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Handler Focus: Adding Obstacles

In part three of this series, Elizabeth Dott shows you how to work on handler focus around obstacles and how to teach moving between handler focus and obstacle focus. 

Welcome back to week three of our handler focus exercises!

So far we have taught our dog what our dropped hand means, taught circle work and asked our dog to drive through obstacles to our hand. This week we are adding motion through equipment and circle work through equipment. 

This week's exercises require agility equipment that can be set up in any order. We will begin where we left off, asking our dogs to drive through the equipment, but now we will add motion. 

Adding "Straight Through" Work

Begin with your dog on your left and lead out, walking through the middle of your equipment set-up. When you get about half way, ask your dog to come and, using your close command, begin to run straight through the other side. See this video for details. Your dog should stay focused on you and not take the equipment. Make eye contact with your dog as you run (but watch where you are going, too). Eye contact is a great way to keep your dog connected with you and it is another way to show you are asking for handler focus and not obstacle focus. 

Dott leads out between obstacles in this still from the video.

You want to do this exercise several times, driving straight through your course with your dog. As you do this exercise, make your lead-outs shorter and shorter until you and your dog can run through the obstacles together.

Adding Circle Work

Now we will add in circle work to our exercise. Using your equipment set-up, you will now do your circle work through the equipment. Again, like above, you will use eye contact to keep your dog close to your side. You will also use your verbal cue (like "close") and hold your hand low next to your side. The object is to be able to circle in and out of the equipment without your dog opting to take equipment. You can work your dog on the both the outside and inside paths of your circle.

Adding in Obstacles

Now you are ready to add in obstacles and switch between handler focus and obstacle focus. See video example. Using your circle work exercise, you will begin making eye contact with your dog. As you weave through the course randomly ask your dog to take an obstacle. As you approach the obstacle you want your dog to take, raise your head, look at the obstacle and give a verbal command to your dog, using your hand to direct your dog away from your body. After your dog completes the obstacle, drop your hand, make eye contact again and use your verbal command put your dog back on handler focus and continue your circle. You can begin with one circle asking for one obstacle and work up to asking for several obstacles, going back and forth from handler to obstacle focus.

Remember to have fun with this exercise. If your dog decides to take a few obstacles when you are asking for handler focus, step back a step and heavily reward for staying in handler focus and not taking an obstacle until you ask.

Join us next week to try our handler focus exercises on a Snooker course.

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 or through her website at


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