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Podcast #20: Maximizing your agility camp experience

It’s time for summer camp! As I’m getting prepared for the fun craziness that is camp – the second annual Clear Mind camp – I wanted to share a few thoughts on how to make the most of YOUR agility camp experience – whether it’s with me, or wherever you may find yourself!

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Football and the art of the Forward Motion Front Cross

I’m not interested in discussing the “why, what, where, when” of the forward motion front cross; your timing is something you’ll need to perfect with your dog. What I’m interested in discussing is the how of the forward motion front cross.¬† After all, if you can’t get your body to do the correct things at the correct time, it’s not going to matter one tiny bit how perfect your timing is; you might know exactly when to do something, but if you can’t do move your body in the required fashion, your knowledge is useless.

A forward motion front cross is one where your motion (think, from the hips down) is telling your dog to go forward, but your upper body (hips up) is telling the dog to turn.  In this fashion, you can balance cues so that you let the dog know there is a turn after a jump or chute or straight tunnel, even as you are moving forward to the completion side of the obstacle.

Consider this sequence:


Figure 1

Let’s say that you would like to be able to handle #4 from the take-off side, so that you can already be moving toward #5 to cue the turn required to get your dog to #6. ¬†You’re going to need to get on the landing side of #3, and it’s likely that your dog is going to see you moving toward the landing side of #3. Your motion and your changing location (evermore toward the landing side of the plane of the jump) are going to tell the dog to go forward after the jump, to that tunnel that is looming just beyond.

All is not lost, though – you can balance out the cues your lower body is giving, and your changing location with some upper body cues that will let the dog know that despite your motion, you do want a turn after #3. The trick to this is that your dog has to see you initiate these cues as he’s getting ready to commit to #3. If you initiate your cues too early, your dog may discard the information as irrelevant to the #3 obstacle, because your location relative to it was too distant when you began your cue combination. ¬†If you initiate your cues too late, your dog will almost certainly head toward and go in to the tunnel; after all, if you’re just running forward, and facing forward, and you’re moving to a landing side location, all cues say full steam ahead to the dog.

Many people get this, at least in theory. ¬†In practice, it’s another matter. ¬†I’m not interested in discussing the “why, what, where, when” of the forward motion front cross; your timing is something you’ll need to perfect with your dog. What I’m interested in discussing is the how of the forward motion front cross. ¬†After all, if you can’t get your body to do the correct things at the correct time, it’s not going to matter one tiny bit how perfect your timing is; you might know exactly when to do something, but if you can’t do move your body in the required fashion, your knowledge is useless.

Most of the time, it’s helpful to think of your upper and lower body as two different parts that can balance one another out. ¬†In this case, the lower half of the body is giving forward cues, and the upper half of the body is balancing it out. If both the upper and lower half of your body are aligned, then the cues they give will be additive (ie forward + forward = FORWARD!), but you can easily change that balance by shifting either your upper body or your lower body to give fewer forward cues.

If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, take a look at this picture:

Figure 2

You can see that the wide receiver, who has the ball, has his lower half going forward, but his upper half is turned. ¬†Imagine that the football player in the white uniform is ¬†a dog; from his perspective the wide receiver’s outside arm can clearly be seen as well as the inside arm. The wide receiver is also looking over his shoulder making direct eye contact with the “dog” in the photo.

Of course, in this photo, you can anticipate that the next frame is either going to be the wide receiver rotating clockwise so he can run a bit faster, or getting sacked by the opponent.  But, in dog agility, seeing a handler moving like this has a pretty clear meaning to the dog; watch out, a turn is coming Рthe dog will anticipate that the wide receiver is going to continue rotating counterclockwise, particularly if the handler has developed a history of following through with such a rotation, say, in foundation work (think, recalls to heel).

I used to be in the marching band in high school and college, and to be honest, I’ve had my fill of football. ¬†But, a couple of months ago, when I was on a plane and somebody had left a football special edition of Sports Illustrated in the seat back pocket, I was intrigued by all the photos like the one above. Each photo like this so clearly shows how to properly rotate your upper half independent of your lower half. ¬†In football, the wide receiver is trying to turn back to find and catch a ball coming from above. ¬†He’s also trying to avoid getting sacked. ¬†He can’t just run forward, or he’ll never catch the ball. ¬†And, he can’t run backward, or he’ll get sacked immediately as he’ll have no speed. ¬†So the compromise is what you see above; lower half going forward as best it can, and upper half turned as best it can.

