How to Train an Agility Dog to Run With a Physically Limited Handler
Physical Limitations and Agility
At every agility trial, we see handlers running their dogs despite physical limitations. Some handlers struggle against joints that no longer function without pain. Others are fighting cancer. Still others have chronic illnesses like diminished lung function or cardiac problems.
While all these handlers are to be applauded for continuing to compete in our sport, there is no doubt some teams meet with greater success than others. Teams where the dog is trained to take over where the human's abilities leave off tend to be more successful. Trained skills including independent distance work, strict directional cues, and a deeper understanding of voice commands help the canine partner navigate a course without the human partner physically close by. I am one of these handlers, and have learned how to train my Shelties to take over for me where I must physically leave off.
When I got my first Sheltie, Aslan, 14 years ago, I already knew that the kidney transplant I had for 30 years was beginning to fail. I knew there was a chance that I would begin to lose physical ability during Aslan's career, so I developed a training strategy for the two of us. As I trained Aslan, I began to study where Aslan could take over for me at a distance so that I could run less (or even trot) and still be successful. Here I'll outline the system I used with Aslan and have continued and improved with my other Shelties.
This system requires not only good handling skills and great timing, but also great training as well. Patience and consistency are a must when training a dog to run agility independently at distance and to listen for verbal cues instead of relying on a handler's body for physical cues and guidance. Since I cannot always be there to help my dogs through a course, they must learn to negotiate tight turns and obstacle discrimination on their own, sometimes with little more from me than my verbal cues.
When training a dog to work distance, always remember to keep your dog as excited about agility as possible. I infuse my training with energy, despite the fact that I may not be moving very much. I us a very excited voice and a sense of urgency in the movements I do use. I find the best motivators I can for my dog, and I use them liberally. My dog must really want to do agility. Since I want to eliminate as much running on my part as possible, I'm looking for drive and initiative on the part of my canine partner. I develop this in my dogs by making the sport fun at all times. The best part of my dogs' day is getting to do agility with mom!
Some of the most important components of training a dog to work with a physically limited handler include strict directional cues, distance training, and a strong understanding of verbal cues. Here's how each component helps the dog do the work when the handler can't be there.
Directional cues include (but are not limited to) Out, Here, a side switch cue (or Left and Right), and Go On or Straight. Let's look at each directional cue separately.
The Out cue always means "work away from me at a parallel distance." Out does not mean "go straight." There is usually a turn to the dog's line when performing the Out. A good example of an Out would be a large pinwheel (see Figure 1). If you handle staying near jumps one and three of the pinwheel, the Out jump would be jump number 2.
My hand signal for the Out is a fully extended arm. My dog, over time, can even learn that when my arm is straight out, I mean a farther distance away then when my arm is out from my side at, say, a 45 degree angle.
Out is a huge part of training a dog to work with a physically limited handler because it allows the dog to work at distance while the handler can either trot or walk through the course.
Here means turn toward the handler an take whatever obstacle you find there. This command is often used in tighter sequences where the dog needs to come in to the handler, not away. A consistent hand signal for Here will also help the dog read the cue, even from a distance. Here can be used during front crosses, still meaning to turn toward me and take anything you find there. In the pinwheel in Figure 2, you can see jump #3 is a "Here" obstacle.
Side Switch Cue
Sometimes called a lead switch cue, it is another component for training a dog to work with a disabled handler. In this cue, the dog learns to turn away from the handler and take the obstacle found there. This cue is almost always used with a rear cross and becomes a must for handlers finding themselves well behind their dogs.
A dog running on his right lead toward a jump can hear a handler, who is behind him, call out the cue and see her throw out a hand signal (often the arm opposite the dog) to indicate the side switch. The dog at that time changes to the left lead and takes the obstacle found there. (see Figure 3)
If a handler wishes even more control at distance, the dog can be trained to turn Left or Right on a verbal cue. Some handlers struggle with giving a left or right cue on the fly, and they might do better to stick with a one-size -fits-all side switch cue.
Go On (or Straight)
Many handlers use Go or Go On to mean the dog should take the most obvious next obstacle that is "sort of" in front of him. The obstacle may be in a straight line from the dog or he may need to arc out to find it. I find this directional too vague for my dogs, and I train a more specific cue. For dogs being trained for the physically limited handler, the Go or Straight cue can mean to take the obstacle that is in a direct, straight line in front of the dog. I find Straight to be exceedingly handy for distance work. If my dog is running at a distance and sees three jumps close to each other, I can easily send him over the correct one by giving the correct cue. (see Figure 4)
Hints for Training Directional Cues
I cannot overemphasize the importance of making sure the directional cue coming from your mouth is the cue the dog needs to hear. I always look at the dog's line when I walk a course, not my line, to determine which cues I need to call on course. What may look like a straight cue to me in my position on the course may actually be a side switch cue to the dog. A strong understanding of leads and how your directional cues affect them can greatly enhance your dog's ability to accurately navigate a course.
You can combine some of the directional cues when sending a dog around a course. For instance, if you want your dog to change leads and then turn sharply toward you for a wrap, you can give your side switch cue and then your wrap cue. This combo tells the dog to switch leads and then wrap the jump. Switch and Out work just as nicely, sending the dog out to a far obstacle after he has switched leads. Directional cues that cannot be used together without causing confusion are Out and Here, for example.
