Five Skills for Successful Distance
In my beginning distance workshops, I talk about the five skills I think teams need in order to be successful when playing the distance games in agility like Gamblers, FAST, and Chances. I believe everything a team requires falls under one of the following five categories: Independent Obstacle Performance, Directionals, Discrimination, Distance, and Knowledge of a Dog’s Speed. During our four-hour workshop, after we have discussed the hierarchy of cues, these skills become the main focus http://lorriemaxx.wordpress.com/2009/04/14/a-hierarchy-of-cues/. We talk about what they are (and are not), how to teach them, troubleshooting, when, where, and why they are important, and we set up several exercises to practice each one.
The first topic is always Independent Obstacle Performance. I define it as dog’s ability to to perform an obstacle and maintain their criteria regardless of the position of the handler. The two areas we talk about most are contacts and weaves. Can your dog correctly execute their contact performance if you are behind them? In front of them? Moving away? Running parallel 10’ or 20’ away? We test to see if the dog will stay in their 2O/2O or run all the way to the bottom of the yellow when the handler is doing something different than usual. Since I normally have quite a few beginner dogs, we don’t usually test independent weaves, but I tell the attendees that they should be able to front cross, rear cross, move away, move ahead, or otherwise challenge the dog by not running precisely parallel to the weave poles, and the dog should finish them. Without independent obstacle performance the handler can’t move away from the dog (or have the dog move away from them) and work at a distance.
Directionals are another important skill to have when running distance courses. I don’t mean that every dog has to “know” right and left. Not everyone has the time or patience that training a true understanding of those cues requires. What they are required to have though, is an understanding of when to move right or left, or when to change leads, whether that is cued verbally, with body motion, or both. Many people who think they have taught their dog the meaning of right and left don’t realize that verbal directionals are almost always backed up by body motion and position. Another tool people use is a verbal such as “switch” as a cue to the dog to change leads. They have basically taught them directional commands by ensuring that they understand to turn the other direction when the word is coupled with their motion.
The ability to discriminate between obstacles is crucial to being able to work away from your dog. Again, dogs do not HAVE to know the name of every obstacle and unfailingly choose the right one. What they need is a way to determine through your cues which obstacle they are supposed to perform. A handler’s body cues are the primary indicator of which obstacle to perform. Generally, moving toward the dog pushes them away, and bringing your motion forward pulls them in. In addition, “out” and “here” or something similar are frequently used as discrimination cues. “Out” means to move away and choose the obstacle furthest from the handler. “Here” means move toward the handler and take the closer obstacle.
Dogs have to work at a distance to play the distance games. Sounds simple, right? What isn’t simple is the numerous, conflicting ways to teach distance. That’s why even though it is an obvious skill, I include it in my list and talk about it in depth at the workshops.
The final thing on my list is knowledge of the dog’s speed. This one is difficult because it changes over time. Dogs stress up or down at trials, making them faster or slower. As they move from novice to the higher levels, they gain confidence, which usually increases their speed. The handlers learn how to communicate better, providing an additional speed boost. The important thing is to have a general idea of how fast the dog is at the current time. There are several methods that can be used to determine this, including timing specific sequences, dividing past course times by how many obstacles were performed, or timing specific obstacles and adding time for the yardage in between. Regardless of the method used, the handler should be able to figure out what path to follow to earn enough points to qualify.
A team should be able to master any challenge encountered during a distance game if they have mastered the five skills discussed above. Whether it is turning away to a jump, discriminating between two obstacles, or completing a contact while moving away from the handler, if a team possesses all five distance skills, they will be able to qualify regardless of what the closing sequence contains. Have fun with your skill-building!