How to Train the Straight, Here and Side Switch Directionals - Part Three in the "Distance Series"
In the second article in "The Distance Series," we talked about the Out directional cue and its importance for the physically limited handler. I explained three ways to train an Out using pattern, plate and toy training. Here we will examine the three remaining directional cues; Straight, Here and a side-switch cue and how the dog can be trained with these cues to help the physically limited handler achieve success on an agility course.
The Straight or Go directional cue tells the dog "run in a straight line and take the obstacle you find there." I prefer a strict understanding of this directional cue for my dog. Some people use Go to mean "find the most obvious obstacle you see and take it" whether the obstacle is in a straight line or in an arc. For people with limited physical abilities, I find the stricter interpretation more helpful when working distance with the dog, especially as courses become more difficult with the "newer challenges." It can help the dog navigate tighter sequences with greater accuracy, however, the stricter interpretation is harder to train.
To train this directional cue, set up two jumps in a straight line about 15' to 20' apart. (See the Figure 1) I use the three methods I used to train Out: pattern, plate or toy training. The ideas are similar in training the Straight with the jump configuration being the only change. I also use the concept of back chaining to train Straight.
Figure 1: Pattern Training
Pattern Training the Straight Directional
Just as with Out, your dog must already be eagerly going ahead of you to take a jump and must also already have been trained in jumping fundamentals. Young dogs can do this work with jumps without bars. To begin pattern training Straight, run the two jumps with the dog. If you are unable to run well, take a lead-out between #1 and #2, and take a step or two toward #2 after releasing your dog. If you can do some running, do not take any lead-out. Repeat this two-jump sequence while you walk or run in a straight line with your dog as he takes both jumps. Always reward with a treat or toy after #2. When running the sequence, make sure your forward motion, shoulders, hand signals and verbal cues are all indicating the straight line to jump #2. After the dog has learned the pattern, you can begin to remove your forward motion from the equation.
To begin fading your forward motion, run more slowly from #1 to #2 while sending your dog on over #2 with a well-times Straight verbal cue, hand signal and shoulders parallel to #2. Do not stop your forward motion completely. You want slower but evenly steady forward motion. Stopping or decelerating is a turning cue and should cause the dog to turn back into you. Also watch out for the "stomping feet" syndrome. As some handlers reach #2, they find they have over accelerated and reach #2 too quickly to send the dog ahead over the jump. To compensate, they quickly decelerate, stopping their feet to try and slow their momentum. This stopping noise with quick deceleration causes the dog to turn back into you.
When the dog is nicely going out over #2 even though you are running more slowly and not moving forward further than halfway between #1 and #2, you can slow down a little more. Again with no lead-out, send the dog straight over #1 and #2 as your slow but steady forward motion takes you to just beyond #1. Verbal cues, hand signals and shoulders continue to support the dog straight over #2. Continue to move slowly forward, allowing some forward motion to remain in the mix. Some handlers may wish to take training to the level where they can stand still at the start line and send the dog straight ahead over both jumps without any forward motion at all, but for most cases, you will want some forward motion so that you can still use deceleration as a turning cue.
When the dog is successfully going ahead of you and taking #2 at a satisfactory distance, it's time to add another jump. Since we'll be back chaining, add the new jump before #1. The new jump is now #1, with the remaining jumps as #2 and #3. Finally start with the "new" #1 jump and work all three. This is called back chaining because you are working from the most familiar (or end behavior) and back chaining toward the least familiar (or new portion of the behavior).
Run with the dog over all three jumps. If you are unable to move much, lead out between #2 and #3 and call the dog over #3. Reward the dog after the three jump sequence. After a few repetitions, the dog will likely be trained to the pattern. It's time to again remove forward motion from the equation. Decrease your speed as in the two-jump sequence, making sure all other signals remain. Your dog should go ahead over #3 with your decreased speed taking you to between #2 and #3.
Just as in the two-jump sequence, you slowly decrease speed while sending the dog ahead over #2 and #3 until you can remain behind the dog between #1 and #2 and still send the dog on over #2 and #3. Again, some handlers may wish to take this training further to where the handler doesn't move beyond the start position and has the dog go ahead to take the straight line of three jumps.
When the dog is sending ahead over the three jumps, add a fourth jump again in front of #1. Back chain the behavior as you did for three jumps and then once again fade forward motion until you can send the dog on a straight line over four jumps. You can add as many jumps as you wish to this line. Make sure to work the dog on both your left and right.
Amazingly, the Straight command is the most difficult directional cue to master although people think it is the easiest. If the handler is well behind the dog, the dog loses sight of the handler in his peripheral vision (which is much wider than a human's). Dogs find this disconcerting and want to turn around to be visually connected with their handlers. This directional takes constant work for the life of the dog to keep it in tip-top shape.
Some dogs will be uncomfortable with pattern training because they are uncomfortable with leaving the handler's side. In these cases, it may be best to begin training with one or two of the other methods. You can return to pattern training after the dog is successful with plate or toy training.