Figure 3

Even if you’re not built like a wide receiver (I’m certainly not!), you do have some ability to do this. Figure 3 shows an exaggerated version of what I’m talking about – this is what it might look like if you as the handler were fully extended and still trying to cue a turn for your dog. This is what rotating on the run looks like, and even if you’re not doing a forward motion front cross, learning how to rotate on the run is a very useful skill, because you can rotate your upper body in toward your dog (the football) and still cover ground quickly, cuing a turn while also staying ahead of your dog.

In the sequence above, you should be doing something like this before you pass the plane of #3. You don’t want to be so far ahead of your dog that you complete the rotation and end up standing still on the landing side of the jump; you only need to be as far ahead of your dog as the wide receiver is ahead of his opponent in Figure 2, provided that your dog has not already committed to the obstacle. ¬†And, since you’ll be rotating your upper body but continuing to move forward with your lower body, your rotation might start before you cross the plane of #3, but it won’t end until a stride or two later (your strides), when you are on the landing side of the obstacle and can then work on cuing #4 properly.

We don’t have to worry about moving quite as quickly as the football players do, and most of us don’t have to worry about getting sacked by our dogs. Phew! Here are a couple of videos from Youtube – in each one, there are at least a couple of forward motion front crosses being performed.

Exercises You Can Try

For some reason, holding a jump bar or weave pole at shoulder height tends to help people get a feel for what it’s like to move the top and bottom halves of their bodies separately.¬† The video below shows you a couple of different exercises that you can do to help feel out moving your top and bottom halves independently of one another.



For a video that shows some nice examples of the lower body moving independently of the upper body, here you go:

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Thoughts on handling the Novice Dog

Juno had her big Novice Debut this weekend! She’s almost certainly had the least preparation and training of any of my dogs to date, given my busy travel schedule and focus on Solar and Jester, but nevertheless, she did great. I’ve been waiting for her debut for some time, not only because running a Novice dog is a ton of fun, but to prove to people that you don’t have to step in to the ring perfect, or perfectly prepared.¬† To the contrary, there are things I believe that the dogs will only learn in the ring, and so I see no reason to wait til they’re running Master’s level courses to enter them in a trial, provided that I can provide a positive experience that will further growth between my dog and myself as a team.

Juno’s debut in the Novice ring has gotten me thinking how all of the things I’ve been working lately to make sure I’m implementing as a coach for my students really applies to our dogs as well. For those of us involved in a team sport with our dogs, we serve not only as trainers, but as canine coaches too, and although it’s taken me several years to fully grasp the concept, I do believe that in order to achieve maximum success with our dogs as athletes, we must be flexible coaches, able to be the coach our dog needs us to be as his/her needs change, rather than expecting our dogs to conform constantly to our needs.

Like us, I believe our dogs move through different levels of competency as they learn the ins and outs of the sport of dog agility.  To review, here are the four basic levels of competency:

