agility dogs with specialist lifetime cover
Drive and basic principles...
Joanne Orrell and Anni Telford have been both
friends and distance handlers for over 25 years. They come to distance
handling from different backgrounds. Joanne was originally an obedience
handler and trainer, whilst Anni was a behaviourist and university lecturer who
applied principles of learning to humans and other animals. Neither of them could ever have been described as athletic.
Due to arthritis and a refusal to give up their love of dog agility as they
gradually became less mobile, over the years they have developed their distance handling skills. In this, the first of three articles, they
share some basic information you need to help you achieve more independence with your
dog and start your distance career.
The first thing we need to consider is what exactly do we mean by
You see all manner of people at shows who claim to
'do distance' so we want to be very clear here.
Distance handling is when the
handler takes up position in one area of the ring and does a minimum of running
or moving with the dog.
Independent handling is when a handler, who does run
with their dog, sends it over several obstacles before picking them back up
again or layers some equipment and picks the dog back up again.
Distance or Independence?
We are not claiming that one is better than the
other. Joanne and I currently train people in each style and are very happy to
do so. Both of us always try to help the partnership that is in front of us. We
do not use a 'one size fits all' approach. What we hope people will gain from
these three articles is a better understanding of how they can stretch the
distance their dog will work away from them or, if their dog is already working
independently, how they can improve their handling at distance. Handling at
distance is very different from the type of handling done when people run with
their dog. There is usually an extremely different handler 'line' for a start.
It's a line which frequently catches out judges who are unused to distance
handlers and the further away you work from your dog the stranger the line and
We'd like you to start off assessing your own
partnership by asking the question 'Where currently do my dog and I sit on the
on over nine obstacles + turns + flick flacks + contacts + weaves +
rounds + pull throughs and all complex manoeuvres
- handler works dog from a fixed point on the course with minimal
on over eight obstacles + turns + flick flacks + contacts + weaves
on over five obstacles + turns + flick flacks + contacts
Independence - handler only
present for handling manoeuvres
on over 3 + turns + flick flacks
on over two obstacles
Dependence - dog relies on
handler being present
runs beside handler
This is the continuum we use when assessing how to
help handlers who want to improve either their independence or distance
handling. If you are going to put these articles into practice, then please
identify where you currently are and, as the articles unfold and you practice
the exercises, reassess where you have got to.
Voice! Voice! Voice! - or why do
distance handlers sound like fish wives?
The second basic concept,
often forgotten by people, is quite simple. Whilst you may not be
with your dog in person - indeed you may be on the other side of the ring -
but there is one part of you that must always be with your dog and that is your
Verbal commands are the very essence of distance
work, and distance handlers have many commands above and beyond those used by
running handlers. If you are at the other side of the arena, and it's a busy
show with dogs barking and the public address system reading out the names of
the winners from a class elsewhere, it is essential that you voice is loud
enough to be heard clearly by your dog. This can be difficult for handlers more
used to relying on their body presence.
people move to greater independence and distance, some of the usual transition
Not recognising that voice must be with
the dog instead of the physical presence and fail to give their dogs enough
commands. After the initial release, most running handlers rely on their
moving body to tow or push the dog round the course. During transition you
see a lack of voice when the dog starts to curl into the handler when the
voice stops on a straight line send away, or when the dog fails to drive to
Handlers don't like shouting and their voices
can't be heard against the ambient noise. You see this lack of volume when
the dog starts making up its own course because it can't hear directional
commands. It knows it must drive on but is unsure what it should be driving
Lack of enough different commands to cover
the range of actions the dog has to perform alone. Many running handlers
rely on very few directional commands and use 'check check,' here, and out for
a whole gamut of different actions. They have been so used to relying on
being there the dog is responding to their body and not what they are
saying. This results in dogs turning in the wrong direction or making very
wide turns when the same simple commands are used for complex manoeuvres at
distance. For example, a running handler might get away with a simple
check' command for a wing wrap in either direction as the dog will usually
turn towards the side their handler is nearest to. At distance, however you
need to be able to wrap the dog around either side by voice command alone
and need at least two very different commands to be able to do it.
Timing when handlers are too late with their commands. When
running a late, or even a missed, command is not catastrophic, with a
distance dog late commands leave the dog in a sort of limbo. It has always
been encouraged to move forward towards the next obstacle but, with late
commands, has no idea which obstacle to move forwards to. As a result, you
see dogs that land and spin in one direction before heading off in the
opposite. In worse case scenarios this can end up with very frustrated dogs
who spin, bark at, or even run back and bite their handlers. If you want the
dog to turn right after the next obstacle you must give the turn right
command before it has taken off for the obstacle it is to turn right after.
If you want the dog to do an eight jump sweep you must cue move forwards
before every obstacle you want it to take.
Commands being too similar. The shape/tone of the
words are important. Help the dog to differentiate between your commands in
high speed, high distraction situations by making each word as distinct and
different from other ones as possible. Some of the most basic of the
commands we use include swing, lala, wrap, brrrrrrr, in, back, this,
arrrrround, out. It's a good idea to start a distance training diary, where
you can make a note of all the commands (and how they sound) you are about
to teach your dog.
Don't feed the dog!
