Dana Pike, Mary Ellen Barry and Rachel Sanders Fall Maintenance Camp

09 Nov 2005Steve Schwarz

I attended the “Fall Maintenance Camp” Dana Pike held at her place in Wilmington, IL at the end of September. I missed this camp last year due to one of Milo’s bouts with bicep tendonitis. The instructors were Mary Ellen Barry, Rachel Sanders and Dana. There were three rings setup and you spent a day with each instructor.

As for all of Dana’s seminars, I can’t say enough good things about this camp. All three instructors are not only great handlers they are extremely knowledgeable, experienced, and positive trainers and presenters. We had beautiful weather; only got some rain at the very end of the last day, sunny and in the low 80’s for the other days. I go to 3-4 seminars a year and I think this was one of the top seminars I’ve ever attended. I learned a lot and learned something important from each trainer.

I had never met Mary Ellen or Rachel before so I had no notion of their training and handling approaches. I was really impressed with their depth of knowledge, experience and ability to communicate it clearly.

This was just going to be a quick article highlighting a couple things from each instructor. But once I started writing I kept remembering more and more. This article turned out to be quite lengthy and has spun off a number of articles for me to add to my To Do List. I hope you’ll take a few moments to read it and get an idea of the techniques and philosophies you can learn from these talented instructors.

Day One - Mary Ellen Barry

Mary Ellen mentioned that she has trained with and has been mentored by Greg Derrett. With the large impact he has had on the sport I am ashamed to admit I haven’t yet purchased or seen his videos; but after working with Mary Ellen I’ll have to put them on my Christmas list.

I always like to hear about the handling and training philosophies of top handlers/competitors. Mary Ellen shared both with us unreservedly. She is all about a consistent and minimal handling system. For example, she only uses a few verbal commands: a release and directional (left/right) commands. The verbal commands primarily support the physical handling cues. She also had us try applying other aspects of her handling philosophy as we ran her courses.

After watching us run a course Mary Ellen gave us each detailed feedback on the issues she saw. She decided to focus the work in our group on three main areas: Handler/Obstacle focus, Rear Cross execution, and a technique to help choose the direction to turn your dog over a jump when given a choice.

Part of Mary Ellen’s handling philosophy is to not interfere with the dog’s obstacle focus unless you are taking the dog out of the obstacle flow. Her first course opened with a four jump Jump Chute with a 90 degree turn to the Dog Walk. I used a two jump Lead Out and ran parallel to Milo and used a Post Turn Post Turn/Shoulder Pull/Pivot TurnLearning the Post Turn to turn him to the Dog Walk. If I understand Mary Ellen’s philosophy correctly, she would lead out to parallel to the last jump well out of the obstacles and the dog’s path and execute the Post Turn at the last jump. There is no need to run with the dog down the four obvious obstacles in the flow; the dog only needs information (prior to) the last jump to turn toward the Dog Walk.

In another section of the course Mary Ellen took some time to have us experiment with a slightly different Rear Cross Rear CrossLearning the Rear Cross execution than most of us are used to. Here are her rules:

  • Only Rear Cross on the take off side of the obstacle.
  • Only Rear Cross when you are well behind your dog.
  • Rear Cross well before the obstacle.
  • Don't use your arms, just move across the rear of the dog's path.

For me the biggest changes were not initiating the Rear Cross from ahead of my dog and not using my arms to draw him past me and signal the lead change. She had us do this on course and most dogs read the Rear Cross just as well, if not better than, with the arm handling. It actually made for a straighter dog path between the obstacles for Milo; he didn’t have the slightly exaggerated lead change before the jump and I think he kept his speed up too.

Mary Ellen also never rear crosses on the landing of a jump (a Cross On The Flat or Tandem Turn). This goes back to her consistency credo; you can setup obstacle sequences where the Rear Cross on the landing side could be interpreted by the dog as a Rear Cross on the take off side of a subsequent off course obstacle. (I’ll post a handling article of such sequences in the future.) So when you Rear Cross on the landing you can cause the dog to question your cue; that lack of clarity affects the dog’s performance.

As another application of consistent of handling cues was in Serpentine handling. For example, I use my rear arm as the arm to which Milo should come when I use a Lateral Lead Out. But when handling Serpentines Serpentine SequenceSerpentine Handling Techniques I use my forward arm across my chest with a slight body rotation to call Milo in to me in a kind of Half Cross. Mary Ellen pointed out that, while Milo understands the Half Cross cue, he is over turning because he thinks I might be about to initiate a full Front Cross. So I should work on Serpentine handling with the rear arm reaching back to call him in to me as it would be consistent with my Lateral Lead Out handling.

