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Training Tuesday - Moving Towards Mastery: Change Paths to Challenge Your Handling

Steve Schwarz of Agility Nerd discusses the benefits of running a dog through a sequence that isn't the best.


I want to change how you train and help you improve the quality of your training; even in a small space with a few obstacles.

Most training sessions, that work on sequencing, simulate trialing. A course is set up and the handler works out the best path for the dog and comes up with a few handling approaches to help the dog run the best path. But once you've solved that handling puzzle you are basically done with the course. So then the search for another "interesting" sequence starts again.

What I propose is to work on the dog paths through the sequence that aren't the bestHuh? Yep!

Let's look at an example. Here is a simple box setup, just four jumps and only five numbers. From a handling perspective it works three common elements: a Back Side [QuadBackSide,ThreadleBackSidesBackSideOneJumpHandlingBackSide], a Threadle [SingleSidedThreadleHandlingThreadleBackSidesThreadleHandlingThreadle,MEBThreadleHandling] and maybe some Jump Wraps [JumpWrapNotesJumpWrapHandling,JumpWrap360JumpWrapHandling]:

Before you read on take a moment to find the fastest possible path through this sequence.

OK, you probably came up with something like this path for your dog (should be the shortest path):

I bet you can come up two or three different ways you could cue/handle it and you'd could spend a fun, short training session playing with them. But I want to challenge you more!

What if I asked you to find another path for your dog through the same five numbered obstacles? In other words, what if you turned/wrapped your dog the other way at one of the jumps? Well now you'd have to come up a slightly different handling for the same sequence!

Let's take that idea to the next level; how many different paths can you find for your dog through this same numbered sequence?

What if I told you there are seven other paths:

Now for each of those seven paths the handling will be different, similar in some spots, but different at others...

More importantly some of these paths definitely aren't what you'd normally do! They will push you out of your comfort zone, put your dog on the "wrong" side for your normal handling, have you combine handling "moves" in ways you haven't tried before, and make you really think about how you are going to handle it. You may even find alternate paths/handlings that are faster than your normal handling.

Those are all reasons why I love about this approach! If you work through the challenges you'll find, with time and practice, that all the options become easier and your experience opens up additional handling possibilities on competition courses.

This approach is based on what I've always done in my classes. My students know I'll ask: "what if you turn your dog the other way?" and "what if you use cue-combination/move 'x'?" Sometimes my question opens up a faster solution, and other times lets them polish a skill. With practice they can just "do it'" no rewalking, no hesitation because they've worked through so many variations over the weeks/months. I want you to be that confident, that fearless! Handling mastery is earned with this kind of practice.

Not only can you do this at home, as an instructor you can also do this in your classes. I have a foot injury that is keeping me from running so Liz Randall at Dogs Abound in North County San Diego  kindly set up this sequence in one of her classes and video taped some of her students trying all eight paths. In the video you'll see a nice range of experience and different breeds. I only included one handling method for each path; but they tried several approaches on some of them:

I love this simple and powerful training approach so much that I spent all my free time over the past two months and a stay-cation enhancing agility courses.com to create the dog paths automatically. I also wrote software to animate the dog paths to help you visualize them right in your web browser. Here are the animated paths for this course.

So instead of scowering the internet for new challenging courses that fit in your space, dragging lots of equipment around and only enjoying a single challenging training session; consider working through multiple dog path variations on a smaller section of the course.

In coming weeks I'll post links to short, challenging sequences that work well with this approach on the AgilityNerd FaceBook Google+ and Twitter feeds for you to try. I also have another article in the works with ideas to make Box sequences even more challenging.

I want you to have "done it all" whenever you look at a course at a trial. If you work through practice sequences with this approach you'll get there!

This article was reprinted with permission from Steve Schwarz's AgilityNerd blog

Steve Schwarz has been training and competing in agility and flyball since 1997. He focuses on helping handlers improve their communication with their dogs on course in a positive and light hearted manner. Steve brings an analytical approach from his engineering background to the study and training of agility.

In order to stay knowledgeable about current agility training techniques, Steve trains regularly with top agility handlers and attends multiple dog and agility training seminars each year. Steve competes in AKC, USDAA, UKI, and CPE venues and has competed in NADAC and UKC.

Steve also writes the longest running dog agility blog: AgilityNerd (http://agilitynerd.com/) with regular articles and videos on agility training, handling, and course analysis.


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