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The Golden Rule of Handling

Posted on 04/29/10 15 Comments

There are many skills that separate a great handler from those that are still learning. I think one of the biggest differences lies in something that is very simple for anyone to do. If you could adopt this one tinsie weensie habit, your handling abilities would improve unbelievably overnight. However as Bob Bailey often says about dog training is “it is simple but not easy.” certainly does apply here.

The small alteration I am suggesting you do is actually Greg Derrett’s number one rule of handling.  That is; always keep your eye on your dog. The irony of this sentence is this; when I think of a handler that, in my opinion, is one of the best at always keeping that connection with her dog it is Linda Mecklinburg. Not to discredit Greg and his great ability to handle, but I have watching Linda at trials since I first saw her running in a pair of overalls at a trial in Toronto (which Julie Daniels was judging btw). I think it was in the summer of 1990, even back then Linda running (a then very exciting 2 or 3 year old Border Collie) “Doodle” did a great job of keeping  constant connection with her dog.

Most novice handlers tend to look away too often and keep their focus away from their dog for far too long.  As a novice handler you are constantly wanting to re-orient yourself to the course and only occasionally glance back to see what you dog is doing. That is why there are soooo many off courses in the novice ring.  This is particularly true if a handler sends the dog to an obstacle and then tries to run ahead in order to get to the next obstacle or position for a front or blind cross.  So often as soon as the handler turns to peel away to “get somewhere” they completely ignore what their dog is doing and something catastrophic often follows (as evident in the picture below:)).

If you had a constant connection with your dog while you ran, only glimpsing away occasionally to see your next obstacle you would virtually eliminate all wrong turns and off courses for your dog and you would give the dog the confidence to keep doing what he is doing even though you are running somewhere else. You would always be aware of what your dog was focusing on and could better re-direct him at any moment if it became necessary.

We where discussing this at class this week and Lynda Orton-Hill (who was the subject of both the humbling handling picture and the brilliant one above) drew a great analogy of a wide receiver running for a pass, looking up for the ball and only glancing away momentarily if necessary.  That is the kind of connection (with the exception of looking up for a football, you would be looking down towards your dog) a dog and handler team should have, it is the kind of connection that appears to come effortlessly and naturally to those at the top of the sport.

This kind of connect you can start today with every restrained recall you do with your dog. Even though you are running away from the dog you should always be looking back, keeping an eye on the dog as she drives in as if you are handling her on a course. Doing this will; a) develop this new habit for you to use in the agility ring and b) allow you to know when it is time to throw the toy down beside you to reward the recall.  The timing of the toy presentation is critical because, of course, you would never leave that toy dangling beside you as your ran on your recall would you? Why you ask?  Hmmmm now maybe that is could be a blog topic all on it’s own.

The toy is being transferred from one hand to the other in order to properly reward the dog speeding into position.

Today I am grateful for Lynda offering up these great pictures of her and Spirit in order to help explain my thoughts today!


  1. Olivia says:
    Thursday, May 6, 2010 at 5:16pm

    @Darcy– I wrote my college entrance paper on dog agility paralleling ballroom dancing! I’ve been waiting for somebody to come out with and article like “Dancing for your dog” or something because I also think that ballroom dance lessons would help improve footwork since many of the turns are similar to those used in agility.

    I love photo 1! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had those glance-u-but-just-for-a-second moments to look back and see that my Papillon has added extra obstacles to the course!



  2. Renee says:
    Friday, April 30, 2010 at 4:16pm

    don’t use toy as a lure.


  3. Wanda says:
    Thursday, April 29, 2010 at 11:26pm

    What a good reminder, and that is something I try to work on constantly, but I’m never as good as I could be. This weekends last trial demonstrated this well, Otter was great at being called off the wrong obstacle, but had I been watching where she was going, I would have not lost all this time realizing she has already heading the wrong way. Timing for me is critical. My destroyed hearing in my ear, along with balance, makes me not want to look at what my dog is doing, for fear of losing my balance, and then my focus. I am happy to say, though with practice this is getting better…. and when I watch my dogs, the results are incredibly improved…..You are right on the mark Susan.



