagement of the handler.

An important skill for the dog to learn is the performance of the technical obstacles while the handler works at a significant lateral distance.

For the sake of clarity and definition, the “technical obstacles” are the contacts and the weave poles.

Lateral Training for the Teeter

The teeter can be a formidable obstacle to teach a dog to understand without the handler getting all tangled up in the context of presentation and performance. Overcoming initial fear of movement and clatter can be a notorious complication to the training objective.

In all lateral distance training the basic methodology is for the handler to work farther and farther from the dog at a lateral distance.

An Intro Example

In this YouTube video a young dog is introduced to the training steps. Note that this video is not full of instant success. That’s not the way it works in the real world (unless the dog is a mutant, as some are):

You’ll note in the video that the handler even at a distance has a gravitational attraction to the dog. The handler might play with running forward to keep the dog working straight. But this beguilement might convince the handler of success, even though the dog is still on the gravitational tether.

An Example with a More Experienced Dog

Lateral distance exercises belong to the foundation training for a dog. But foundation should be reinforced over time

Our more experience dog was pretty solid in the video. Note that the dog trainer incorporates other skills into the basic lateral-distance-training objective. The handler uses a Back Pass to sling shot the dog; and sending the dog forward to jump.

An Example with a Crazy Red-Headed Dog

Dogs whose brains are constantly exploding from exuberance can be a training challenge, even when they have heaps of experience. But even the crazy red-headed dog needs basic reinforcement of skills, possible more so than a steady-betty kind of dog.

You’ll note with dogs that work for food the “reward” is but an eye-blink. When using a toy reward, however, the dog’s trainer might have significant interruptions between reps, especially when the dog has a robust playful agenda for the toy.

Proofing the Skill

In NDAL league play this month, we are playing a game called Time Warp. The course looks like this:


In this game, the dog earns a bonus for the performance of the teeter at a lateral distance to the handler. Indeed, the handler must be on the other side of the dogwalk to earn the bonus.

I will use our league courses to design training objectives for my own dogs. And in this case, as I was the game designer, the design of the course dove-tailed very nicely with my immediate training objectives.

Following is a YouTube video of my old boy Kory who has amazing independent performance skills running this course:

It’s worth noting that Kory was trained to his independent performance skills.



Questions comments & impassioned speeches to Bud Houston Visit our web store: You’ll find in the web store The Jokers Notebook, a series of comprehensive training workbooks intended to teach a dog powerful skills of independent performance.