More of that Newton Stuff

Written By: Jean Emery - August• 06•11

Thank you all for your nice comments and support as I get this blogging adventure off the ground.  I am still learning the particulars about this process, but like learning agility, you just have to take one step at a time and let the knowledge build over time.

Now back to business, I want to continue my discussion of the “arcs analysis” I introduced in my last post.

But It’s a Straight Line, Not an Arc

Sharon N. posted a comment that she saw a straight line from Jump 1 to 2, rather than an arc.  Thank you Sharon, this is an important distinction.  You are correct that the dog’s path from 1 to 2 is a straight line.  That is how most handlers would see the sequence when making their course handling decisions.  And in a later post, I will talk about using straight-line diagramming to identify side changes and where to put front and rear crosses.

But that’s one level of analysis ABOVE the point I was trying to make in my post.  Many novice handlers will see the straight line, but not appreciate that this line is headed off in a direction away from the new course direction.  And more importantly, they will chose a handling path for themselves that requires the handler to push against the momentum of the dog’s forward motion, essentially “forcing” their dog in a new direction, a scenario that sometimes creates the possibility of a collision between dog and handler as the two paths intersect.

For experienced handlers, this understanding of the dog’s natural path is so fundamental it’s not even worth mentioning.  It’s obvious!  Who doesn’t know that?  But this is a fact that not everyone, especially newcomers, recognizes.

Let’s look at the sequence again. We agree that dog runs a straight line from 1 to 2.  Depending on the size and stride length of the dog, the dog will land somewhere along the red line shown on the diagram.  The higher the speed of the dog, the further along this line the dog will land, especially if the dog has no information that the course is turning left when it takes off over jump 2. This is the law of nature I want novice handlers to start to look for. 

If when looking at a course map or walking the course, you perceive that the dog actually needs to follow an arc from Jumps 1 to 3,  3 to 5, and then from 5 to 7, you will do a much better job of navigating your dog around the course than if you fail to recognize how the decks of momentum and inertia are stacked against you even in this short sequence.

Making Better Choices

So, why is leading out dog on right (DOR) from 1 to 3 better than dog on left (DOL)?

To answer that, let me explain what I mean by “better.” 

First, can you get the dog to jump 3 by starting with DOL?  Of course.  But how you get that done and the impact of that on your dog’s confidence and trust in your handling cues, not to mention the physical safety of both you and the dog are definitely compromised by handling from that side.

To me, the “better” choice in any handling selection is one that:

(A) gives my dog as much information as possible about where we are going next;

(B) is consistent with my other “rules” of handling, for instance, no blind crosses or “flicking” (turning) the dog away from my body; and

(C) takes into account the physical well-being of me and my dog.

So let’s apply these considerations to our sequence.

Information about Where the Course is Headed

(A) If we lead out DOL, how much information does the dog have about the direction of the course?  Jump 1 to 2 is pretty clear.  But because the dog will naturally tend to “bend” toward the handler, the dog will be looking to its right as it approaches and takes 2.  If the dog is focusing forward and not checking in with the handler, it will be seeing Jump 6, but almost certainly not Jump 3.  How soon the dog learns the course goes to Jump 3 depends on how far down the line the handler positions him or herself.  You can see that Handler positions 1 through 4 suggest that the course is going toward Jump 6.  Handler positions 5 thought 8 support Jump 3 as the next obstacle.

In addition, if you lead out with DOL, not only will you have a messy side change getting from 2 to 3, but you will also need to make another side change to get from 3 to 4, in which case the dog will be looking to its left toward the handler at 3 even though it has to turn to its right to get to 4. 

The more confusion you build in to your handling, the more you are sapping the confidence of your dog.  And if you have a dog that already lacks confidence or enthusiasm for the game, your misdirection, in even a short sequence like this, tells the dog it has reason to be tentative and uncertain about what the handler wants it to do.

Alternatively, a handler could rear cross on the take-off side of Jump 2.  That would give timely information about the turn to the left.  That is a completely legitimate handling choice.  But one I would more likely make in the middle of a course, not when I can begin the sequence showing the dog the direction we are going.  Here I see no reason to lead out one jump, only to immediately change direction. By leading out with DOR, the handler takes advantage of the dog’s inclination to look left toward the handler and can then easily direct the dog to jump 3 and rear cross 4 or front cross between 2 and 3.

Avoiding Inconsistent Cueing

(B) In the handling system I follow, I will avoid as best I can flipping the dog away from me using physical cues because I don’t want my dog to mistake a flip of my hand when running as a cue to turn away to an off-course obstacle.  The only way my dog can learn to ignore flapping hands is if those kinds of movements from me are meaningless.  You will create confusion in your dog if you sometimes throw those flip arm signals, or even off-hand flicks, in to your cueing repertoire.  Here, if you lead out with DOL, inevitably, you are going to have to somehow push against the dog’s travel path in order to get the dog moving in the new direction.  It would be hard not to use a flicking motion with a hand or arm in such a situation.

Protecting Knees and Limbs

(C) Trumping even the solid arguments in (A) and (B) is the safety hazard in choosing a DOL lead-out.  As Sharon N. mentioned in her comment, the dog’s path from 1 to 2 is a straight line.  With the handler on the right, the dog will likely jump the middle of 1 and tend to drift to the right upright of 2.  Depending on the size and stride length of the dog, it will land somewhere along the red line.  The higher the speed of the dog, the further along this line the dog will land, especially if the dog has no information that the course is turning left when it takes off over jump 2.  To make the turn to 3, the handler has to encroach on the dog’s path.  I do not like to see dog and handler converging on the same spot.  That’s a way for dog or handler to get hurt.  I once saw a handler break the forelimb of a good-sized Aussie by stepping on it when the team’s paths converged!  That’s a worst case scenario, to be sure, but more subtle is the bit by bit erosion of confidence in the dog where it just cannot predict where the handler wants the team to go.

