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Handling for Speed and Distance (and a course for 21 September)

September 19, 2010

Why not just Run With The Dog
A recent training experience truly brought home some concepts that have great significance for the style of agility you are pursuing. If your objective is to earn as many Q:s and titles as possible, you may opt for a strategy where you “run with the dog”, i.e. stay close to the dog and follow a path quite similar to that of the dog. This strategy tends to involve a relatively high number of front crosses and is often particularly successful on tight and technical courses, especially in venues that don’t put the highest demands on speed.

If, on the other hand, you are driving for speed, the “run with the dog” approach doesn’t work as well. Most dogs are simply too fast to not have to gear down their speed in order to allow the handler to run with them on the same path, thus not being allowed to perform to their potential. For a high drive dog, this tends to be demotivating. In my own case, I run a fast high drive dog. Early on, I thought she enjoyed it best when we were running close by each other and that my running all out as fast as I could was motivating to her. It probably was, but I certainly couldn’t run close to her speed, so she was held back. It became clear to me that releasing my team mate to run further away from me was the only way to allow her to be less held back by my own speed limitations. Thus, I started to work on distance handling. To my joy, I have discovered that my team mate soon realized that she now was free to run faster. The “decoupled” running strategy has this far resulted in 17 Platinum speed points (fastest 5% elite runs within all of NADAC) including a few runs above the 8 yps mark, so in terms of speed, there is no doubt about the strategy paying off.
I’ve had some concerns that distance handling would reduce the “team spirit”. No doubt was the team relationship transformed when we made the switch in handling strategies, but that transformation was to make it different, not less. If anything, it put us as team mates into more complementary roles and strengthened our relationship. The remainder of this article will discuss some of the points that are particularly important should you also pursue a speed and distance strategy.

The first point to remember is that the dog must feel confident. Without confidence, she will be afraid to take the wrong obstacle or fault in some other way. Your dog may not have that confidence yet, and sadly, some have lost their confidence after a few too many corrections of mistakes. The good news is that there are several good ways to enhance the dog’s confidence. First rule is to always make the dog successful. Avoid correcting the dog if she took the wrong obstacle. Instead, start your run armed with a collection of alternate plans in the event she goes off course. This allows you to go with it. Most likely, the dog followed your direction, and so correcting her only erodes her confidence in your cues. Instead of correcting the dog, figure out what you did as a handler and how you might need to change it in the future. Follow this strategy not only in practice sessions, but in trials as well. You can’t wind back the time and undo that fault, so no matter what you do, the Q is gone.

In addition to the no correction strategy, there are good exercises aimed at boosting the dog’s confidence. One is to set up a course where there are no opportunities for an off course. Good examples are a jump circle and a set of jumps between bidirectional tunnels. Following that concept, it is also very useful to practice the dog in less advanced courses than their competition level. Elite/masters level dogs can benefit greatly from occasionally running novice courses.

Thinking on their paws
Forget about commands. The speed and distance strategy does not include the concept of commanding the dog. You provide cues to guide the dog’s decision making – you don’t make the decisions for her. The thinking dog knows much better than you how to navigate most efficiently between obstacles. If you are able to communicate to her what obstacles are to be taken next, and even better even further ahead, the thinking dog will choose a path and striding to do that to her best ability. For example, my dog has learned to recognize common patterns such as a pin wheel and a serpentine, and only needs to be given the cue to enter that pattern, she does not need to be cued for each individual obstacle of the pattern. This allows her to plan her speed, path and striding for the entire pattern, not just one obstacle at a time.

So how do we help the dog figure out what obstacles she should negotiate? The obvious answer is cues, but how do we convey them? Ideally, the dog has an understanding that if there is an obvious next obstacle, she should take that obstacle unless asked not to. This concept, generally referred to as “The Contract” is effective because it gives the dog the freedom to plan its approach to an obstacle without needing any specific cues. We may still choose to provide cues if we are in a good position to do so just to reconfirm to the dog what she already believes, or we may choose not to provide the cues if there is a risk that they will distract the dog which typically results in a dropped bar or an aborted obstacle performance.

