Lorrie’s Agility Dog Blog

Musings on Dogs, Agility, and Being an Instructor

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 https://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!

April 17, 2009 Posted by | Agility, Distance, Training | , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

But I Don’t Play (Insert Distance Game Here). So I Don’t Need Distance, Right?

I have to laugh when I’m in a class and people tell the instructor “I’m never going to run a Gambler’s course, so I don’t need to learn distance.”  There are SO MANY reasons to be able to work at a distance other than being able to play the games.  No matter what venue you choose to play in, there are places on course where distance gives you a huge advantage over other teams.  The biggest advantage is being able to get into position by sending your dog to an obstacle or sequence and moving away to prepare for the next sequence.  Distance also allows your dog to run faster since they are not running alongside you waiting for direction. 

Judges often design courses that challenge a handler by requiring they choose between either staying with their dog and being out of position for the next obstacle, or moving away from their dog at the risk of an off-course or incomplete performance.  The illustration below is similar to a sequence I saw on a USDAA course.  If the handler stays with the dog to support the weaves, they are forced to perform the A-Frame with the dog on the left, setting up a cross at the triple (5).  At the trial, many, many bars came down as the dogs looked to see where the handler went or tried to turn in mid-air.  People with stopped contacts wasted precious seconds crossing at the bottom of the A-Frame.  The most successful way to handle it turned out to be taking a straight line from the weaves to the left side of the A-Frame (as the handler would be facing it), while moving away from the dog in the weaves.  That allowed the handler to call the dog to the A-Frame with their right hand, and eliminated the cross at the triple.




Another challenge that I have seen more often lately is a place on course where handlers can choose to layer an obstacle, or to be at a disadvantage for the next sequence of obstacles.  The diagram below is again similar to a sequence from a USDAA trial.  After the table, the handler has to choose their strategy.  They can stay with the dog to get the tunnel entrance and try to either beat them to the exit or flip them so they head to the correct jump.  The other option is to layer the dogwalk and send to the tunnel entrance, which allows the handler to be in position for the jump.  Again, in the real sequence, the successful handlers used distance to layer the dogwalk and had plenty of time to cross between the tunnel exit and the jump.  Handlers that chose to stay with their dog generally incurred faults from off-courses or refusals.     




Even on such simple sequences as pinwheels or serpentines, the ability to send your dog away provides an opportunity to move into position and speed up your run.  It’s hard to watch people perform front crosses right in front of their dog, slowing them down dramatically, and sometimes even shutting them down completely.  If you are able to use distance to move away from your dog, your crosses can be completed without encroaching upon your dog’s path and will actually speed him up.  The other thing that speeds up your run is your ability to send the dog while taking short-cuts on course.  I don’t know many people who can run as fast as their dog, and being able to send the dog and move to the next part of the course greatly increases how fast the dog can run.

Even if you never plan to set foot on a Gamblers course, cultivating distance is important for success.  It is a skill, and must be learned and practiced, just like any other skill.  Keep an eye out – I’m still planning a post that explains what teams need to successfully work at a distance… 

 Editor’s note:  The article regarding skills for successful distance work is complete and can be viewed here:  https://lorriemaxx.wordpress.com/2009/04/17/five-skills-for-successful-distance/




April 16, 2009 Posted by | Agility, Distance, Training | , , , | 6 Comments

A Hierarchy of Cues

A couple of times per year, I pick a free weekend and present my “Gambling is Addictive” beginning distance workshop.  The workshops, unlike our weekly classes, are made available to people not enrolled at Friendship Academy, and so far, they have been very well received.  Oddly enough, although everyone so far has shown measureable improvement in their distance skills at the workshop, I don’t think the immediate improvement is due to what I teach regarding distance.  Instead, I believe that the distance they gain during the four-hour session is mostly a by-product of people understanding the principles behind better communication with their dogs.  True distance (the 20-40-60 feet kind) requires practice.  It is a skill just like any other skill, and can’t be learned in one four-hour session.

It’s unfortunate that reading and thinking about something is not the same as learning, practicing, and understanding it (and seeing it demonstrated).  Thanks to magazines like Clean Run, we would all be perfect trainers and handlers if that were the case!  However, I thought I would put some of the basic principles I teach in the workshop out there for you to read and mull over.  Maybe it will inspire you to attend a workshop, or maybe it will just help you to better understand what you are telling your dog without being conscious of it.  I teach these principles in bits and pieces during my classes, but because of the typical 1-hour, once per week format, there really isn’t time to explain them in depth like I do in the workshops.  Bear with me if you have heard some of them before.  My hope is that by putting them all in one place, you will increase your understanding of how they integrate into the bigger picture.