A Contrary View

Interestingly, the August 2011 issue of Clean Run Magazine, contains an article by Bud Houston, called Handling for Maximum Performance.  In it, Bud suggests that velcro dogs and dogs that match their handlers pace, running around the “outside” of a pinwheel of jumps may promote additional speed from the dog.  While on the face of it, Bud’s proposition seems to contradict my argument here, I do not think it does for this reason.  For Bud’s handling recommendation to work, the handler must be well ahead of the dog, enticing the dog to chase the handler to build motivation and desire in the dog.   When the handler is this far ahead, the handler is not really on a collision course with the dog or misleading the dog to think the course bends one direction while it actually goes the other.  However, this tactic really only works for very fast handlers (in relation to their dog’s speed) or handler with small dogs.  For most others, once the dog catches up and is running more or less level with the handler, the chase is over.  In my eyes, the fallout from impinging on the dog’s path is inevitably greater than the stimulus of the chase, especially when the dog has essentially “caught” the prey.

I know I have spent a lot of time on this point, but it is an important one that has just never been fully explained to new agility students.   I hope this discussion helps novice handlers recognize how momentum, inertia, velocity–Newton’s laws–contribute to their dog’s movement around a course.  As you begin to perceive these elements at work, you can use them to plan your handling strategies: to take advantage of them in many instances, or to counteract their effect in others.  You just need to be aware of these laws, consciously or unconsciously.  Ignore them at your own risk.

 A Tiny Brag–Well, Actually a Big Brag

 My youngster Brill earned her Agility Dog Champion title last weekend.  On my birthday no less.  I am very proud of her and still awestruck that she went from her first USDAA starters run last September to finishing this Masters level title in less than one year.  On our bio page, you’ve read a little about the challenges with training Brill as a puppy.  So, you ask, if she was such a challenge, how did you work your way up the ranks so quickly? 

 I think there are two reasons Brill progressed as rapidly as she did:  (1) we have solid contacts with clear criteria, and (2) I waited for Brill to mentally mature.  While we did a half-dozen AKC and DOCNA trials (and one USDAA at PI) starting a little before she was two, we did not begin full-blown trialing until she was 27 months old.  Ancient, for some people, but I had to let her grow up.

These two things, more than anything else, made what might seem like rapid progress possible.  I cannot stress enough how much confidence it gave me to know I could trust Brill’s contacts and that confidence infected my whole attitude when running her.  Giving Brill time to  mature was crucial too in minimizing the stress she felt entering the ring, staving off who knows what kind of behaviors.  Just food for thought as you prepare to enter your first shows.

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  1. James Bell says:

    Loving the site and discussion!

    In the last paragraph of point (A) you mention the possibility of DOL with a short lead out followed by a rear cross at jump #2. You state that: “Here I see no reason to lead out one jump, only to immediately change direction.” I absolutely agree with you, particularly considering the safety points you raised, *so long* as we’re talking about close handling of your dog.

    Here’s the reason you don’t mention though: Distance handling ala NADAC bonus line. There are exercises akin to this we do often with students, even intermediate levels. If you have to handle from behind a line at jump #2, or even #1, then a DOR start is often a momentum killer. DOL start is often the key to that, with NO leadout as you have to establish drive and momentum in order to get the dog ahead of you and a rear cross done at #2, and still have distance from the line to push the arc to #3.

  2. Jean Emery says:

    Good point James. I would definitely want to consider the situation and what is happening down the line as a factor in my handling decisions. I think the momentum killer you describe is similar to a pinwheel where the handler has very little room to show motion for the dog to chase. There are certainly scenarios where you may opt for a particular handling choice to accomplish exactly what you describe. I tried to avoid straying off the main point of the post this time (I do love tangents) and will discuss these kinds of choices in the future.

    The scenario you describe also comes up in Gamblers or FAST runs and I always advise handlers (when asked) to look for approaches to the gamble or the send that maintains drive and momentum. Usually, however, that would not be a rear cross. First, the dog has to move ahead of and away from the handler to make the cross behind, which is what the gamble or send is all about, but then the handler steps across the dog’s line. In my training repertoire, crossing the dog’s line is a cue to turn. So if the sequence requires my dog carrying on, I do not want to use a turn cue, or in this case, if the gamble line extended out along Jump 2, I would still be stuck trying to show the dog to continue on to 3. If 3 is close enough that may work, but if 3 is quite far out, the collection and change in focus created by a rear cross may make that difficult. In my experience, rear crosses are almost always deal killers on the first jump of a distance challenge–unless, the next obstacle is level with or essentially behind the first obstacle.

    What would make a nice momentum builder is a moving front cross between 2 and 3. The dog can chase the handler’s motion, and a snappy, dynamic front cross can itself be motivating.

    Thanks for the great discussion starter, James.

  3. Sharon C says:

    Interesting comments between James and Jean. But I am not following James remark in P2, that DOR could be a momentum killer when handling from a distance. Would you mind breaking that down for me a little bit. I am enjoying the site! Thanks!

  4. I see something truly special in this site.

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