Information for Solving the Puzzle
Although widely recognized as being low on the priority list for the dog, verbal cues can be very useful if provided wisely. Giving a “jump” cue when the dog sees several jumps within reach is hardly helpful. To be useful, the jump cue needs to help the dog sort out a discrimination problem or to look for a jump when one is visible but not in the dog’s logical path. The same goes for other obstacle name cues. Nonetheless, in some situations, these cues may add some motivation to the dog, speeding her up, but it then serves another purpose than helping the dog solve the path puzzle. Directional cues can be very helpful. Cues such as the absolute directionals (left, right) or relative ones (out, tight, switch, go on) cue the dog in what direction it should look for the next obstacle. All that said, verbals are less significant to the dog than the handler’s movement and body language. Obviously, for the visual signals to have any effect, the dog must see them. If the handler is behind the dog, the dog can’t see them, and so can’t act on the cues. The visual field for dogs vary by breed, and may in some breeds be further limited by (lack of) grooming. A common estimate is that a dog can have a peripheral vision that covers 135 degrees on each side. If you are located behind your dog at an angle where you cannot see her eyes, you know she can’t see you. This concept may be the most significant handling strategy issue you need to deal with when planning your run. Unless you are confident that the dog will be able to identify the next obstacle by a verbal cue, you must make sure that you have placed yourself within the dog’s field of vision. If visual information conflicts with your verbals, the verbals are likely to be ignored.

The discussion above centered around verbal and visual cues provided by the handler, and although it touches on the importance of what the dog sees, it primarily discusses the dogs ability to see its handler’s cues. The entire view from the dog’s vantage point is important. As handlers, we are only a part of the picture. A thinking dog that can’t see its handler, but can identify a logical next obstacle will likely drive on towards that obstacle without a need for any additional information from her handler. However, if this thinking dog can neither see her handler nor a logical next obstacle will turn to look at its handler as soon as possible. If the current obstacle is a tunnel, this is not likely a problem, because the dog can’t turn to look at its handler until it has exited the tunnel. If it is a jump, the dog is likely to drop a bar, and if it a set of weave poles, the dog will turn its head to see the handler, causing a pop-out from the weaves.

The bungee cord leash
Most dogs on course run as if they are attached to you by a bungee cord. Say you are running 30 feet away to the right of your dog. You gear down. The dog will continue on its path for some distance, getting further away from you, but eventually, the dog will perform a right turn (unless cued otherwise) and shape a path that closes in on you. This principle may not apply to each and every dog, but it does seem to apply to the vast majority. You can use this to your advantage, such as when running the inside path of a curve. It also means that if you want the dog to go on straight or turn away from you, you must cue that. If you do so by verbals, ensure that your dog can see and aim for the obstacle you intend her to take next.

Training steps to follow
Future posts will focus on some specific training steps to get started. For now, review the course for Tuesday (Janine’s @ 1PM) and identify if/where the points in this post can be applied to this NADAC style Chances course (The red gamble line is for elite, the blue for open and the green one for novice). If you apply the points I’ve made above, you should conclude that “the line is not your friend“.

distance handling & course map PDF

Chances course for 21 September 2010

3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 21, 2010 9:29 am

    I really enjoyed your post. I found your blog last night, and have included a link to it on my fledgling blog. Belle and I are closing in on the heels of our second NATCH–need five more Q’s in Chances, and I decided it was time to tackle the 15 and 20-point bonus lines in earnest.

    Run fast; run clean; but above all–have fun.

    • Stefan Elvstad permalink*
      September 22, 2010 9:34 am

      Thank you for the kind words, and thank you for linking to us.

      I find your blog to be really great and full of very useful information, particularly since I think we have very compatible ideas about handling and teaming with our dogs. We have added a link to your blog.

  2. jigizu permalink
    September 23, 2010 10:12 am


    Charles and I wanted to let you know how much we appreciate your Tuesday afternoon tutorials. The SPEED AND DISTANCE blog entry was just first rate….it explained a lot and at the same time it forced us to think seriously about applications. This is, as far as I’m concerned, the hallmark of excellent teaching: give principled explanations and ask the student to apply them to his/her own situations, integrate them into his/her own level of skill.

    Jigi was having a bad hair day on Tuesday, but that doesn’t mean Charles and I didn’t both feel enormously uplifted by the help you gave us.

    Thank you so much,


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