"Run the Dog You Brought" and "Run the Dog Not the Course"

04 Dec 2006Steve Schwarz

I am very much still training Meeker for the agility game. I’ve noticed times when I use handling with him that he doesn’t fully understand or “push the envelope” on distance or obstacle approach angles without as much training as I should have before testing him. I had a scary training moment remind me of the importance of being aware of my dog’s abilities and of being in the moment when running a course.

I had set up a course in my backyard to work with Meeker on longer sequences. One sequence sent him out of a tunnel ending at the up ramp of the dog walk with a 90 degree turn to a jump, wrapping the jump and then back to the dog walk next to the tunnel. This layout meant if I wasn’t attentive Meeker would be presented with between a 45 and 90 degree approach to the dog walk.

So as you can probably imagine, even after turning Meeker to his left over the jump he still took a really straight line toward the side of the dog walk. I’m so used to running with Milo that I didn’t help him to straighten his approach. So Meeker got about half way up the ramp before he lost his footing, fortunately the tunnel was right there and he landed on his back on the tunnel and it bounced him onto his feet. Luckily he wasn’t seriously hurt and he is a pretty confident dog and wasn’t phased by all this, he came away with only a slight cut on his lip where he must have bitten it. A four foot fall onto the ground on his back would not have been a good thing.

Lessons Learned

There is a lot to (re)learn from this event which is why I thought I’d share it.

Obstacle Familiarity

First off, train your dog to be comfortable enough to bail off of contact equipment when loosing its balance or footing rather than fighting to stay on it. There has been a lot of good discussion of this topic on the Clean Run Email list lately (start low, have the dog stop and treat on the equipment, smaller dogs to turn around on the dog walk, ask the dog to jump on/off, etc.). This is something I’ve done with Meeker and something I didn’t do with Milo. Milo will fight hard to stay on the equipment, even at times when I’d rather he bail, and he’s cut and scraped himself a number of times in the process.

Work the Angles

Also train your dog to find a comfortable and safe approach to the obstacles, this comes with practice at all approach angles on a low height obstacle where bailing isn’t dangerous. Some trainers use gates and fences to force the dog to take a straighter approach to the obstacle. Clearly an area on which I need to work with Meeker.

Help Your Dog

Some courses are just ugly. Bad contact approach angles and tight jump sequences seem to be more prevalent as teams get faster and competition gets tighter. Walking the course like your dog will run it can help you identify places where your dog will need additional assistance. In order to protect your dog you may need to change your handling to alter their path, or, for unsafe courses, speak to the judge and/or pull your dog. We are the ones who make our dogs play this game so we have to do what is right for them.

Run The Dog Your Brought

I don’t know if I made up this expression or heard it so long ago that I’ve forgotten who first told it to me: “Run the dog you brought”. I’ve noticed, now that Meeker is sequencing obstacles nicely and moves quickly and confidently, that I sometimes forget that while he can do a lot of things he hasn’t mastered them yet. So, especially on a longer sequence, I start to handle him like he has the skills of a more mature dog.

In my case I handle Meeker like I would handle Milo. In general, I can ask Milo to do “his job” for a part of the course while I move on to the next part of the course where he’ll need input from me. Of course Meeker isn’t Milo, Milo has six years of agility experience and has a good set of skills. Since I know different training approaches now, Meeker has some skills I never trained Milo but he still has a lot to learn. So I have to remind myself of the skills of my partner when I step to the line. Maybe this is a corollary to “Know Thy Dog”.

Run The Dog Not the Course

Interestingly I don’t make this mistake when I run someone else’s dog. In most cases that dog is an “unknown quantity” to me, I don’t know anything about it’s abilities. So I try to be very attentive to what the dog is doing on course and I will usually take a more conservative handling approach (unless I’m fortunate enough to be handling an exceptionally skilled dog). With the unknown dog I’ll carefully watch the dog and the course and adapt continuously to give the dog the information it needs when it needs it.

One good analogy for being an agility handler is being the navigator when you are driving somewhere unfamiliar with a friend who is driving. You need to let the driver know when to exit or turn with enough time for them to process the information and act on it. If you tell the driver “turn now” just as you pass your exit or one exit before the one you should take, it doesn’t help you get to your destination. So as the navigator of your dog on the course you need to give your dog the directional information (cues) your dog needs when your dog can process the cue and act on it.

Handlers describe how they will handle the course by what handling manuvers they will perform where on course. But implicit in that description is the dog being in the right location to benefit from that handling manuver (cue) at that location. Just performing the handling at that location isn’t enough. I believe I first heard this from Bud Houston who stressed the importance of cueing the dog when the dog is in the right location on the course to benefit from the cue. I’ve heard this referred to as “Run the Dog Not the Course”.

If you get to where you “need” to be on a course and you get there well ahead of your dog you may not be able to give the dog the cue(s) it needs to complete the obstacles between the dog and your spot. Imagine a three jump Pin Wheel where you send your dog over the first jump and then immediately run to the landing side of the third jump. If you haven’t cued your dog to take the second jump your dog isn’t likely to take it (OK I’m sure you can come up with a sequence where the dog would take the second jump automatically but I hope you get my point).

If you are late getting to where you “need” to be you will likely be limited in the cues you can use or even unable to cue your dog to take the next obstacle.

So while it can be critical that you get to certain spots on course in order to cue your dog, you have to cue your dog when your dog needs the information. To do that you have to be attentive to your dog’s skills (“Run the Dog You Brought”) and aware of exactly where your dog is on course (“Run the Dog Not the Course”) to be truly successful. So I’ll work to keep these mottos in mind and I trust they will help you too.

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