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Introduction to Handler Focus

Elizabeth Dott begins a four-part series teaching you how to get your dog to work close. 

Over the next four weeks we are going to talk about "Handler focus." Handler focus occurs when a dog connects with you using eye contact instead of looking ahead at the obstacles. Some dogs are more handler focused than others and some dogs are obstacle focused. The key is to find the perfect balance between both by using training methods and foundation to balance your dog out. Identifying your dog's strong points and weak points helps because you can focus on working foundation skills that your dog needs to achieve that balance. For instance, right now I have one of both. The dog that is more handler focused will get extra work on driving out and targeting obstacles while the obstacle-focused dog will get more foundation exercises on coming into me and not taking obstacles if not asked to do so. 

In USDAA agility, it is important to have a "close" command to help you succeed in both Snooker classes and Masters Challenge classes. This command cues your dog that you would like him to be handler focused rather than obstacle focused.

We will begin this series by starting with ground work in an area with low stimulation and work our way up to putting in motion, obstacles and then sequences. 

The "Get Close" Cue

I teach my dog a specific word that means come close to me. I use a different word than come or here because I ask for a specific behavior when asking for my dog to get close. A come command at my house means come inside or come eat dinner or many other things and is not black and white for my dog. Because dogs learn better when you are completely clear with what you mean, I did not want to muddy the waters by using a common come that I use in other situations. My close command this way means only one thing: come into my side to the hand that is currently dropped. I am sure using the dog's name or a "here" or "come" command can work equally as well but I prefer to keep it as black and white as possible for my dogs.

Foundation Training

I start my first session in an area that is low stimulation, away from agility equipment and distractions. I put my other dogs away push my coffee table over and begin quietly in my living room. If my dog has never heard the word "close" before, I will begin by saying "Come close" and I eventually drop the "come" once my dog understands what I am asking from him. 

Start by putting your dog in a stay close to your left side. Take a treat and put it in your left hand. Drop your hand release your dog and tell him to come close. When the dog approaches your hand give him the treat. After a few reps, place your dog on your right side. I like to do 10 solid reps of this before I move my dog farther back and do another 10 reps on each side. In the beginning, don't use any motion. See how far you can recall your dog to your hand in your small space. Keep your session short and quit while the dog is still excited to work with you. If your dog gets bored easily, just do a few repetitions at a time and try to change up the treats you are giving. Use high value treats for this game so the incentive to come into your side is very high. Make sure the dog is driving quickly into the hand you have down with the treat in it.

After you have mastered this game, you can begin to move with your dog a bit. Start with your dog on your left side. Ask him to stay. Take a few steps forward and release your dog so you are moving as your dog comes into the hand with the treat. You do not have to run and probably can not in the small space so a nice walking pace is what you are looking for. Now put your dog on your right and do the same thing. Again keep your training sessions short and fun and move on when you have successfully done 8 out of 10 correctly.

Moving the Game

Now it is time to move the game outside. I like to begin in an area where there is not any equipment, keeping "low stimulation" while adding in a few new distractions. 
You will begin the way you started in your living room, working up to walking with your dog. When your dog is understanding these exercises, you can up the ante by now running with your dog. Put your dog in a stay and walk out a few feet. Begin to run as you release your dog into your side to the hand you have down and give him a cookie. Start with him behind you, then work up to having him a few feet from your side. What you ultimately want is your dog driving into your hand at speed to get the cookie. 

Now have more fun with this exercise by adding in a front cross. Ask your dog to stay and begin to run. Release your dog and as he is driving into you, execute a front cross (turning while facing your dog) and present the new side-change hand with a cookie. Frequently change places in your yard so your dog can drive into your hand from anywhere to get a cookie. Be sure you are using your close command or the word you have chosen to tell your dog to come in for a cookie.

Once your dog has mastered this at home and in the yard, take the show on the road. Can your dog come to your hand in other places like the park, a friend's house or maybe outside agility class, but be sure to do it away from equipment at this point.

I like to give my students homework, so practice these behaviors until the next article where we will be adding in agility equipment. Until then, good luck and happy training!

This article is part of USDAA's Training Tuesday series appears on USDAA's facebook page. We encourage you to discuss this exercise on our facebook and to upload videos of your class or training group trying it out. If you have a facebook account, please join in the fun here:

Elizabeth Dott has been competing in agility since 1993. She owns Legendary Agility Training (named after her heart dog, Legend) in Altamonte Springs, Florida. She has competed at the national Level and has put several championships on her dogs over the years. She has also helped many of her students achieve their own championships as well. In addition, Elizabeth runs Legendary Dog Designs and makes custom collars and leashes with agility in mind. She can be reached for questions or classes at


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