I want to talk about Handling Systems for just a second. I don't want to hash out which is better or which is easier for the dog or for the handler. In fact, I don't want to call it a handling system. I want to call it a Cueing System.
Instead of talking about how I handle my dog around an agility course, I want to talk about how I cue my dog around the agility course. I want to talk about developing consistency within my cueing system to minimize confusion for both myself and my dog.
Think of a simple behavior, like sit. How many different ways do you have to cue sit? Most of us would say “one”, I think. But, I think we have at least two different ways we cue sit, typically.
– saying “sit”
– luring a sit with our “cookie fingers”
So, there is more than one cue for the same behavior – this isn't a problem, unless your cue for wave also looks like your lure for sit. Or, if your cue for “drop the toy” happens to be “spit”, which sounds like “sit”. When cues for different behaviors are very similar, dogs are going to make mistakes sometimes.
Let's also check how many behaviors you expect when you say “sit”. I'm guessing one, right? And when you say down? You expect one behavior from the dog.
This is a cueing system. You give a cue and you expect a specific response from the dog. When you give a cue, there isn't a wide range of behaviors you'd accept and reinforce, is there? And, because of that consistency in reinforcing one specific behavior when given a certain cue, your dog can rely on you to be truthful with your cues. (i.e. when you say sit, you'll reward a sit!) Your dog also begins to rely on that you will cue sit in the same way every time.
Now, let's talk about agility.
My cueing system includes the handling techniques and the verbal cues I choose to teach my dogs. When teaching those verbal cues, I also have to think of what my body will be cueing to the dog at the same time, because dogs understand body language much more easily than verbal cues.
For handlers to be able to trust that our dogs are following our cues accurately, we need to provide those cues consistently. When it comes to handling techniques (front cross, rear cross, reverse spins, backside sends, german turns, etc) if we cue them the same way every time, we can begin to expect the same response from the dog every time (or nearly, anyways. #human, #dogisnotamachine)
My point is, if your cueing system is constantly changing, then it's going to take a lot longer for you and your dog to get on the same page. If your front cross execution varies a lot, then your dog's response to the front cross is going to vary a lot. Additionally, when we aren't consistent with our execution of handling techniques, the differences in our execution are likely to be bigger.
However, if your front cross is executed the same way 90% of the time, when you do have a difference in execution, it is likely going to be a small difference in execution. And the smaller the difference in your behavior, the smaller the difference in your dog's behavior, and that's what we are after.
Within a cueing system, you also have to understand subtle differences between cues. For example, the only difference between a front cross and a reverse spin is where you are looking. In a front cross, you change guiding sides of the dog, but in a reverse spin, you do not. Understanding that key differences gives us the control over which side we cue the dog to come to, and the ability to self-diagnose problems when they come up within our cueing system.
If you don't know that dogs come to the side we are looking at, it's hard to understand why dogs respond to front crosses and reverse spins, or why they may go behind us when we believe we are cueing a front cross.
If you are new to agility, my advice is to find a coach or instructor that has his/her cueing system worked out and understands how a change in the cue will effect a change in the dog's behavior. Learn from them all of those details that will make agility make more sense to both you and your dog.
If you have some agility experience and are wondering how to add new skills and tools to your current cueing system, here is my advice:
1. check your big picture: Is the new handling skills or verbal cue going to work within the cueing system I am already using? Remember, even verbal cues will have physical cues attached!
2. is this going to set anything off balance? When you train a new skill, like wrapping wings for tight turns, you must make sure you aren't losing the opposite behavior. In this case, it is slicing! We need our dogs to have both of those skills, so when you teach one thing, you must keep things in balance and teach both the wrap and the slice to fluency 🙂 Apply this to ALL skills!
3. Don't be afraid to experiment. If you learn something at a seminar or in an online class and you want to try it for a month, go ahead. See how it fits into your cueing system and test it against your other cues. If it serves you, add it to the toolbox. If it doesn't serve you, or it isn't working out within a month's time, then it's probably ok to toss that tool out.