Dana Pike, Jen Pinder and Rhonda Carter "Spring Maintenance Camp"

04 Jun 2005Steve Schwarz

I attended the “Spring Maintenance Camp” Dana Pike held at her place in Wilmington, IL this past Memorial Day Weekend. Like last year, the instructors were Jen Pinder, Rhonda Carter, and Dana. Judging by the enthusiastic campers I think Jen and Rhonda were back by very popular demand! There were three rings setup and you spent a day with each instructor.

I can’t say enough good things about this camp. We had beautiful weather; only a threat of rain the first day, sunny and in the 70’s for the other days. Jen, Rhonda, and Dana are not only great handlers they are extremely knowledgeable, experienced, and positive trainers and presenters.

For anyone who hasn’t taken a multiple day Agility seminar yet, I highly recommend it. You are immersed in Agility, as you are thinking and working with your Agility teammate all day long for several days. An analogy would be sitting down and reading a book in several long sittings; as opposed to reading it a few pages at a time over many days. You see connections and common themes repeating themselves. For agility you can also see how new and/or improved skills can be brought to bear on many different handling and training challenges.

I also like that over a three day weekend you get the benefit of three trainer’s viewpoints. This is a key point especially for intermediate and advanced handlers. All three trainers have different viewpoints on several aspects of the sport so you can compare, contrast, and ultimately integrate the information into your own “handling system”.

So here are just some of the things I brought back from this camp:

Day One - Jen Pinder

Jen worked our group on courses that emphasized challenging openings, 270s 270 Degree Jump SequenceBack Side Entry to 270/Training Opportunity - VideoHandling 270 Degree Jump Sequences and 270s at the beginning and end of Serpentines Serpentine SequenceSerpentine Handling Techniques. For example, think of a 270 with the weave poles in line with the two jumps, so the weaves make up the third obstacle in the Serpentine. A little trickier than a simple Serpentine, but with Jen’s assistance we were all (ultimately) successful handling the various permutations.

She also worked on helping members of what she called “Overshapers Anonymous” who are obsessed with (over) handling to give their dogs straight approaches to contacts and weave poles. Jen pointed out that courses are getting uglier with respect to these approaches; so we should be prepared to give our dogs information ahead of time to meet these challenges without babysitting the approaches.

We also spent some time on fast table performance. To paraphrase Jen: “the table isn’t going away yet so you should be able to perform it as quickly as possible”. She also brought up a theme common to all the instructors - know your performance criteria and continually strive to uphold and reward that criteria.

Due to my fascination with handling philosophy (or in current lingo “handling system”) I was intrigued to hear Jen mention that she doesn’t ever cross on a straight line. That is, she’ll only cross to change a dog’s direction or change sides on the dog. I hadn’t heard that before; for example I’ll occasionally Front Cross to tighten a wrap around a jump standard.

Another handling philosophy Jen mentioned that I hadn’t heard before was that a dog should never cross the handler’s path without a command. That is, if you are running with your dog on your right your dog should never cross to your left (in front or behind you) on their own. Obviously, you don’t want your dog randomly cutting in front of you (good way to be taken out at the knees); but a number of us hadn’t heard this explicitly stated before.

Jen’s training courses and instruction were great and she can help any team achieve a better performance. By the end of the day each team was confidently and aggressively handling each course.

Day Two - Rhonda Carter

Last year there was a downpour on the day when our group trained with Rhonda so we didn’t get much on course time with her. So I was really looking forward to working with her.

Rhonda started out by asking for our goals and any problems we’d like to resolve. She then set up a standard course and had us each run it as though it was a practice course - use treats, toys, whatever. She explained that she wouldn’t comment until after we’d all run so as not to influence us or subsequent handlers. Her goal was to see both how we run the course and how we interact with our dogs when things go wrong. Afterwards she discussed both general and specific issues she witnessed from a performance perspective and a training methodology perspective. I really liked this approach.

One rule Rhonda stressed was to always reward the dog if you make a handling error. Sent your dog to the wrong obstacle? Good Dog! Here’s a cookie. You don’t want your dog to question your commands (as Rhonda said we aren’t nearly as consistent as we’d like to be - or believe we are). Then also don’t just repeat your failed sequence; you don’t want your dog (especially sensitive ones) to think they are repeating the sequence because they did something wrong. Instead have the dog perform a different obstacle successfully with an immediate reward. Then go back to the failed sequence and try again.

We all got useful individual feedback as we worked on sections of each course. Rhonda’s courses were challenging and gave a good workout of crosses and handler position. Within each course there were wide open and tight handling sections that really tested the team’s abilities.

After lunch Rhonda thoroughly discussed performance of each contact obstacle, performance criteria and training progressions to achieve those criteria. As Dana also pointed out the next day, if you ever early release on your contacts, you will forever be working your contacts. So it is critical you have a clear picture of your desired behavior and unambiguously reward only performances that meet that criteria.

Rhonda helped each of us towards reaching our goals with her refreshingly straightforward analysis and practical training philosophy. I really benefited from her advice on both training and handling.

Day Three - Dana Pike

I take a class every week with Dana so I “get” and enjoy her approach. But when Dana has the time to work with a group to run a course, discussing/running/breaking down individual sections, and running the whole thing again you can learn even more. Dana always has great courses that allow for multiple handling styles and team abilities. Her two courses for this camp were challenging and tested each team in many ways.

The morning’s course let us work on a number of skills. Sending to obstacles, getting into position quickly to clarify the dog’s line, pulling on the dog’s line, analyzing which direction to wrap jumps, all topped off with a wicked ending allowing for two different off courses for the unprepared handler. We were kidding one judge who attended that she should incorporate the ending into one of her courses! Dana’s analysis is always tailored to each team and it felt good to “Q” the course at the end with a tighter and faster performance.

In the afternoon course she setup a challenging, sweeping four jump sequence into a Pin Wheel directly into a 90 degree weave entrance. With the practice Jen had given us on 270s/Serpentines we were at least intellectually ready to handle the Pin Wheel-weave portion. Dana helped us handle it smoothly. It turned out supporting the dog’s line through the sweeping jumps while fading away and getting into position for the Pin Wheel was the hardest part for a lot of us. Dana worked with each team to get the handlers to where they wanted to be on course to be successful.

Once we got out of the weave poles Dana gave us a real “think outside of the box” moment. None of the teams handled the approach to the closing sequence too well. Some succeeded but the dog’s path (and/or the handler’s path) was often awkward. So Dana pointed out that by carefully avoiding a lead change on the approach to a jump the dog could wrap the jump more tightly, be on a straight line to the dog walk, and allow the handler to be in a better position for the final obstacles. We had all failed to move our handler side change far enough back in the sequence to be successful. It was a great moment.

Dana has a wonderful ability to break down both individual handling and training skills into comprehensible pieces and then walk handlers of all levels successfully through them. I especially benefit from her course analysis discussions; she can clearly articulate the pros and cons of alternate handling approaches while considering the team and the sequence. As each team applied her suggestions we all had smoother and faster runs afterwards. I am fortunate and really appreciate that I can train with her every week.

So all I can say is: seek out these talented instructors individually or come to Wilmington next Spring to work with all of them in a great camp setting. I’ll see you there!

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