Figure 2: Plate and Toy Training for the Straight Directional
Plate Training the Straight Directional
To train Straight using the plate, set the two jumps in a straight line about 15' to 20' apart. Put the dog in front of #2. The plate is set 5; to 10' in a straight line beyond #2. You can either bait the plate now or you can teach the dog to run out to the plate and pounce on it or put her nose on it in a separate training session. Send you dog over #2 to the plate and give your Straight or Go cue in a timely manner. (see Figure 2)
When the dog is running comfortably ahead of you to the plate, you can start the dog from #1. Keep the plate beyond #2 and run with the dog to the plate. As the dog learns to run ahead to the baited plate, you can begin to remove your forward motion from the equation as described in the "Pattern Training" section above.
When the dog is running confidently ahead of you to the baited plate, you can add in a third jump as described in pattern training to back chain the sequence. Work until the dog is comfortable moving forward over all three jumps to the baited plate with the handler taking only a few steps beyond #1. Then add a fourth jump and repeat the process.
You may want to keep plate-baiting to a minimum, especially if your dog is sniffy. It can encourage some dogs to start sniffing for treats on the ground, even in trial settings. By being careful to always place the treat on a plate and not on the ground, you can help minimize this negative aspect.
Toy Training the Straight Directional
Using a toy is one of my favorite methods for teaching Straight. Do this similarly to plate training, except instead of baiting a plate, throw the toy for the dog beyond the last jump. Set the sequence up as in Figure 2. When using a toy, do not be late with your throw. A late throw can cause your dog's head to turn to look back for the toy. You want the dog focused forward, not on you. You may want to practice throwing without your dog to make sure your aim is good. Throwing the toy to either side of the last jump can cause the dog to miss the jump as he follows the toy's trajectory. Aiming properly becomes more difficult as the distance from your dog increases. You may need to have another person throw the toy for you if your find you cannot aim while you simultaneously decrease you forward motion, Be sure to use your verbal cues, hand signals and shoulders properly,
The big advantage to toy tossing is it gets the dog to drive forward and focus on chasing the toy. This allows you to more easily decrease forward motion and encourage your dog's speed. Decrease your forward motion and back chain this behavior just as you would if you were baiting a plate.
Figure 3: Here on the Flat
Teaching the Here cue is simple. It tells the dog to turn in toward the handler and take the obstacle he finds there. If you'd rather use your dog's name than Here, this is perfectly fine. I start Here training on the flat with no jumps. As the dog and I are walking along, I turn into the dog and call "Here." The dog should turn into me, and as he does, I will treat with the hand next to the dog. (see Figure 3)
Once the dog is doing a Here on the flat, transition this behavior over one jump. Teach the dog to turn into you to come and get a treat (or a tug toy can work well here too) from your hand when you call him Here over a jump. Work both your left and right side equally. A green dog likely will find it easier to turn one way or the other, but don't give into the temptation to only work the easiest direction.
Figure 4: The Here Directional
After a dog is doing Here nicely over one jump, add a second jump at a 90 degree angle to the first. As you see the dog commit to the first jump, call Here. Use your shoulders, hand signal and forward motion to indicate #2. Reward the dog for turning into you and taking the obstacle he sees there, in this case, #2. You can modify this training to incorporate whatever your turning signals for the Here cue based on your handling system.
Handlers training their dog for distance work because of their physical limitations might find themselves with dogs that do not respond well to tight work. Be aware of this, and make sure your training program includes plenty of Here work. Also incorporate the newer challenges such as threadles, back side, reverse threadles, wraps and more with you right on top of the jump asking for tight turns. Of course, you will also need to train very strong collection cues, which is not covered in this article. There are times on course when you want to be right there with your dog directing her around a difficult, tight sequence. If your dog is only comfortable working large distances from you or cannot collect for sharp turns, you may be surprised to find working closely has become your most difficult challenge.
A side-switch cue teaches your dog to switch leads while you are behind him. This cue is a rear-cross cue to let your dog know he should switch leads while you move behind him from one side to the other. Because the dog loses sight of you for a brief moment during this rear-cross/side-switch cue, your dog must be trained to understand what is happening, or he may spin back toward you in confusion when he loses sight of you. Your dog must have a solid understanding of this cue so that he responds to it even if you are far behind him. A strong rear cross is a must for physically limited handlers.
As there are many, many articles available on how to train a rear-cross, and as different handling systems require different physical cues and methods of training the rear-cross, I am going to skip how to actually train a rear cross. Instead, I am going to assume your dog already knows how to do a rear cross, and I am going to explain how to train that known rear cross skill at distance. You can again use pattern, plate or toy training. The concept is similar to how you trained the Out and Straight.
Figure 5: The Rear Cross/Side Switch Cue Trained at Distance
Pattern Training the Side-Switch Directional
Before beginning distance training, your dog must already be trained to the side-switch cue. Once he understands the cue, set up the three jump sequence shown in Figure 5. Send the dog over #1. Do not take a lead-out since you want the dog to move ahead of you over #2 while you stay behind the dog to give your side-switch cue, thereby forcing the dog to change leads and head for #3. When the dog learns the pattern of jumps, you can spread out the distance between #1 and #2.
