Q. My Instructor keeps telling me that my body language is ambiguous. Shouldn’t my collie, Billy, just do what I tell him? He’s very fast and I’m sure he doesn’t have time to see what I’m doing with my arms.
A. You’d be surprised how well Billy can read your body language. When you get up off the couch, Billy knows if you are going to make a cup of tea, if you are going to fetch your coat for a walk or if you are going to switch off the television.
Dogs are very good observers and they practice reading their owner’s every move. It’s their preferred channel of communication most of the time. Think of all the occasions that you may have shouted tire and pointed at the tunnel (your dog did the tunnel) and or yelled right and turned left (your dog turned left with you).
Expedient Many handlers with fast dogs just don’t have time to spit out a long list of commands they are running a course. Can you say Billy left jump” before he has turned right and climbed the A-frame? Theses handlers act rather than speak. Especially those that don’t know their left from their right. It’s much simpler to use their dog’s name combined with a body signal.
Body Language You can cue Billy in a number of ways. You can make physical signs very obvious or very subtle to suit your dog and the course.
Arms- an outstretched hand directs the dog to an obstacle.
Face- your dog will look at whatever obstacle you are looking at.
· Shoulder roll– sling your arm across your body and roll your shoulder in and your dog will be pulled towards you.
· Feet your dog runs in the same direction that your feet are moving.
· Movement slow down or halt and your dog will slow down and stop. Change sides before your dog takes a fence and your dog will turn that way when he lands.
· Position where you place yourself on the course will affect you dog’s performance. Stand too close to the contacts and you might push your dog off them.
These are just a few examples, but they are enough to get you round a course. Body signals will help you traverse a box or snaked down a line of fences. Don’t think that because you are working Billy from behind that he will miss them. Dogs have great peripheral vision and he will pick them up and respond.
Experiment Try running a course without saying a word to Billy. Pretend you have laryngitis. It will make you work hard to sharpen your body language and make it meaningful. And, if Billy is the type of dog that barks his way round the course or gets very excited, keeping quiet will encourage him to focus on you and concentrate on your signals. Make sure those signals are clear and readable.
Some things like contact performance should be independent of body language, but as a means of directing your dog over the course, it’s hard to beat the natural movement of your arms and legs.
Used with permission.
From Questions and Answers on Dog Agility Training, by Mary Ann Nester, T.F.H. Publications
Visit Mary Ann at http://www.aslanagility.com/
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