Monday, 13 March 2017

Starting Distance Handling for Agility

Why Distance Handle?

I wrote this recently after being asked to describe to club members how to make a start with distance handling.  I hope it's helpful.  Also worth checking out is the FaceBook group for Distance Handling here:

There are lots of reasons:
- Because it’s cool, and worth a try
- To add more flexibility to your handling
- Because you can’t run as fast as your dog
- Because you really can’t run at all!
The emphasis you place on building distance skills will depend on how many of the above apply to you. Handling at a distance will always be riskier than conventional methods, so handlers who can move fast, usually take that option. For the rest of us distance handling is worth the time investment, because it helps us to be competitive at all.

My Thoughts on Training Distance Handling:
1.     Confidence is key!  If your dog is to race away and take obstacles on command, without you there, he needs to know you will be pleased he did.  So, reward - reward - reward – even if he takes the wrong obstacle, or turns the wrong way, reward the attempt.  This always important, but it is especially so at the start of distance training.
2.    Start small and build up.  Distance does not happen quickly, nor does finer control at distance happen without the slow build-up of foundation skills.  Be aware that it is likely to take much longer to train a distance-dog to run agility courses, than it takes to train one that runs beside the handler.
3.    When the going gets tough, go back a step or three! Practice simple stuff a lot, as well as developing newer skills. So, if the dog starts slowing down, wondering what you want, it’s time to make it easier again ie shorter faster exercises, and more frequent rewards. Keep sessions short, and exciting. 5 mins daily, is better than 35 once a week.
4.   It’s a learning curve for the handler too. Often the dog interprets what we ask differently to how we intended.  So, when errors are made, be aware that it might be your error and not the dog’s.  Reward his efforts to do what you want.
5.    Video what you do often. Watch, evaluate and learn from mistakes.  Most of the eliminations I have in competition are because I have muddled my signals.  Even if I don’t think it at the time, watching the video often shows what I did. Be kind to yourself … errors are just going to be part of the learning curve! And both of you are learning.

Skills the Dog needs to Distance Handle:
1.     Confidence to leave your side – This is the biggest one.  Drive can be built with lots of exercises away from the agility equipment.  Eg Using the word “Go” every time your dog runs for a ball you throw - this builds up the fun of racing away on command. For dogs who have done obedience, rushing ahead of their handler may need to be taught.
2.    Attention to your Body language – Apparently, dogs have better all-round vision than we do. So even small body language gestures can be interpreted.  I wear blue to help me stand out from the background.  Yellow is also good. Dogs however don’t see red well, so reds and pinks give no advantage over greys. You can grow your dog’s attention to your physical cues by also using silent gestures at home for tricks etc.
3.    Listening Skills – Dogs pick up human language more than we think, and are quick to predict what is coming next. (Think of the word WALK.) This can be used to help with obstacle discrimination.  Eg Tunnel or Jump?  Left or Right?  Start using words for other skills, and see then if they can be understood without using a gesture as well.  Once the dog learns that your words really mean something, the skill is transferable to agility.
4.   Independent Obstacle Skills -  If your dog is to work away, then each of the obstacles needs to be taught so it can be completed without you near-by.  Weave entries can be taught with as few as 4 stick in the ground poles.  Contacts can be taught by using a touch target at the end of a plank of wood. A single jump can be used to teach wraps and backsides in a small space.  Sending your dog to his bed can also be a distance skill.
5.    Ability to Work It Out – Some breeds might find distance agility more difficult!  It is not by chance that agility folk often use collies – this breed has been herding sheep and listening to their shepherds (at huge distance) for generations!!  Whatever the breed, the dogs will need time & repetition to figure out what you want.  Just like driving a car: what is at first done with careful thought, should (with multiple repetitions) become second nature.