She also spent some time discussing contact performance and retraining contacts. Mary Ellen trains contacts as 2o2o always. She starts training her dogs on stairs; away from the equipment. She has a very well thought out and exacting progression of steps for Back Chaining her dog’s contact behavior.

Mary Ellen worked us through a really powerful course analysis technique that was new to me. The From-To-Distance (FTD) technique helps you choose which direction to turn your dog from one jump to the next when the course flow allows you to choose either direction. Mary Ellen presented this material at the last Clean Run Camp. In a nutshell, the FTD technique has the handler assign a point to turning to the right or left based on each of three aspects of the flow. These aspects are From (the direction/angle that the dog is coming from the previous obstacle), To (the direction/angle that the dog is going to the next obstacle), and Distance (as measured from the wing of the jump to the center of the next jump. By assigning a point for turning to one side over the other for each aspect you get a score. e.g. a 3 left 0 right score would indicate that turning left is most beneficial. A 1 left 1 right score is a toss up where the third aspect didn’t point you to turning more to one direction than the other. In that case you might use other criteria about your dog/handling to help you make the final decision. If Mary Ellen doesn’t mind, I’ll put together a handling article detailing this very useful technique.

So you can see I got a lot out of spending a single day working with Mary Ellen Barry. There were even more little things that I just don’t have space to cover here. I hope I’ll have a chance to train with her again.

Day Two - Dana Pike

I train with Dana Pike every week so that makes it harder for me to review her as if this seminar was my only exposure to her training and handling approach. I think she has a great holistic approach to Agility training and handling and is a very talented dog trainer in general. She isn’t slavish to any handling or training philosophy and stays open minded and analytical. One of my favorite Dana quotes is “How is that workin’ for ya?” she’ll ask it of you and I think she asks it of her own handling after every run too.

Working with Dana I get the most benefit from her course analysis skills. As even she’ll admit, she can setup some tough (or even evil) courses for her students to run. The first run through the course might be a fiasco for some of us, but with her input and some practice every student will get a clean and fast run through the course by the end. (To digress, last week’s class course had a cone knocked to the wrong side of a jump. So instead of a Serpentine to a 270 and back over the last jump of the Serpentine, we thought we did the 270 followed by a Pull Through, followed by Jump Wrap back over the last jump of the Serpentine. We all walked it and grumbled a little but fully expected to run it - we didn’t even ask Dana if this nastiness was an accident. So what would have been completely daunting was just another challenge we all felt ready to conquer.) Of course she is well versed in handling maneuvers, you expect that from an instructor at the top of the sport. But I think she excels at dissecting courses and finding the handling/path to make the most of you and your teammate’s abilities.

The real benefit of working with Dana over a full day is you get to really work on the courses and try handling them in different ways. Her seminar courses are always challenging in multiple aspects and with her experience handling big and small dogs the challenges aren’t just for a single height dog.

As part of her analytical view, she timed us over various parts of the course and we compared the speed of different handling methods for those segments of the course. There were cases where the most practiced and comfortable handling didn’t give the fastest times. With some changes in handling Dana was saving teams almost a second over a half dozen obstacles, a half second improvement is even significant. Even at the club level the time difference between top teams is shrinking, so thinking about speed is important. For dogs who NQ for time it can be even more critical.

Dana set up a course where there was a choice as to which way to turn the dog over a jump. So we all applied Mary Ellen’s FTD method and ended up turning to the same side. Dana felt turning in the opposite direction should have been faster. So she timed it in both directions and found it was actually faster to turn the direction she proposed. So no technique is fool proof. After this exercise I think you might actually want to give extra emphasis to the “From” trajectory over the other aspects of the analysis. But it may also depend on the dog’s speed coming into the turn. More to think about and play with…

So it was great fun spending a day with Dana and taking time to compare handling approaches. I have to say I was dragging on the last runs of the day!

Day Three - Rachel Sanders

Just like Mary Ellen, I hadn’t had the opportunity to train with Rachel Sanders prior to this seminar.

Unless a seminar presenter instructs me otherwise I like to run seminar courses in the way I ultimately want to be able to handle the course, even if we aren’t guaranteed to be successful with that handling. I am old enough that I don’t have any problem making a spectacular failure of a course and a fool of myself… :^) So as the “guinea pig” for the first course I took a “beating” for my handling approach from Rachel but I got the benefit of a lot of her insights!