Do not move quickly toward #2 as you send your dog in that direction. Stay behind, slow your forward motion (but do not stop moving), keep your shoulders facing #2 (until you've given the side-switch cue). Be sure to use your verbal cues correctly and use correct hand signals for a rear cross in your handling system. When the dog is comfortable with the rear cross at this distance, move jump #1 farther away from #2. Again, stay behind and keep your forward motion slow but steady so you stay well back from #2. Send your dog to #2, and cross behind the dog at a large distance to #3. Be sure to use all the training principles we have discussed in articles one and two as you work through each sequence. Train for distances beyond what you think you might need in competition. Be sure to mirror the same sequence so you can pattern train the side-switch cue while the dog turns in the other direction.
Plate Training the Side-Switch Directional
To use a bait plate, place the plate past #3. Use the same sequence described in pattern training and remove your forward motion in the same manner. All the previous principles discussed in plate training Out and Straight must be adhered to.
Toy Training the Side-Switch Directional
To train with a toy, you can either set the toy beyond #3 or throw the toy beyond #3 as you cross behind the dog. Remove forward motion as described in pattern training and use all previous principles described for the other methods when toy training.
You can use other sequences to train a distance side-switch cue. Set up sequences in courses where you would incorporate a side-switch cue. Using any one of the three methods to train distance, slowly stretch the sequence apart and possibly even add jumps onto the beginning of the sequence to add distance to the rear cross.
Using Combined Directionals Twice on Course
Pairing Directional Cues
After a dog has learned these four directional cues at distance, consider pairing these directional cues. For instance, you can tell a dog to Switch for a rear cross lead change, and then immediately tell the dog Out to send him away to a far jump. By saying "Switch Out," you are telling the dog to switch leads then move away from you to find the next obstacle. This paining of directional cues can greatly improve your dog's accuracy since many physically limited handlers control their dog at distance. (see above video)
Many handlers with physical limitations find it helpful to train their dogs to Left and Right cues instead of a general side-switch cue. Left and Right are much more detailed, and I recommend those with physical problems seriously examine this possibility. The addition of a rear cross signaled with Left/Right can open up many more handling options. With my Shelties I have gone with a general side-switch cue "Back." They know to turn either left or right based on my physical position, my cues and the dog's lead. I have tried to incorporate Left and Right into my handling system, but I am unable to remember Left/Right on the fly. I don't have two seconds to figure out whether I am asking my dog to go Left or Right. Those with similar Left/Right dysfunctions may find a general side-switch cue to their benefit.
The New Challenges
I have covered the four basic directionals, but there are many other "advanced" directionals. I use "Push" for back sides, "Around" for 270s to 180s, "Easy" for a come to hand, "Turn" for a turn tighter than a "Here" but not exactly a wrap, "Dig" or "Flip" for a left or right wraps and much more. All of these can be trained at distance using similar methods mentioned here. Simply examine the behavior you are looking for and decide whether pattern, plate, toy or any mixture of the three will be best for your team to learn the desired advanced directional. Advanced directionals are harder to train at distance, but they can be done. Patience is key, but know - the distance directional training never ends. Dogs need to be reviewed on that training to keep their distance sharp throughout their lives.
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Make a Hard Evaluation
Before beginning distance and directional cue training, handlers with physical limitations should first sit down and think about their own physical problems and how those problems, now and in the future, may affect their ability to run an agility course. Be honest with yourself. Don't be afraid to face your current limitations or possible future limitations.
Once you understand what you are facing physically, look at directional cues and decide what your dog needs to know to help you get around a course. How much distance will you need? How detailed will you need to be when training your directional cues? Do you want a Straight cue that indicates a straight line for the dog, or will a general "Go" cue (meaning take the most obvious obstacle ahead of your dog) work? How about Left and Right cues? What about physical cues? What cues can you not perform due to your limitations, and how can you train your dog to overcome them?
When you have developed a plan of action, then you can begin training your dog to fit your needs. Develop your own handling system: don't borrow someone else's. Your physical needs can vary greatly from other handlers, and you need a system that fits your team. Your handling system should be as unique to your team as your fingerprint.
You don't have to let your physical problems keep you from the sport you and your dog love. With the proper training and the correct execution of verbal cues and any physical cues you can give, you can train your dog to do agility. You can join the ranks of handlers across the world who successfully compete on crutches, in wheelchairs, with cancer or with any host of physical problems.
You can inspire yourself and others and find you can climb mountains you had no idea were scalable, both in agility and in life
The Distance Series
This is article three in the "Distance Series." If you haven't read articles one and two, I strongly recommend you do so before reading article three. You can find the first article, "How to Train an Agility Dog to Run with a Physically Limited Handler" by clicking here. The second article, "How to Train the Out Directional in Agility" can be found by clicking here. I have also written an op/ed piece called, "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. You can find that blog by clicking here.
The three "Distance Series" articles have been revised from a series Agilitymach wrote for "Clean Run" magazine in 2009.