I think one of the most important things I present in my workshops is what I call the hierarchy of cues.  To understand what you are communicating to your dog, you have to first know what cues they pay attention to the most.  After thinking about it, observing, and testing some of my theories, I came up with a list of cues ranked by their importance to the dog. 

Number one on the list is body motion.  Whatever direction the handler is moving in, the dog will move in as well.  Here is a fun example.  Maxx looovvveees the weave poles.  Katrina once challenged me to teach him to weave while I was walking in the opposite direction (toward him so I passed him going the other way).  Over and over I set Maxx up on one end of the weaves, walked to the other end, and then told him to weave toward me.  As long as my motion wasn’t significant, he finished them every time.  The instant I passed him walking in the opposite direction, he popped out to follow me.  Now Maxx has been known to perform weaves 60’ away at a trial, so this is NOT a dog that doesn’t know his job.  I can sit on the ground and he will weave, and even laid down on the floor once when someone dared me to (yes, he finished the weaves then too).  That tells me that my body motion is an extremely strong cue, and my observations of other dogs have strengthened that perception.

The second item on the list is body position.   Generally, the direction you are facing is the one the dogs will travel in.  How many times have you done an exercise in class, gotten an off-course obstacle, and heard your instructor say, “Look at your (feet, shoulders)” as an explanation?  We teach dogs early on not to go behind us to take an obstacle.  We are trying to instill the concept that whatever we are facing and/or looking at is the obstacle they should perform.  The importance of body position is why one of the frequent mantras during my distance seminar is “Face the Path”.  Envision a situation where there is a discrimination between a tunnel and an A-Frame.  If you are facing out, the dog should move away and take the tunnel.  If you are turned forward, the dog should come closer to your side and take the A-Frame.   Your body position dictates the direction of travel.

Next on the list is position relative to the obstacles.  The Masters gamble at the most recent USDAA trial in Loveland was a perfect demonstration of this principle for many teams.  The gamble involved a U-shaped sequence of jump, tunnel, weave poles, jump that looked something like the picture below. 



If the handler had a strong push to the weaves coming out of the tunnel (using body motion and the direction they were facing), or if they were able to get far enough toward the finish that the first jump was “behind” them, they were generally successful.  However, handlers who were behind on the send to the tunnel or got stuck flat-footed were positioned where the dog saw them on the other side of the jump when they exited the tunnel, and there was virtually no way to successfully redirect the dogs to the weaves.  The handler’s body position relative to the jump almost guaranteed that the dog would come towards them over the jump or incur a refusal if they were redirected to the weaves.

Hand and arm cues are next on the hierarchy, but they are not very powerful signals.  One of the distance “tips” I give is to stay off the gamble line.  How many handlers have you seen standing right up on the line, ineffectively flailing their arms in a misguided attempt to get the dog to move away?  Without body motion, the hand being up doesn’t give the dog very much direction.  I do like the “bowling motion” when sending a dog ahead, like into a tunnel, but only because it accentuates or adds to your body motion, not because it is an effective cue on its own.

Last on my list is verbal cues.  Interestingly, the importance of verbal direction is somewhat dependent upon the dog’s experience level.  I think inexperienced dogs pay almost zero attention to verbal cues, which is why we can call a tire a tunnel or an A-Frame a Dogwalk and the dogs will still perform the correct obstacle as long as our motion or position supports it.  As the dogs become more experienced, and we as handlers quit giving a command for every single obstacle, verbal commands start to mean more.  An experienced dog faced with four jumps in a row will normally continue to the end of the four jumps if the handler is maintaining their momentum.  The experienced team has no need to use a verbal cue for the dog to continue on a forward path.  If the experienced dog is told “here” or “out” at the third jump though, they will pay attention to the cue because they have learned that a verbal cue means change.

Hopefully I’ve given you some things to think about regarding how dogs prioritize the cues we give them.  Remembering these basic principles can vastly improve the communication between you and your teammate.

Next up – what skills DO you need for your dog to successfully work at a distance?   That blog post will be coming soon!!!


April 14, 2009 Posted by | Agility, Communication, Distance, Training | , , , , , , | 6 Comments