Our Front Cross-centric handling of Rachel’s initial courses had her focus on our group’s execution of Post Turns Post Turn/Shoulder Pull/Pivot TurnLearning the Post Turn. The Post Turn is one of the first handling techniques learned by Novice handlers but it is certainly one that poses challenges if you let your execution get sloppy or lower your dog’s performance criteria. Both are problems Milo and I face. I tend to either rotate lackadasicaly and have Milo turn wide or rotate too sharply and pull Milo tight into me (the later is usually in response to a wide turn earlier in the course). Again the Jump-Come-Cookie drill was appropriate (funny how practicing might have something to do with improved execution).

Some of Rachel’s courses required tight Jump Wraps Handling 360 Jump Wraps aka "Over and Over" - VideoJump Wrap Handling TipsJump Wrap/WrapJump Wrap Handling - With Video at several places, where wide turns “punished” teams with an off course. Most of us handled these wraps with a Front Cross over the jump, enforcing the tight wrap around the jump upright. Rachel pointed out that that handling often left the handler on the wrong side of the dog and shouldn’t really be necessary. She had us work on using Post Turns to cue a tight Jump Wrap. The key aspect we learned was to initiate the Post Turn and step back behind the jump standard or wing before taking the step forward toward the next obstacle. So if you are wrapping the jump to the left you pivot to the left on your right foot, step back with your left foot and when ready step forward with your right foot. The stepping back is the cue to the dog to turn tightly around the standard. Stepping forward too early allows the dog to turn wider around the standard. Milo and I had trouble with this due to both my initial lack of comprehension and his strong obstacle focus. So it was a good drill we can work on.

She also worked us on sharp angle on-side weave entries, including coming over jumps with the dog’s path possibly facing the second and third poles. To help us with our failed entries, Rachel showed us her weave entry training method. She wants to make every weave training exercise count and not do more entries or full weave pole sequences than necessary. Once the dog knows basic weave entries she’ll set the dog up and work three primary entrance locations using a short set of weaves: a straight on offset to the right entrance, a 180 entrance (both wrapping and not wrapping the first pole), and a sharp angle approach where the dog starts aligned with pole 2 or 3. Of course she varies the distance, adds/removes jumps, and varies the angles of the dog’s approaches. She’ll also introduce a jump at each of the three locations. Again her philosophy for weaves is to only work the entries that are a problem; don’t over do the successful ones. With her approval I’ll put together a future article with more detail.

She also showed us a great method for rewarding the dog in the weaves that I believe she attributed to Wendy Pape. The dog is either held by a helper or put in a stay at the desired release point. The handler stands in the weave poles facing the weave entrance with their back on the fourth pole. The dog is released and when it comes around the third pole and into the gap toward the fourth the handler rewards the dog. This a great method because the handler’s hand can be at the dog’s head height and within the weaves. There is no physical influence (good or bad) of the handler’s body moving along side the dog and the giving of the reward doesn’t pull the dog’s head out of the weaves.

Some aspects of Rachel’s philosophy that really stuck with me included:

  • When you make a mistake working on a sequence don't keep reworking the same sequence. You don't want the dog to know the sequence, you want the dog to respond to your cues. So you might even take them off course deliberately before resetting the sequence.
  • Don't wait at the tunnel exit and "pick up" your dog there. You'll have the dog decelerating at the end of the tunnel to match your speed. So keep running and get to your next handling location.
  • If you give your dog more room on course it will need more room.
  • If you give the dog more time on course it will need more time.

A final note on Serpentine Serpentine SequenceSerpentine Handling Techniques handling, Rachel mentioned when bringing the dog over the jump toward you, that pivoting your hip back is more important than exaggerating the reach back with the rear arm. I’ve found Milo doesn’t read the reach back at all in this case. So it could be if I give him this little hip cue also I’ll be more successful (as opposed to the Half Cross with my opposite arm, which may be succeeding because it is also slightly turning my hips). Again practice and proofing is in order if I want to change my cue.

I liked Rachel’s straightforward approach to handling and training and I think I made some real progress on my problem training/handling areas. I’m really looking forward to her next visit to the Midwest.

Thanks so much to Dana, Mary Ellen and Rachel for a wonderful three day weekend. Milo and I had a great time and I learned more than I can fully assimilate. I think Dana is bringing Mary Ellen and Rachel back again next year so I’m going to block out that weekend on my calendar right now.

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