by Nancy Gyes,
First published in AKC Gazette November 2000
Using quotations & sayings as an instructor helps both interject a small amount of humor into the teaching process, and give students key phrases to help them remember specific handling theory. These are a few of the many “commandments” we use to help remind our students and ourselves some of the basic principles of agility.
Playing & training are synonyms
Training should not be “work”. Work is somewhere you go during the week so you can afford the entries fees for agility trials. Think of training not as “work” but extensions of play, or a series of related tricks, and you and your dog will have enjoyable, productive training sessions. This is of course not saying that you don’t work hard at agility training. I personally am exhausted after training my dogs. Using both your physical & mental “muscles” can be draining, but it should also be invigorating, meaning both you and your dog should prosper emotionally from your practice sessions. Synonyms for invigorate are exhilarate, animate, stimulate, enliven, gladden & inspire. If none of these words describe your training sessions with your dog, you need to discover ways to mesh training with play. If your dog is less than driven for a toy, and food is your only way to reward and motivate your dog, you can change the drive for food into toy drive, by putting your dogs favorite foods like raw meats, barbecued steak, garlic chicken or your dogs’ favorite soft treats into a sock or fabric toy. Entice the dog with this “food-toy”, and use it to reward and drive your dog during agility training.
Be PRO-active, not RE-active
One of the biggest differences between ineffective handlers, and great handlers, is their ability to predict what their dogs will do in most any given handling situation, and prepare ahead of time mentally for the dogs possible response in most agility sequences. When you walk a course you need to prepare mentally, and in some cases, memorize, what body language & verbal commands you will be giving your dog. Try to anticipate your dogs response, and be PRO-active with well timed commands to guide your dog through the obstacles, instead of RE-acting when the dog makes moves you should have anticipated and planned in advance to correct. Create the paths you want the dog to take, not just follow them.
Point before you shoot.
Always tell your dog where it is going before you tell it what obstacle to perform. (Verb then noun) The path or direction you want your dog to take is more important than the noun ( i.e. tire, tunnel, seesaw) which you use to command the obstacle. In other words you need to “steer” the dog through the course with commands like “come”, “go- on”, “left”, “right” and most importantly your body language. Always “point” your shoulders and feet in the direction you want the dog to travel and you will be giving clear body language directions to your dog. Once your dog is facing the line and obstacles you wish them to perform, you could then give the obstacle name.
Save a foot, lose a leg
If you can get to an obstacle by running there with your dog, do so! Look at the top handlers in the country and the world, and you will see that most of the time they are relatively close to their dogs, insuring that the dog is on the right path, and changing directions as tightly as possible in the most timely of fashions. Dogs do benefit from distance training and the ability to perform sequences and obstacles independently as well as have an understanding of position cues. The well rounded dog can be handled from a distance when the course requires it, but in many handling situations you can tighten your turns, and increase your qualifying & winning percentages by being with your dog at critical parts of the course.
Run with Intent
Dave Blackshaw from England made this comment while teaching here in the U.S. and it has great meaning to myself and others who have used this theory. If you intend to get somewhere on the course, or to accomplish a specific handling technique, or intend to run in a certain fashion, you will! Where there is no intent, there is no purpose.
Forward motion is important in agility, but just as important is the need to know when to stop moving forward to aid the dog to make a turn or change of direction. Long before Jim and I used the word deceleration in our training classes, we referred to stopping forward motion as “Dropping anchor”. It is just a fun way to remind yourself to put on the brakes when you need to get the dog to move towards you.
Dragnet handling: Just the fact’s Ma’am
Be clear and concise in your commands. Your dog will usually respond to crisp, sharp, commands more quickly than drawn out, conversational, chatty commands where the dogs cannot find the verb and the noun.
Train out your weakness but compete to your strength.
Make a list of all you and your dog’s weaknesses in agility such as: right handed weaves, fast accurate contacts from a distance, long lead outs, accurate & tight front crosses. Once you have identified these weak areas, make plans on how to train them away. You might not be able to do long lead outs, or right handed weave poles in competition now, but look forward to next month, or next year, when you have turned that weakness into a strength.. Practice the handling technique or skill again and again in training, adding difficulty in very small increments, one tiny step at a time. You are patterning yourself and your dog for a consistent, perfect performance every time, and one in which you needn’t think twice about using in competition.
Meat & potatoes handling
Sometimes you need to forget about all the tricky handling maneuvers, and just look for the shortest, straightest line you can make in the most direct path between obstacles, and run there as fast as you can. Work every part of every obstacle not leaving anything to chance . That’s what we call meat & potatoes handling.
Train like you compete, compete like you train
The keys to good handling and solid skills are not just in the knowing how, but when to use specific techniques & aids. The correct application of knowledge is fundamental to a perfect performance, but above all you must be consistent. Training should look & feel like competition, and competition should look exactly like training. That consistency of handling and clear & specific use of commands & signals will make things perfectly clear to your dog and will inevitably lead to your successful career in agility.
Thanks to Jim Basic for many of the above quotes.
Published in AKC Gazette, November 2000
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