We have worked with many handlers who come to us
saying 'My dog will work independently from me most places on the course except on the contacts
or at the weaves. She always waits for me and I can't get her to drive over the
When asked to demonstrate, we find that they are almost always giving
a reward / reinforcer by hand. That means they are inevitably beside the dog when giving
treat or playing tuggy. Even if the dog has run the whole length of the contact
or done all the weaves, it must wait for or go to the handler to get their
A reward is a reinforcer.
The laws of learning theory
apply here and they state that 'a reinforcer increases the frequency
of the behaviour that occurs immediately before it.' If the behaviour which
occurs immediately before the dog receiving it is something to do with the
proximity of the handler - either the dog waiting for them or turning towards the
handler - then that is the behaviour that is being rewarded, not the driving to
a contact or completing 12 weaves or anything else. Just being close to or
turning towards the handler is the very last thing the distance handler
Get the reinforcer - or reward if you prefer that
word - away from you. Get it out there at the end of the independent sequence.
Throw a toy rather than play tuggy or get someone else to throw a toy. If your
dog is a food junky, throw a toy with food in it or buy a remote-controlled
automatic feeding device. Whatever you do just don't use direct hand to mouth
transfer to do it. If you want to play tuggy, throw the toy first so the dog is
first rewarded for moving away from you.
Joy and confidence
Distance dogs need to be supremely confident.
feel they can go off and explore life without their human partner. This can
cause some problems for the human handler who, because they are used to more
traditionally trained dogs, can put control in too soon.
If you have a pup or a
young dog, then reinforce independence. If your pup goes off exploring, praise it.
Don't 'over obedience' the pup and don't encourage it to 'watch me.' For distance
work, you need a dog which looks forward towards the next obstacle, not peers round
at their handlers for reassurance that they are doing the right thing. Forward
drive and obstacle commitment reign supreme in distance work.
The Driving Arm
The advice of always using the arm
nearest the dog to indicate with is sound for dependent dogs. It does
not, however, hold up all the time when handling a dog at distance when
the driving arm needs to be used. This is when the distance handler uses
the arm furthest from the dog to send the dog up a line of jumps.
Use the opposite arm? Well. yes. The
driving arm is a fundamental skill for distance handlers.
Here is the rationale behind it.
Imagine you want to send your dog up a straight line of six jumps. The
dog is on your left. As your dog passes you at jump 2 and you carry on
using the arm nearest to the dog, your shoulders will automatically
start to turn slightly to the right, away from the line of jumps you
want the dog to continue up. By switching to use the opposite arm,
bringing it forward so it is reaching almost directly out in front of
you, your shoulders will orientate into the line of jumps. The chances
of the dog pulling out are, therefore, minimised as your body language,
although static, is pointing into the obstacles you want the dog to
Here are some exercises that should help your dog build
up the confidence to drive away from you at speed. They are the backbone or
foundation of all distance work. The most important thing about them is to remember
rush things! Get it
First get your dog's favourite training
reward. Then set up three jumps in a straight line.
Run the line of jumps with your dog on your left,
giving your 'go' or 'go on' command at the first obstacle as the dog approaches
it and then each time the dog lands to push it onto the next one. When the dog
rises for the last obstacle throw the toy out over the last jump. You must do
this before the dog turns to look at you. Try to get the toy to fly low past the
dogs head rather than up in the air. Repeat this with your dog on your right.
Do this several times, playing with the dog and toy
after each run. High excitement is what you are after here. Do not worry too
much about waits or other control elements at this stage.
Once the dog is flying down the jumps to get to the
toy, start off beside the dog as before. Making sure you continue to give your
driving 'go/go on' commands as before, start to pull away slightly as you run
the length of the jumps. You want to veer away gradually to one side, not far
enough to pull the dog out of the jumps but finishing perhaps six feet to the
right or left of the last obstacle. Always throw the toy out beyond the last
obstacle as you pull to the side. Gradually build up the distance between you
and your dog. Veer off say ten degrees at first, then fifteen, then twenty etc.
If your dog pulls out at any point, you are going too fast. Go back in nearer the
dog and repeat the process until the dog is flying down the jumps again. Do this
on both the left and the right until you can finish around fifteen to twenty
feet off to the side of the last obstacle.
Put the dog on the lead and walk up to the last jump.
Throw the toy out a little way past the last jump. Make sure your dog sees you
do it. Now walk the dog on the lead back to the start. Start the dog as normal
but this time you are going to go forward slowly, still going out to the side
and giving your 'go/go on' commands at every obstacle.
Put the toy out after the last jump and walk the dog
back to the beginning. Release the dog forward giving your driving commands but
Start adding in more obstacles, one at a time, until
you can send your dog down a line of eight jumps without moving.
Gradual Distance Development
The handler is beside the dog and using the arm
nearest the dog.
The handler has started moving out to the side and
is using the driving arm.
The handler has moved further to the diagonal and
is using the driving arm
The handler is stationary and positioned well away
from the jumping lane. She is using the driving arm.
The handler is positioned in the far right hand corner and
is using her driving arm and voice to send the dog up a line of six
Going the Distance by Joanne Orrell and
Anni Telford will be released for e-reader and in paperback in 2021. The book
designed to help improve both the agility dogs drive and
willingness to work at distance as well as handlers distance skills.
Both Joanne Orrell and Anni Telford are available for workshops and
If you would more information, either about
the book or workshops, please email Anni
12th July 2020