  4. Darcy says:
    Thursday, April 29, 2010 at 7:29pm

    The “perfect” runs are those where you and your partner are performing a completely synchronized dance. If you watch “Dancing with the Stars” (a US TV show), you will see the 2 partners fixated on one another as they glide across the dance floor.

    PS Be careful of disconnecting at the last jump of the course.



  5. Amy says:
    Thursday, April 29, 2010 at 1:58pm

    So glad that you posted this!

    I’m a Novice, with my first agility dog – actually, with the first dog I’m doing the training myself with (I mean, not a “family dog” but my own dog) – and this is something that I do try to make a conscious effort to do.

    Looking at the other handlers in class, the time that they take their eyes off the dog most is when they’re trying to remember where to go next. I’m fortunate that memorization comes easy to me, so since I don’t often forget the course, I don’t have much of an occasion to look away from the dog. I think working on memorization skills would be helpful for a lot of people. It’s one less thing to worry about if you’re confident that you’ll most likely not get lost on course.


  6. barrie says:
    Thursday, April 29, 2010 at 11:19am

    As Ingerid said above, could you write something about what to do with someone who is a micromanager to the point of never letting the dog get ahead of him/her?


  7. Andrea says:
    Thursday, April 29, 2010 at 10:58am

    Such a great reminder! Last night I was working a drill that at one point involved going from a tunnel over two jumps to a tunnel. My dog had done it great a couple time and then the next time knocked both bars. I thought what’s the difference and on review it was that I never even looked at her on that last time, just looked straight ahead (maybe taking it for granted as I’d just done it succesfully a couple times). It was really an “aha” moment both in that it was so clear the difference in her performance when I was connected and when I wasn’t but also in that I actually realized it lol.

    First thing I did was took out a marker and highlighted the following on my trial reminders card “stay connected and good things will happen” 🙂



  8. Nat says:
    Thursday, April 29, 2010 at 10:28am

    That first photo is priceless!

    I definitely have to remember to keep my eye on my dog (and we get a lot of off-courses…wonder why!?). Too often I’m looking to the next obstacle in an attempt to properly direct my dog to that obstacle and not get an off-course, but in doing that I unintentionally take my eyes off of her, and I *cause* her to go off-course. So it’s all a big cycle.



  9. Christine says:
    Thursday, April 29, 2010 at 9:48am

    I remember you drilling in ‘Face on Face’ a few years back and that really hit home. I have found this really changed my training and handling with my dogs. When I evaluate why something didn’t go as I had visioned it I can guarantee it always comes back to I lost the ‘connection’ and took my eyes off my dog.


  10. Mary Lou Hanlon says:
    Thursday, April 29, 2010 at 9:02am

    Ahhh yes, the “Keep Your Eyes On Your Dog” principle. Sounds sooo easy but in practice takes great skill. Certainly well worth the practice spent on it as the rewards are great!


  11. Karen M says:
    Thursday, April 29, 2010 at 8:30am

    Ah…Susan. This brings to mind the light bulb moment I had at training a few nights ago with my young kelpie who’s very excited by movement from no matter what…. he does have brilliant start line stays but if I lose that connection?…. my instructor suggested I quietly keep in touch with my dog by soft talk as I lead out. My pup will remain focussed as long as we have that contact. Worked a treat. When running my older, now retired dogs I always knew when things were going awry. As soon as you lose that connection. So true. Am so much concentrating on good foundation work before our first agility trial. Also we are blessed to be able to have ‘not for competition’ runs at our trials so guess what we’ll be doing at our first trial?


  12. Kelly says:
    Thursday, April 29, 2010 at 8:03am

    Great demo photos!


  13. Marianne says:
    Thursday, April 29, 2010 at 7:26am

    Another nod in Lynda’s direction is her footwork at the moment of the 2nd photo: on her toes, bent knees, ready to spring forward w/ Spirit.


    • Susan says:
      Thursday, April 29, 2010 at 8:51am

      Excellent point Marianne!


  14. Ingerid Margrete Klaveness says:
    Thursday, April 29, 2010 at 6:55am

    I would love a blog post on how to keep an eye on the course when focusing on the dog. I tend to run into things or position myself poorly because I stare at my dog, and somehow can’t do both at once…


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