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Training: Pairs Relay

Train. Prepare. Strategize. Have fun! By Brenna Fender

Pairs Relay. It's a unique class that means great fun to some handlers and great fear to others. Why?

Many handlers fear Pairs, a class in which two dogs, each with their own handlers, run a course in relay style, largely because they don't want to mess up someone else's qualifying score. Others are concerned that their dog will interfere with the other on-course dog. "Don't be scared to run Pairs," says USDAA judge and competitor, Karen Gloor. She adds, "People just need to understand that it's just a game. If you don't enter the class, you'll never know what could/could not happen. Lots of people over think for their dogs when in reality, it usually turns out fine." 

According to many competitors, Pairs isn't scary at all. It is a fun class for handlers to enjoy. 2015 IFCS World Agility Championships Team USA member Courtney Keys says, "I've honestly never seen anything 'bad' happen, which is what some people are afraid of. It's so much fun, and everyone understands that things happen if for some reason you mess up! The excitement of it, for social dogs, can be hilarious and really fun. I can't tell you how many pairs or relay runs I've come out of laughing my butt off."

How could a handler go from fearing Pairs to loving it? Preparation and practice!


If you run Pairs for the first time in the ring at a trial, you are more likely to be stressed and anxious, which could lead to a negative experience. How can you train for Pairs? Set up a Pairs course, like the one shown here, find a partner, and practice! 

  • "Practice running with a baton in your hand so your dog isn't afraid of the baton at the show," says Hurt. Keys adds, "Dogs get wise to the baton. Running with a baton and another dog is also a good way to get your dog excited in practice and proof behaviors. [It's] great for training, even if you never plan to run pairs."
  • "Practice start line stays after the baton exchange," says Karen Gloor. 2015 IFCS World Agility Championships Team USA member Giuliana Lund also says, "Before running pairs, I would proof running out to a reasonable length lead out.... But if I haven't proofed this skill well, I would not ask for it in the ring because it would set a bad precedent if the dog broke and was allowed to continue running (and few people will pull a dog for breaking a start line in a pairs or team event)."
  • Don't have a baton for practice? USDAA judge and competitor Emily Hurt suggests using a water bottle to simulate a baton.
  • Practice baton exchanges. What will your dog be doing when you are exchanging the baton? 
Preparation at the Trial
  • "Always go to the briefing. Find out if it's okay to hold your dog in your arms while waiting in the box or if your dog has to be 'four on the floor,'" says successful competitor Alicia Nicholas. It's up to the judge to determine how this part of the exchange is handled.
  • "Communication with your partner is key. Is your partner's dog OK with another dog rushing up on it? Do you need to get yours under control before they take off? Will yours chase theirs if they go before you leash yours up?" Longtime competitor Deborah Davidson Harpur suggests getting this information sorted out before your big run.
  • "Have a nice conversation with your partner about how it's going to go down," says 2015 IFCS World Agility Championships Team USA member Keith Highley.
  • Plan out the baton exchange. Partners should "...let each other know where we will be during the hand off so [they] can do it quickly and without any issues," says Gloor. Hurt says, "If you're the first handler, take the baton to the second handler. If you're the second handler, just wait for delivery of the baton."
  • "Strategy wise, anything's legal since you are in the ring with your partner. You can hold your partner's dog at the start if need be. Help her out if she gets lost. Block an obstacle so her dog can't take it. [And so on]," says Keys.
  • "Don't stand in the path of the other dog," says Hurt.
  • "If you are the second dog to run, you may want to plan a path where you can run off the start line with your dog, both to save time and because many dogs that usually have reliable start lines will be put to the test by the excitement of watching the first dog run and by their handler running to their lead out position instead of walking calmly. Also, if a dog breaks before the handler is ready, their direction of motion will likely be incorrect and they may go off course very quickly. If I am not going to get a lead-out, I try to position myself on the side of the of the dog where the second obstacle is so that if the dog gets out ahead of me quickly and turns back towards me she will be heading in the correct direction towards the next obstacle.... I would position myself ideally to set a good line for my dog with my first step, even if this means my pairs partner needs to travel farther to give me the baton. Usually, in pairs, a few seconds lost in a baton exchange is inconsequential, whereas an off-course right off the start line means an NQ for both dogs," says Lund.
  • But, Hurt says, "It is time plus faults so don't dilly dally in the baton exchange. If you're the second dog, have leash off and ready to go once you get the baton."
  • "Even in Starters you must complete all obstacles or you incur an [elimination]," says Hurt.
  • "The judge is only judging the dog whose handler has the baton, so if your dog runs the course with the other team don't freak out. Just go with the flow," says Hurt.
  • "From a strategy point of view, the thing to remember is that the class is scored as time plus faults, so unless your dog has gone off course, keep running in spite of faults and try to get through to the end.  Remember to go over the finish jump," says Lund.
  • "If you get a choice of which dog runs which section, I know it sounds obvious but determine the strengths and weaknesses of each teammate and play to the strengths. If dog A hates the weaves and excels in always nailing the contacts... even if they are slow, but dog B is blasting fast over the contacts but may or may not get the yellow and loves the weaves, well, give dog A the contact portion and dog B the weave portion," says Harpur.
Notes about the Baton

Hurt and Keys share the following baton-related information:
  • Don't drop the baton. 
  • Don't throw the baton. 
  • Don't forget the baton. 
  • Don't have two batons. 
Seems pretty straightforward!

Other Tips
  • "Try volunteering to be the accommodating dog. [Accommodating dogs run with dogs that don't have a Pairs partner.] You get an extra free run and extra time in the ring [and] also great mental management practice. I nearly always accommodate," says Keys.
  • "Some dogs think the baton is a toy and will grab for it or will be distracted by it while jumping. If this is a concern, hold the baton such that one end is in the palm and the other end goes in the direction of the elbow, rather than sticking out from the hand invitingly like a tug toy," says Lund.
Don't Fret

"Everyone has errors sometimes in pairs and team events. Just try your best, maintain criteria for your dog, have fun, and, if things don't go perfectly, learn from the experience and move on," says Lund.

Francine and Rikki take a jump at the same time in Pairs while handlers Courtney Keys and Emily Hurt look on.  Photo by True Colors Photography, courtesy of Courtney Keys.

This article is part of USDAA's Training Tuesday series that appears on USDAA's facebook page. We encourage you to discuss this article on our facebook share your own tips for playing Pairs Relay. If you have a facebook account, please join in the fun here:

Brenna Fender is the editor for USDAA's newsletter, the Overview, and USDAA's news page (among other things). She can be reached at

Special thanks to Courtney Keys, Emily Hurt, Giuliana Lund, Karen Gloor, Deborah Davidson Harper, Keith Highley, Alicia Nicholas, and Andrea Davis for their assistance with this article.


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