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  • Unconsciously unskilled At this stage, the learner (the dog, in this case), doesn’t even know that they don’t know anything.¬† They’re blissfully ignorant, if you will.As their coach, at this stage, you need to show them¬†what¬†to do, and make sure that you make the learning fun enough that the dog wants more.¬† Just like with a young human athlete, if the sport is¬†fun¬†at this stage, they’re going to want to do it more. It’s not necessarily important that the finer details of form are perfect at this point, as long as they’re not forgotten about by you the coach, for later refinement. Juno is moving through this stage at the moment (as of the completion of her very first agility trial).¬† She doesn’t even¬†know¬†that she’s unskilled, and there’s no reason for me to point that out to her.¬† While she’s busy checking out the ring crew, the obstacles, the spectators, the judge, and ME, I’m busy guiding her through that experience, showing her¬†what¬†to do, and making sure she feels great about herself while she’s attempting to do it.
  • Consciously unskilled At some point, Juno will move in to this stage, and since we can’t directly communicate verbally, it may be that she’s already there to some extent.¬† This would be the stage that a young athlete might be having a lot of fun and now they want to be¬†better. They’re aware that they’re fairly unskilled, either because they feel it internally, because you’ve pointed it out to them, or, in the case of most of us people, we see others doing better and measure ourselves up against that. I would never push a person or a dog who is consciously (or unconsciously) unskilled to do anything¬†fast; in the case of the dog, if they’re not going fast, it’s highly likely that it’s because they know there is a lot to learn and they don’t know a lot of what there is to learn, and they’re trying to take everything in and process it…and that takes brainpower….which takes time…and so any reasonable creature will do the safe and logical thing….SLOW DOWN!As my dog’s coach, at this stage, it’s my job to make sure that I continue to support their efforts to figure out¬†what¬†to do, but as they are ready for it, to also show them¬†how¬†to do those certain things. I need to be observant enough to see when my dog is asking for help, or asking me a question about¬†how¬†to do something, and I need to be prepared to respond in a way that will help their growth as a teammate.
  • Consciously skilled As the dog gains experiences that they can put in to their own personal playbook of how the game of agility is played, they’re going to gain skill. At this stage, though, employing those skills in the right places and at the right times is going to take conscious effort. At this stage, they’re probably learning (or ready to learn)¬†when¬†to use the particular mechanical skills they’ve previously learned.¬† Developing your agility dog in to a good team player means you, as coach, need to be ready to spot when they’ve slipped in to this particular stage of their development.¬† It may be that they suddenly make¬†more¬†mistakes than they made previously, and as coach, it’s important to recognize whether that should be attributed to a deficiency in mechanical skill, or perhaps, the mistakes are due to the dog trying to sort out¬†when¬†to do something, and not quite making the right decision, or making the right decision but not being able to execute it at the right time.At this stage, getting on your dog’s case for mechanical errors (a dropped bar or missed contact) when the reason the dog¬†made¬†the mistake was because she was really making an effort to anticipate correctly what she thought was going to happen is not likely to improve the situation.¬† In fact, it may make it worse.¬† Imagine, you’re on a sports team, and you finally think you’ve¬†got it, and so you take some initiative to be proactive and show your coach that you’re getting it.¬† And then, despite your best efforts, you just don’t quite get it right, because things weren’t quite as they seemed to be.¬† How would you respond if your coach yelled at you for taking that initiative? Would you try harder the next time, or would you tend to hold off from taking initiative again in the future? What if, on the other hand, your coach congratulated you for your efforts, and then provided meaningful instruction and feedback on¬†why¬†things didn’t quite work out this time around? My guess is that you’d be a LOT more likely to try even harder in the future!
  • Unconsciously skilled Finally, after perhaps several years, you and your dog together are unconsciously skilled.¬† You’ve gone through the motions enough times, and you’ve been consistent enough, that your dog can read your cues without much conscious effort, leaving more of his brain free to process things like that divot in the dirt that’s right where he’d like to take off, or that splinter in the contact that’s right where he’d like to put his foot.¬† He can deal with contingencies that arise, because the skills that he has come naturally to him, and he can use his subconscious brain to deal with whatever comes his way. Also, because you’ve been such a supportive coach, moving from the¬†what, to the¬†how¬†and then to the¬†when¬†appropriately, building your dog’s self-image all the way, your dog is a confident and happy teammate.¬† Although mistakes happen, when they do, the both of you know that they are just honest mistakes, and not due to a lack of effort or understanding on either party’s part.

Obviously, I’m going to continue to put an emphasis on enjoyment together as a team throughout these different learning stages, but like us, I really do feel that what makes something “fun” changes as you move through these stages.¬† For example, in the first stage, most would not find nitty gritty details and highly analytical training to be very fun.¬† That’s not terribly motivating for a beginner in any endeavor! But, as the thirst for more develops, there may well come a time when a lot of pleasure can be taken in learning the finer details involved in perfecting a particular mechanical skill. Our dogs, like us, are changing all the time.¬† When I look at Fly, who is now 12.5 years old, he is definitely¬†not¬†the same dog he was when he was a year old.¬† Likewise, Jester, Solar, and Juno are all different dogs than they were when they arrived in our family, both physically and mentally.¬† Their development as individuals as we progress together as companions and teammates is what makes the sport so much fun, and so rewarding.¬† Our dogs aren’t the only ones changing, though.¬† We of course, are changing all the time too.¬† As handlers, we may ourselves be moving through the four learning stages listed above, and then our task is doubled, as we’ll have to be our own coaches as well as our dogs’ coaches. Our circumstances in life change as well. We move, our interests change, jobs, partners, you name it.¬† The only thing that stays the same is that things always change.¬† But, being alert to the needs of your canine partner with respect to what they require from you as a companion, a leader, a handler, and a coach, is something that benefits both dog and human alike – it’s the name of the game!

Juno’s First Trial, 4/30-5/2, 2011