Agility courses are like puzzles to me. I absolutely love looking at a course map and beginning the process of planning my strategy. Putting as many pieces of the puzzle together as I can, planning down every detail, and when it's finally time to go to the startline with my dog, it's like tapping the first domino in an elaborate piece of art. Over in less than a minute, but that sort of synergy between myself and my dog is something I can't create any other way!
Phase 1: Learn the Course
You have to know where you are going before you start planning how to get there. Everyone goes about memorizing the course in a different way, but I personally like to use the map for this. At least to know the order of the obstacles, so I'm not looking for the numbers during my walk through time.
Phase 2: The Dog's Perspective
I like to think of myself as my dog's guide, rather than my dog's handler. It may sound like a simple change, but I think reframing “handler” to “guide” provides a different perspective when you start planning your strategy. I want to focus on what the dog needs to know so that he can safely (and therefore quickly and confidently) progress from one obstacle to the next. I wrote on this in more detail in a previous blog post.
Phase 3: Where to be, What to do, When to do it, and Why.
Next, I decide how I will guide my dog – what positions I will take throughout the course, which handling techniques I will choose, and the timing of each movement I will make. I get as specific and detailed as I can be to make the most educated guess as to what my plan should be. I also run a risk analysis and negotiate with my running speed, and my dog's own abilities, strengths, and weaknesses.
Phase 4: Putting it All Together
Finally, I've got a plan and now I've got to practice it. From beginning to end, a final rehearsal (or three…) of the entire run. Every detail is visualized down to the moment your dog's paws touch the ground over the final jump. A good visualization is just as effective as the real thing. I practice my performance with a dog in mind. When you're walking the course, if you are able to tell me where your dog is at each moment in relation to your own position, there will be fewer surprises when you take the line with your actual dog.
Phase 5: The Run & the Post-Run Analysis
What else could there be?! Of course! The run itself. Go test your plan, and report back with what you've learned. Did your plan work? What went well? What was unexpected? What can you update in your “rulebook” about yourself and your dog to help you plan better for the next run? Did you stick to the plan? Why or why not? Constant data collecting makes future course planning that much easier – the more you know, the easier it is to predict and plan a handling strategy, just like planning an elaborate domino trick. Everything comes down to planning where each piece will fall, how it will hit the next one, and what image it will create when it's finished.
Join me for Agility Course Analysis, a webinar hosted by FDSA. Register here, for the webinar on June 1, 2023 @ 6pm PST. Join us live, or catch the recording. I'm really looking forward to it!