Handling cues come from our whole body. Some cues are naturally more relevant or powerful to your dog. By truly understanding these cues and how they work, we can more easily communicate clear messages to our dogs on course.
Movement, Position, Eyes, Chest, Feet, Arms, & Voice all give valuable information to your dog. As you work through this lecture, think about recipes, and how different amounts of the same ingredients combine together to make slightly different chocolate chip cookies, or how the same amounts of totally different ingredients makes soup.
It’s nearly impossible to isolate each cue, so try to use your imagination as you read about how each piece could work individually. You can’t taste an egg once it’s baked into a cake, but you know it’s in there. It’s sort of like that 🙂
The most natural cue your dog responds to is your movement. The direction of your motion and the speed of your movement.
If you are running along and turn to the left, your dog will also turn to the left. If you turn right, your dog will turn to the right. If you speed up, your dog will speed up. If you slow down, your dog will slow down as well.
Your dog will naturally parallel the path you move in. In most cases, we do not want to override this extremely powerful, natural cue.
However, if I am not able to stay ahead of my dog with my running speed alone, I will need my dog to learn that my speed isn’t relevant when determining his speed. Still, I want my dog to respond to changes in my speed.
As I mentioned earlier, motion is the first cue that dogs prioritize naturally, but that also means it is the biggest distraction we give our dog on course. When we run ahead of them, it can be difficult for them to stay in their 2on 2off position on the contacts, or stay in the weaves while we move laterally away from them. It can also be distracting to their jumping, if you make a sudden movement while they are trying to take-off, it could cause them to knock a bar.
Much of this requires training, to teach the dogs when to follow our motion and when not to follow our motion.
To start off with your map of communication skills: write down situations where you do and do not want your dog to follow your motion. Also, write down your “speeds” of motion. I think of motion in these levels/speeds: no motion, walking, jogging, running.
So that we balance your cue combinations correctly, it’s important to know what your fastest is, and that we teach the dog that from the very beginning.
If you know that any level of motion will not be present in your handling system, that will be important for us to know moving forward in your training and in what we train our dogs to pay attention to most.
Next, let’s discuss the handler's position.
The second most powerful cue that your dog naturally responds to is your position on course. Your position in relation to the dog and to the obstacles matters.
Each dog has a “natural working distance” that they prefer to have when working with their handler. Some dogs like to be very close, while others naturally want to work further away. This is important to know about your dog, because the intensity of your positional cue is on a sliding scale relative to the dog’s natural working distance.
For example, if a dog is running wide around jumps, maybe the handler is unaware of the dog’s natural working distance. If that handler begins running one step further away from the dog’s line laterally, the dog might come in and take the jumps on the correct line. The opposite is true for dogs that want to be close to the handler – the handler may be too far from the line of the dog to keep the dog on the line of jumps.
We can only influence the dog’s natural working distance so much. Yes, we can use positive reinforcement to change natural tendencies to more desirable ones, but there is a limit to how much we can change it. Many times, it is easier to adjust the language between handler and dog than to change a dog’s natural behavior.
If you are close to an obstacle, that is a cue to your dog to interact with that obstacle. The further away from an obstacle you are, the less your position is supporting that obstacle. The less your position supports obstacles, the more obstacle focus your dog needs to have.
When your position is far ahead of the dog, you are cueing the dog to go forward/speed up/jump in extension. When your position is behind the dog, you are cueing the dog to slow down/turn towards you. This is because dogs want to be, in general, one step (about 3 feet) away from us.
Your positional cue is always being affected by your movement cues as well. If you are behind the dog and slowing down, this increases the intensity of your turning cue, but if you are behind the dog and speeding up, this decreases the intensity of the natural turning cue.
There are times that we want our dogs to ignore our positional cue. Can you think of them?
- Contacts, weaves, startlines, etc. First come to mind, right?
For your handling system, think of your positional cues and how they affect the dog on course.
Next, we will discuss where you look on the course!
Dogs have been living with humans long enough to know that where are looking really matters -a lot! And, as we have progressed onto better dog training practices, we have made more of an effort to teach eye contact as a default behavior that we look to as a piece of our communication we have with dogs!
This means that dogs are watching our faces more and more. In fact, when I am training my dog, I won’t give another cue until my dog looks back up at my face. How does that impact how we communicate on an agility course?
I believe that dogs are looking for our faces on an agility course to enhance their ability to react to the other physical cues like your chest, your feet, your arms, and your voice.
This is often referred to as “connection”, and can be thought of just like a cell phone connection. When your dog can see your face/eyes, the connection is strong and he can easily “hear” what you are cueing. When your dog cannot see your face/eyes, the connection is weak, and it’s like there is static interrupting your cues. This static comes from the dog having to split his attention between observing your cues and finding your face/eyes.
This also means that where we are looking does become part of every cue we give our dogs on the agility course!
When you are looking over your left shoulder, your dog naturally knows to come to your left side, even if your right hand is moving and the opposite is also true! This is because dogs value where we are looking more than what our hands are doing! Amazing!
