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!