Using incorrect directional cues or accidentally calling out wrong directional cues can confuse your dog and cause the dog's understanding of the cues to fade. Be careful of what comes out of your mouth when running a dog. The only way for dogs to truly understand your cues is to be completely consistent with them. Even a few slips can cause confusion, and the whole system can begin to fail. It take time to train a dog to confident, reliable directional cues. Patience is key in reaching this level of training.
Also remember the dog needs to hear where to go before what to take. Always give the directional cue before the obstacle name. If your dog is particularly fast, you may find there is not time to give anything but directional cues. Often in Jumpers courses, I only use directional cues and do not call obstacle names. After all, they are almost all jumps.
Along with strong directionals, distance is also key in training a dog to overcome a handler's limitations. A good handler can look over a course and know where to send the dog out to work without the handler nearby and where on the course the handler must be close to get the dog through tight or difficult sequences. I examine course maps before walking the course to get an idea of where I can send my dog out and where I can meet back up with him to help him through the toughest spots. I then can trot my way from difficult area to difficult area, leaving my dog to go out and work the wider, easier sections of the course. (see video above)
Distance is trained together with directional cues and individual obstacle performance. Timing is critical when working distance. A dog naturally wants to turn back toward the handler. Without early verbal, hand signal, shoulder and even some forward motion support to remain at distance, a dog can easily miss an obstacle.
The greater the distance, the better. For me, being able to work at a distance of 30 to 50 feet is sufficient. I will discuss more on how to train distance in the next two articles in the series.
Voice becomes much more important when looking at training a dog to work with a physically limited person. There are times during a run when a handler could get so far behind a dog that almost all that is left to send the dog to the correct obstacle is a verbal cue. As such, the dog needs to be trained to rely more heavily on verbal cues, and the handler needs to be trained to give accurate, timely verbal cues as well.
Dogs look at four handler signals when deciding where to go on a course. Forward motion, shoulders, hand signals and voice are weighed by the dog on course, but they are not all equal weight. A green dog will rely more heavily on forward motion first, then shoulders, then hand signals, and lastly verbal cues. The verbal cue is the weakest of all. Because of this, we must train a dog to consider the verbal cue as equal or more influential than the others.
This training takes time. The handler teaches the dog by pattern training, target training, or using a toy as a target to run to a point in a sequence while the handler removes first forward motion, then shoulders and then even the hand signal from the equation. This leaves the dog running to the target or through the pattern with only the handler's verbal cues directing the dog. (Again, these training steps will be further fleshed out in the other articles in the series. See below for links.)
You can also train a dog to respond to different jump patterns by voice alone as well. A dog can be taught to do a 270 at distance with verbal cue and distance body cues Serpentines, wraps, threadles, backsides and pinwheels are other examples of jump patterns that can be taught by weighing verbal cues more heavily than physical cues. Note: distance hand signals, shoulder and forward motion cues are still a MUST and should not be ignored or unused. Consistency in hand signals is as important as consistency in verbal cuss. Hand signals play a big role in distance work, and the hand signals need to be large and easily seen. Teaching a dog to weigh a hand signal heavily is a huge plus.
Again, timing is essential. Poor timing is often the downfall of handlers trying for distance and directional cues. The dog needs to know well in advance where he is heading, and an early but properly timed verbal cue makes that happen. Handlers who give late cues (verbal and physical) cause their dogs to slow down. Even at distance, agility is about speed - not about slow.
Here are several more things a dog needs to know to run agility with a physically challenged handler:
- Static Contacts: Train the dog to stop at the bottom of each contact and hold the contact until released. This give a physically challenged handler time to walk or trot into position for the next section of the course. With three contacts (teeter, dogwalk, A-frame) and in some venues the table, this allows the handler ample opportunity to catch up or get ahead of the dog. Handlers lacking endurance can use these times to catch their breath and gain energy.
- Lead-outs: Long lead-outs can be a great advantage to a physically challenged handler. Lead outs can be used from the start line, the table or even from static contacts.
- Independent Obstacle Performance: Being able to pull away laterally from longer obstacles such as the dogwalk, weave poles or even the A-frame and yet still trust the dog to give a constant performance is a must for any physically challenged team. It can save yards off of the handler's running line, helping the handler be present for more difficult sections of the course.
- Speed: Don't be afraid of speed. A dog's speed can slingshot him into farther distance and therefore greater opportunities for the handler. Embrace speed and don't train for a slower dog. A faster dog also allows a handler to take more time on the static points (contacts, tables) and to lead out from these obstacles without going over course time. Speed is a friend for the physical limited handler. Use it.
- Open Spaces: Don't be afraid to send a dog out into open spaces at the edges of a course to give yourself time to get into position for handling a difficult section. Often you can delay a directional cue and let the dog run out into open areas before recalling him over a jump and into a difficult course section where your presence is needed. Although you will use up some time, you'll likely have the accuracy to qualify.
Agility Is Possible for All
There is no doubt that physically limited handlers can have success with their dogs - even high level success - if they are willing to become great trainers. It will take loads of determination and a willingness to put in the hours upon hours of extra training, but it can be done. By developing a system where the dog learns how to accomplish agility tasks at a distance with limited physical cues from the handler, both team members can enjoy fulfilling, fast and thrilling agility runs.
The Distance Series
This is article one in the "Distance Series." You might also be interested in the second article, "How to Train the Out Directional in Agility," the third article, "How to Train the Straight, Here and Side Switch Directionals," or "The Truth About Distance Handling and Today's Agility Challenges," which examines whether it is feasible for those who are physically limited to do the Euro-style challenges found in today's agility.
The three "Distance Series" articles have been revised from a series the author wrote for Clean Run magazine in 2009.