Sometimes, problem behaviors creep in because of where we are looking. The problem behaviors that I am thinking of are: cutting in front of you or cutting behind you. This is often because the dog is trying to get to the side you are looking to; which means if you are looking forward, unable to see your dog, your dog has stopped worrying about the obstacles and has started looking for your face! This is what “connect” or “reconnect” is referring to, if you’ve ever heard that phrase from your agility instructor!
It’s impossible to run an agility course without using your eyes, and good timing comes from being able to observe when your dog needs the next piece of information, so we are going to spend a lot of time developing those observational skills when you are also moving! Fun!
Are there any times we want our dogs to ignore where we are looking? I can’t think of any!
Next up, we are talking about your chest!
How do dogs know where the ball is going before it ever leaves your hand? Mainly, because of where your chest points when you bring your arm back to throw it forward! Amazing, isn’t it? It’s ok if you stop reading this lecture right now and go try it. It’s cool!
Basically, what it means, is that dogs naturally want to be in front of our chest. Remember how I mentioned that if you are looking over your left shoulder, your dog will come to your left side? Well, where does your chest point when you are looking over your left shoulder? The dog will naturally work hard to stay in front of this point.
If you are looking forward, your chest will be pointing forward, and so your dog will want to come to your front!
Our chest serves as a natural way to tell our dogs to speed up or slow down. Working together with our movement, if we are running straight ahead, even while looking at our dog, our chest is mostly facing forward, cues our dogs to speed up or extend.
But, if we turn our chests towards our dogs, this slows them down more and more. There comes a point where if you face them too much, they stop completely (think about a formal obedience “front”)
Your eyes and chest work together to form the upper body cues, and I refer to these as the “present”. When handling your dog on course, my upper body should always try to support what my dog is currently doing.
Can you think of a common handling technique that relies heavily on the dog’s natural ability to follow the handler’s chest movement?
Consider if you were moving backwards as fast as you could manage. Your movement would say extend, but your chest would say collect. Can you imagine how your dog would respond?
Surprisingly, what our legs and feet are doing is pretty low on the list of importance to our dogs. This works in our favor, as humans, so that we can focus on moving in the most efficient ways possible for us!
My goal is that each step you take moves you closer to the next position you need to be in on the course, so keeping your feet moving forward as much as possible, is the name of the game.
One thing that helps me, is to think of my dog-side leg as an accelerator. When I take a step forward with the leg closest to my dog, he is thinking of moving forward. This is because, when I take that step forward, my chest turns slightly away from the dog, and remember, our dogs want to be in front of the chest laser.
I think of my outside leg (the one furthest from the dog) as a brake. When I take a step forward with the outside leg, my chest naturally turns towards the dog, which we know to be a natural slow down cue.
Dog-side and non-dog side is based on you and the dog facing the same direction.
I mentioned before that I refer to the upper body cues as the “present”, which means your lower body cues – your feet/legs – are the “future”. Where your feet are pointing, and the direction your legs are taking you in, should tell the dog where they are going next, while your upper body cues continue to support what the dog is currently doing.
Are you starting to see how handling cues come together? What is standing out to you right now?
Our arms are a natural extension of our chest. If our dog is on our left side and we pick up our right arm and move it across our body to our left side, that will turn our chest back towards your dog, right? So, when the use of arms is discussed in handling, a large portion of the time it is about our chest again, which we know to be quite important to the dog!
However, because we are humans, it is easier to say “use this arm” or “point this arm there”, and it is easy to assume our arms mean more to the dogs, but in reality, they are pretty low on the pecking order, naturally.
We do create importance for our hands through training! We reward our dogs a lot from our hands, and we can use that to our advantage during some handling techniques.
Just like our legs, I view the dog-side arm as an accelerator and the non-dog-side arm as a brake.
One thing that we will pay close attention to in our training is our leg and arm movements together. As humans, we are built to use the hand and foot opposite each other. And, as humans, we typically have no problem using the hand closest to the dog, but that means we are often using the “brake” leg and the “accelerator” hand together, which can be a conflict for the dog. Remember, your feet/legs are naturally more relevant to the dog, so this conflict can cause dogs to break commitment and incur refusals on course.
This is one of the key movements that we will be working on in class!
English is not our dogs’ first language, so verbal cues are trained or conditioned. Naturally, on their own, verbals are not all that important to our dogs. Through training, we can make those verbal cues more relevant. Oftentimes, if our physical cues might be similar in certain situations, a well-trained (and well-timed) verbal cue can give the dog the information that they need.
Teaching verbals to override the physical cues outlined above is difficult. When we do train an unnatural cue (verbal) to override a natural cue, we have to be aware of what we might be losing in the balance of things.
For example, if you teach a dog to continue forward at full speed on a verbal cue, while you stand still, providing no physical support for continuing forward, you may struggle with getting the dog to collect using physical cues alone. You may have to reset the balance by adding a verbal slow down cue to pair with that set of physical cues.
We will talk more about verbals when we discuss the timing of cues. If you have verbal cues for agility, make a list of them, and what they mean, and the physical cue(s) that go with them.