Agility Chi


A Guide to the Art of the
the Natural Handler

A great deal has been written and much has been made of the training of the dog for agility. The studies and practices for training the dog are exceptionally evolved into a rather precise science. Certainly we have more to learn about how to teach the dog his job. But these will be refinements on what is now a fairly well-defined body of work.

Largely overlooked in our advancement of the sport has been anything approaching equal attention to the training of the handler. Handling has not improved significantly in nearly three decades of the sport.

Perhaps our real error is in thinking primarily that success in the sport rests upon teaching the dog to take responsibility for all things… for keeping the bars up, for hitting the contacts, for attending the handler’s lead.

At the end of the day this philosophy has led to a terrible division of labor, in which the dog has responsibility for maybe 90% of the success of the team, while the handler shirks along doing his own 10%. And while we see fairly great performances these days, largely because of terrific training methods, we also see far too much failure and floundering. It’s worth noting that 90% or more of errors on course are handler errors. It’s interesting that this statistic should be reciprocal to the division of labor that I mentioned above.

I have spent many years studying the habits and characteristics of successful handlers in the sport of dog agility. There truly is a type of handler who might be called a Natural Handler, who intuitively knows how to communicate with his dog with pure movement. With notable exceptions, most of these people probably could not actually teach anyone else what it is that they do that allows them to be successful because much of what they do is natural and intuitive and not learned through any defined regimen of study.

The discipline of natural handling is a matter of practice. We practice a thing enough that it becomes integral to our spirit and chi, and until it is a largely a matter of muscle memory.

An Introduction to Agility Chi

‘Chi’ means energy. In Yoga, it is called ‘Prana’.

The natural agility handler seeks a focus of energy and a connection to the energy of the dog. He seeks in his own body a relaxed familiarity and absence of tension. And in his partnership with his dog he works always with trust and confidence.

We rely upon the notion that the dog is an intuitive and clever creature who is a student of human movement. The natural handler then seeks to use those natural laws already within the scope and understanding of the dog as specific tools to direct the dog in the game of agility.

Certainly handler movement in agility is a science. But it is a soft science or natural science that doesn’t really require a mathematical ability or an understanding of advanced physics.

The Eight Essential Points

Even though you may find these concepts a little obscure and difficult to understand at first, don’t be discouraged. Think carefully about what each point means and practice diligently. Over time the meaning and purpose of each point will become clearer.

These Eight Essential Points are loosely grouped into three parts: body, connection, and mind.

  1. Hold yourself upright, allowing the body to be supple and relaxed. Your hands will never rise above the level of your shoulders and generally should work at the level of your belt. Loosen (relax) the waist. The waist is commander of the body. If you can loosen your waist, then your legs will have power and your body will be firm and stable.
  2. Co ordinate the upper and lower body movements. Motion should be rooted in the feet, released through the legs, controlled by the waist, and manifested by the hands through the shoulders and arms. The upper body should agree with the lower body.
  3. Your relationship with the dog is elemental and fundamental. The dog should be ever treated with kindness and with a generosity of spirit and heart.
  4. Begin your work with the dog in agility with engagement. Be completely aware of the connection between you and your dog, obtaining the dog’s complete attention by giving your own complete attention.
  5. Always move with trust and confidence in the dog. When the handler does not trust the dog then the handler’s ability to move naturally (and confidently) is spoiled; thus, the handler becomes the one who can’t be trusted. Your movements can then be light and nimble and you can act exactly as your mind directs. Avoid thinking of anything else beyond your movement, the dog, and your basic mission.
  6. Allow a positive spirit while neglecting the corrosive influence of ego. The spirit is the master and the body is its subordinate. If you can lift your spirit your movements will become light and nimble.
  7. There must be absolute continuity of movement always applying positive pressure in the direction of the course; honoring the path of the dog. The handler points more certainly with his toes than with his hand.
  8. Attack the course with boldness and never with self-doubt or the desire merely to survive. Play with focused energy (Chi) and self awareness. Self awareness (intuition) is the outcome of practice, binding our understanding of movement to have access to an inner guidance that knows the way. Slow down and let the moments teach you.

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