Early Exercises without equipment:
1.     Go Go GO!  Any time your dog is running after a ball, it is worth using the word GO so that he associates “Go” with running. Next try calling “Go!” just before you throw a ball.  After a while the dog will predict that “Go!” means that the ball is going to follow. Once he starts running on the word “Go!”, throw it over his head before he looks back for it.  This encourages him to look forwards as he runs.
2.    Going “Around” trees etc. Sit close to a tree or other upright and give treats from alternate hands.  Reward your dog each time he goes around the tree & back to you (alternate directions). See if he can work out why he gets the treat. Slide back a bit, and keep going.  When you try the next time, start close-up first before building distance again. Lots of praise with each loop around. Once he’s doing it well, you can add a word as a cue.  Maybe “Around”. Once you are further back it might be “Go!” then, “Around”.
3.    Running past you. Have someone hold the dog while you walk out ahead and call Go! (You face the way he is going & look over your shoulder to him, on the side you want him to pass you), reward by throwing the ball ahead of you as he goes by. Keep calling Go! til he gets the ball. Then lots of praise and treats.

Developing those Early Skills:
Your dog needs to start following cues from your hand, arm, and body language. In the early sessions, you will have thrown the ball from the hand nearest the dog, so he starts to associate that forward “throw” as applying to him as he chases the ball. This needs to be developed.
Your Signals:
·         Under arm throwing motion – propels dog from your side forwards
·         Arm low – curves your dog’s line inwards towards you
·         Arm raised higher – sends dog outwards away from you
·         Arm bent, body crouched  & motion slowing down – indicates you want the dog to collect
·         Arm straight, body tall & motion increased  – indicates extension
·         Think of your arm and hand pushing the dog forwards
·         Even from far back your acceleration or deceleration is noticeable to the dog

Exercises to Practice:
1)      Two cone exercise:
Develop the “Around” exercise to two cones.  Start with them so close together that they almost seem as one.  Then gradually spread them apart.  If you start with your dog on your left, then send him to the left of the first cone. Keeping him on your left, you then turn right as he goes around the cone, and you call “Go” to send him forwards to the next cone, while stepping in that direction.  Practice both ways, and with the cones getting further away, and further apart. Remember at the end of each success to have loads of praise for for your dog. 

2)     Line of Jumps:
Set the dog up (either in wait, or with assistant holding him) and go to the end of a line of 2 jumps.  Face the direction you want your dog to go, and look over your shoulder to him.  Have the toy in the hand you will be signalling with.  Call “Go!” and keep encouraging the dog take all the jumps and rush on past you after the toy.  Throw the toy as he takes the last jump. Develop the exercise by:

  • a)     Moving yourself further back towards the dog, so he runs past you to take the last jump, and eventually goes right from your side to take both jumps.
  • b)     Adding more jumps Each time you add another jump, start by positioning yourself at the last jump again. Face in the direction the dog is going, call over your shoulder, and move slightly forwards yourself calling Go! Throw toy as reward. (Or have some-one throw it if you are too far behind ;) )
  • c)      Remember to do this from both sides.
  • d)     Build some lateral distance Once the dog is taking a series of jumps with you close to the line of the jumps, then see if you can step out to the side a bit. Go to the middle of the line, take a step or two out sideways, and look over your shoulder to him as before.  Wait until he looks at the first jump to call “Go!” then you move forwards parallel to the line of the jumps as he takes them.  Build this lateral distance. 

3)     Curve of Jumps:
Once the dog will do a line of 3 jumps nicely with you out to one side, you can start to bulge the line into a curve.  Send the dog out, and then turn as he does, so that your shoulders help him see the direction you intend. Keep your arm out indicating he should stay out. Lift the arm a little higher when he is further away, and lower it as he comes closer to you.  Develop this by adding more jumps and a deeper curve.  Leading to either a long U shape, or a full circle.  Remember to practice in both directions.
4)     Early Turns:
Using the two cones, start with dog on left, send him around the first two cones using your left arm, then as he goes around the second cone, turn left to face the first cone again and use your right arm to send him around the first cone again.

5)     Tighten turns:
Teach your dog to “wrap” a single cone more than once. Start close-up, & use a stirring motion with your hand to indicate he keeps going around the cone. Right hand always wraps him anticlockwise, and visa versa. Develop with more than one cone.

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