3 Beginner Drills To Improve Dog Agility Handling
If you are just getting into the great sport of dog agility then you may be a little overwhelmed by all the videos and training information at your finger tips. If you plan on working with a puppy or an older dog alike we always say first that foundation work is the most important before getting to any equipment. Exercises to strengthen your dog’s body, make him more aware of his feet and where they are, learning to balance on all kinds of surfaces as well as those to strengthen his mind and your bond are hard to over due.
Once you start into handling exercises and are ready to add a single or short sequence, you will start to learn how your dog likes to be handled and what needs to be worked on as you progress in your training. One way to get an idea of your dog’s distance ability is to set up two low jumps and send your dog to one with a verbal cue. Will he leave your side and attempt the obstacle or do you need to run with him and if you do how far away can you be from him while “tagging” along.
Knowing your dog’s confidence level in distance work will let you know how close to start when using these drills. It should be your goal to build your dog’s confidence so that he is comfortable enough to send out to a jump allowing you to move about him during these drills. The drills themselves will help build that confidence, but start at the distance where your dog is confident.
A. Inside or Outside Lines: Many but not all beginner runs will have simple lines and may not require you to change sides, however, you will need to know which line you and your dog will do best with. If you only have jumps you can set them up in a u-shape and run your dog with you on the inside line and then the outside line to see which works best. If you have a slow dog you can keep with him and maybe a little ahead of him to encourage him to drive on from the inside. You also know you can be to the outside and still be able to stay with him if needed. On the flip side if you have a fast dog, running to the inside is a must if you need to stay with them to keep them on course while running to the outside may encourage him to slow down. You need to practice both in the event you must use them.
Most handlers choose the inside line if possible as it allows a bit more control of the dog and frankly it is less work. This become impractical if the course has even a small S shape to it requiring the handler to change sides on the dog in order to maintain that inside line. If your dog is slow enough you may seldom need to change sides even on a more difficult course. There will come a course that makes it impossible for you not to change sides. Just one tunnel butted up to a wall/fence is all it would take. Yes, course designers will do that.
Front and Rear Crosses: There are some very fancy and advanced moves that will get you and your dog around a course with ease and great style, but they come with tons of practice. Until then it is a great asset to at least get a solid front and rear cross in your teams toolbox. The drill is easy to set up by making a simple “S” shape with four jumps. Starting at the bottom of the “S” you will start on the inside line for the first two jumps. To do the front cross you will move to the inside of the third jump, your new side, as your dog is taking the second jump. You will maintain visual on your dog which will mean you turn toward your dog. To do the rear cross you can stay with your dog through the first two jumps and as he commits to the third jump you will cross behind him and change sides.
Front crosses usually work best for slower, less confident or less focused dogs as you never leave their sight. The rear cross works well for faster confident dogs as you never get in their way. Front cross also help slow a dog if they need to slow down for an obstacle such as the table or a contact obstacle. You need to work both crosses with your dog in the event a course calls for it, but knowing which is best for your team is crucial for planning your runs.
Directionals: Going in line with your rear cross is directional commands so you can tell your dog which way he is heading after the jump. While your body will be telling him, if he gets the additional verbal before take off he will be able to land correctly and head to the next obstacle with a clean, smooth line. You simply set up two jumps in a line and a third to the left or right. If you want you can set one to the left and the right after the dog has a better understanding of directions. As you run to the inside (you will work both sides) run the line on the same side giving your dog the directional cue as soon as he is committed to the second jump, but before he takes off. At the same time, turn your shoulders to the third jump and continue that direction.
As your dog gains confidence in turning left and right to your directional cue, you will then move to the outside line and do a cross (front or rear) in front of the the second jump. If you have a fast dog you may find you need to do a rear cross between the first and second jump. Be careful on your front cross that you do not get too far ahead of your dog and pull him off the second jump.
As you practice these drills, keep in mind that there will be mistakes. When this happens you need to evaluate what went wrong then go back to the start or at least one obstacle back and try again. Nine times out of ten the error is in our body language and timing. Make sure you are committed to the changes with your entire body as all it takes is your shoulders pointing the wrong way and your dog will be off course. When giving directional cues you need to give your dog time to process and execute it before getting locked on to the wrong obstacle. Above all keep it fun, upbeat and short, 20 minutes is plenty of time to practice. I know we call them drills, but don’t drill them.