How to train your dog to work away from you
Jane Simmons-Moake says that one of the most common questions people ask her at seminars and at agility trials is 'How do you teach your dog to work at a distance?' Someone actually asked her this while she was the queue to enter the ring with only two dogs ahead of her. To which the handler ahead of her chimed in with a perfect five-word answer, saying 'Buy Jane's books and DVDs!' It is a complex question that cannot be explained in five words and deserves a thorough and thoughtful answer which Jane attempts to provide in this article.
Many people begin their agility training by running closely alongside their dog. This can be a successful strategy at the beginner levels of competition especially for those with slower or moderately paced dogs competing on simple courses. Eventually, as your dog moves up to higher levels of competition, this strategy no longer works for every situation. It soon becomes clear that the ability to handle at a distance when needed would be an asset - or even a necessity - to achieving your agility goals. Distance handling is now essential for excelling on Agility, Jumping and Games courses. Distance skills allow you to smoothly handle courses with handler restrictions. They also enable your dog to perform courses at his fastest possible speed, rather than be limited by yours.
To achieve your goal of working at a distance, you will need to back up in your training and undertake some gradual, systematic retraining. You will need to train your dog to perform each of the obstacles at a distance with speed and accuracy. Then, you will need to train a set of consistent body cues that will communicate as well at a distance as they do when you are close to your dog. If you merely change the rules without sufficient, patient retraining, your dog won't know how to succeed. Expecting results without this proper foundation work can damage your dog's happy attitude and his trust in you as a team leader.
Begin your retraining program by calling your dog to you over/through each of the individual obstacles at a variety of angles and distances. Moving toward you, your dog will be motivated to move at his fastest speed. At the same time, he will gain skill and confidence at working independently from you. Then, progress to sending your dog away from you to each of the obstacles. Begin with short distances (4 – 5 feet) and gradually work up to longer distances (20 - 30 feet or more.)
With all of your calling and sending to individual obstacles, insist on speed and precision regardless of your distance from the obstacle. Make it easy for the dog to approach the contact obstacles squarely and to touch the contact zones by using aids such as wire guides, hoops, or targets.
With weave poles, it's a good idea to examine your dog's weaving performance before asking him to weave at a distance. Does your dog rely on your hand or body, or look up at you for direction through each pole? If so, you have either intentionally or inadvertently made yourself an integral part of the weaving process. Once you try to move away from the poles, your dog will not know how to perform them. If this sounds like your situation, you will need to retrain the weave poles before being able to handle them at a distance.
Once you can call and send to each of the obstacles individually, you are ready to start handling at a distance on a sequence of obstacles. Start with short sequences that require no side-switches. Pattern your dog by performing the sequence at a comfortably close distance. Then, repeat it, progressively gaining more and more lateral distance from the obstacles.
To develop linear distance skills (sending your dog ahead over several obstacles) start with short, straight-line sequences, using a toy or target at the end of the sequence. Increase your distance by adding obstacles to the start of the sequence, leaving the end of the sequence and target in the same position throughout the progression. Be careful not to accept refusals at any stage of your training. At the same time, make sure you are doing your part by giving your commands on time and are giving unambiguous body cues.
When training something new, you will often take two steps forward -then one step back. What may very well happen after you have trained your dog to soar at a distance is that he may start taking a few extra obstacles on his own for a while. This is to be expected. You've taught him to enjoy looking confidently for the line of obstacles ahead. You will now need to work on being able to reel him in or change his direction at will. To accomplish this, use lots of variations on a theme. Pattern a sequence then inject unexpected changes in direction and call-offs followed by extra-special rewards. Eventually, set up sequences in which you alternate between sending your dog to work at a distance and bringing him back to you to work under tighter control.
If I've made developing distance skills sound like a lot of work, it can be - especially, if you have spent a long time doing agility with your dog glued to your side. Is all the work worth it? Absolutely! If you have never worked with your dog at a distance, you have not yet discovered the joy of traversing an agility course independently, yet together.
As a result of your training your dog will be able to move through the course at his highest potential speed, unencumbered by any risky attempts to race him to an obstacle and cut him off for a turn. Your dog's jumping and movements will be smooth, natural, and a joy to behold. Most of all, you will have a powerful new tool in your arsenal to call upon whenever distance handling would be to your advantage.
If you want to learn more about handling your dog at a distance, you can buy Jane's book Unleashing the Velcro Dog, available from Agility Warehouse.
Jane was one of the earliest pioneers in US agility, having entered the sport in 1986. She has given over a hundred seminars throughout the US as well as Europe, Japan, South America, Canada and Mexico.
You can see Jane put her winning methods to use in competition by visiting www.youtube.com/janesm11 .