To Cross or Not To Cross: The Front and Rear Cross
When first getting into dog agility the subject of crosses may not come up, but as you progress and your team becomes more fluid you will be looking for ways to make your runs cleaner, faster and more efficient. Once you have been in dog agility for awhile and decide to get that second dog, you no doubt will know the importance of foundation work that will make these handling skills second nature to your dog. And while there is a long list of different “crosses” and handling moves to change sides on your dog, we will be looking at the two main forms that can and should be used by everyone. These are the Front and the Rear cross.
The Front Cross is easy enough to execute by the handler allowing them to change from one side of the dog to the other and is usually done on a turn to help start or maintain the turn in the dog’s path. In a nutshell, the handler starts off in front of the dog and crosses in front of the dog before an obstacle to encourage the dog to turn with the handler toward the obstacle. In the Front Cross the handler picks up the dog after the turn and stays in line with the dog for the following obstacle. The strengths of the Front Cross is that it can help motivate a dog that has the desire to chase the handler, it can tighten turns after a jump and the dog is visible to the handler through the entire cross. The weakness of the Front Cross is that it can slow a dog down by taking their focus off the course and onto the handler, if the handler is late and doesn’t get out of the way, it could cause a wreck and if performed late it could pull the dog off the intended obstacle.
The Rear Cross can be equally easy to execute by the handler, but it takes some practice for the dog to follow the handler’s change of sides. It is a really nice cross to use to keep the handler’s line shorter and allows the dog to maintain full speed. This cross requires the dog to be in front of the handler so the handler can cross to the rear of the dog. Unlike the front cross in the rear cross the handler remains “behind” the dog. And while the dog must be confident enough to stay ahead of the handler it has the advantage of the handler maintaining visibility of the dog throughout the cross. The strength of the rear cross is that when properly executed by the team, it allows the handler to take the shorter line on the course as well as allowing the dog to maintain full speed through the line. The weakness of the Rear Cross is that timing is more critical as an early change could turn the dog off the intended obstacle and the dog must not only be confident in running ahead on their own, they must have great directional training so the handler can maintain control from behind the dog.
Neither of these basic crosses comes naturally and they both require practice until both dog and handler are comfortable with them. Many beginners avoid the crosses as they find them too challenging. Yes, there is the issue of timing in both of these handling techniques and this causes many beginners or casual competitors to steer clear of the inherent risks, but Steve Swarts says in his excellent article, “Front Crosses are about Faith”, “I’d guess 9 times out of 10 the hesitation brought on by that doubt is what causes us to not move into position or move too late to properly execute the cross. You have to believe that you can do it”. Amen, he’s so right.
I suggest watching videos of crosses over and over again to “get the picture” of what is required, but don’t over analyze the movements. Mimic technique, yes, play-practice without your dog, yes. But at some point just go out and try it. You might trip and fall, and you might trip over your dog. But if you don’t care how you look, you’ll learn crosses much faster than if you are hung up on technique and keeping good appearances (and if you are involved in agility for long enough, you know that the latter is nearly impossible!).
It takes practice. It primarily comes from visualizing the action in your mind, coupled with a clear vision of the desired direction you want to be in (i.e. the next obstacle). Always keeping the end result in mind (the forward motion of the mind) is key. In agility, successful runs hinge on you being one step ahead of your dog. I don’t mean physically one step ahead, (many times your dog is ahead of you), but I mean mentally. You are thinking of the next obstacle that your dog has to do a split second before he is. So, give it time and soon you will have both these crosses mastered.