Mental Aspects of Front and Rear Crosses

26 Jul 2009Steve Schwarz

After discussions on the challenges of timing crosses with some students I wanted to pass along some thoughts about Front Learning the Front Cross - VideoFront Cross and Rear Learning the Rear CrossRear Cross crosses; sometimes our heads get in the way of our execution. There are a number of articles and videos on this blog, the internet and in CleanRun about how to learn and execute crosses. Instructors use a number of techniques to help us perfect our execution. But one thing we don’t often discuss are the mental aspects of crosses.

Rear Crosses

One of the first things I learned about executing a Rear Cross, after learning the mechanics, was the need for patience. I don’t know where I first heard the expression, but it was probably from my first agility trainer Anne Riba:

Rear Crosses are about Patience

You can’t begin crossing behind your dog until your dog begins to move forward past you. If you are too early you just push your dog away. I often see this problem with new handlers when their dogs don’t drive forward and they keep moving forward with their dog until they run out of room before the next obstacle. This is also why some trainers start teaching the Rear Cross on the landing side of a jump (or the front side of a tunnel), the dog has to move forward to take the jump and the handler can step behind the dog as it strides forward after the jump (or into the tunnel). But experienced handlers aren’t immune from this problem, I recently “herded” Meeker off his line on the approach to a jump by turning into him before he had even caught up to me.

I like to tell my students that if you are still ahead of your dog at the point on the course where you had planned to Rear Cross, and you have the time, you should just Front Cross. Why wait for your dog to pass you? It is important to execute your Handling Plan, but once you know your timing for a Front Cross you can determine when waiting for the Rear Cross is unnecessary. In other words, don’t be patient to let your dog pass you and Rear Cross, when you can be impatient and properly Front Cross. As a general handling philosophy it is better to get ahead of your dog whenever possible.

Conversely, when you’ve planned a Rear Cross and you aren’t far enough ahead to Front Cross, you just have to wait for your dog to move ahead of you. In a trial that second it takes for your dog to move ahead of you can feel like an eternity. Trainers will sometimes teach an obstacle name or teach a “Go” command to send a dog ahead to the next obstacle. This can help handlers get their dogs to move ahead. IMO the key thing to not do is teach a send verbal that you don’t also support with your primary cue, your motion.

Front Crosses

I’d like to think I coined this expression about Front Crosses:

Front Crosses are about Faith

Front Crosses are the most physically and mentally demanding manuver handlers perform. Handlers have to be comfortable with:

  1. Physically performing the movements
  2. Locating the cross
  3. Getting into position (what I call getting to their spot)
  4. Training the dog to understand the handler's turning cues
  5. Having the confidence and faith in themselves and their dog to put it all together at full speed
Handlers who say "I never Front Cross", "I can't Front Cross" or even "Front Crosses are demotivating to my dog", often have a problem with one or more of these aspects of the cross.

I won’t dwell on mechanics in this post. When it comes to locating the cross I use Dana Pike’s concept of the Front Cross Line Using the Handler Line - Front/Rear/Blind Cross LineHandler Line - Front/Rear/Blind Cross Line. So let’s look at what can be done to help with the other aspects.

The biggest problem handlers have with executing Front Crosses (once they get the physical side mastered - which can take some time), is often just “going for it” - making the decision to get into position. We’ve all seen it and I’ve done it many times, you plan for a Front Cross on a course and your dog is going just a little faster than you expected or you are a little out of position and you have that split second where you wonder: “Am I going to make it to my spot?“. I’d guess 9 times out 10 the hesitation brought on by that doubt is was causes us to not move into position or move too late to properly execute the cross. You have to believe that you can do. That is why I talk about faith; faith in yourself and your dog.

I especially see this with handlers of young, fast dogs. That’s because the less experience you have together as a team, the harder it is for you to “make the call”. Also if the youngster is faster than your seasoned dog and/or just learning the game, it is harder for you to focus only on getting into position and executing. You may also be thinking about stuff like “will he collect?”, “will he take the obstacle?”, etc.

I think there are three things that can help handlers “get the faith”.

Muscle Memory

For me a key time was when I could execute a Front Cross without conscious effort. I’d done enough of them that I could just focus on getting to my spot, execute, and get moving. So not having to think about the mechanics of the cross, frees me to focus on “getting it done”. It really is liberating and something that experienced handlers/instructors can loose sight of when training novice handlers. You have to do a lot of them, practice does make perfect.

A short digression lest you think that the Front Cross was always easy for me… Over ten years ago when Anne Riba first taught me to Front Cross I just didn’t get it. I couldn’t turn the right direction. Anne had to literally take me by the shoulders and turn me in toward Mr Peabody at least a half dozen times before I was even able to turn the right direction! Not an auspicious start. So if I can do it…

Jump Training

Another thing that can help handlers is to train their dogs to adjust their stride when jumping. What I hear from a lot of handlers is that they are afraid to Front Cross in situations where they might collide with their dogs. I don’t blame them. I am mightily impressed by handlers who are racing to get into position for a Front Cross when their big Doberman is coming at them at 7 yards per second. But knowing your dog’s skills can take that concern away.

Ideally when the handler completes their cross on the Front Cross/Handler Line and keeps moving they will be out of the dog’s path. But if/when the handler doesn’t execute perfectly it is up to the dog to compensate for our failings.

The two uses of Front Crosses (or any cross) are turning the dog and changing sides on the dog. In the side change situation you should never be in a position where you have to worry about a collision with your dog, you’ll be executing when your dog is on a non-turning obstacle (tunnel, contact, weave) or you need to be well enough ahead and driving forward so as not to cue a turn.

When turning the dog with a Front Cross you need your dog to perform some amount of collection so they take the jump prepared to turn and don’t land and then start turning. This is where working on a jumping program can really pay big dividends. One thing Linda Mecklenburg teaches is to have your dog able to comfortably jump over a jump when you are on the landing side and land in the space you leave between you and the jump. You want and need your dog to not crash into you when you are on the landing side. She starts with the dog in a stationary position close to the jump and over time you move the dog further and further away from you and the jump. I recommend reading her jumping book for more information.

So once you are confident that your dog will collect when you are turning them after a jump, you can be confident that as long as your dog sees your cues that you are crossing before he takes off for the jump he will not collide with you even if you screw up. This is a key training issue that builds your communication with your dog and helps build your faith when moving in to execute a Front Cross.

Know Thy Dog/Know Thyself

The last confidence builder is the hardest one. You need to do enough Front Crosses with your dog that you can know how far you need to be ahead of your dog so that you can execute correctly. This just takes some practice. Set up crossing drills where you start with your dog moving slowly and over time is running faster and faster as you approach the cross locations. Working with a good trainer to help push your comfort zone safely little by little will also build your confidence.

So I hope these thoughts will help you keep your patience for your Rear Crosses and get the faith so you can “Go For It!” on your Front Crosses. Let me know what you’ve done to help you get the faith.

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