Most agility instructors, both online and in person, focus on handling. It’s by far the most appealing aspect of the sport for many competitors. Dogs with great motivation and excellent obstacle skills will still struggle to get around on course if the handling isn’t very good. Handling includes the execution of crosses (front, rear, and blind) and maneuvers like backsides, serpentines and threadles. For beginners, confusion arises for two reasons: (1) different people execute crosses differently, and (2) there are many additional handling maneuvers that people use for specific situations. These two points lead us to the idea of a handling system--a set of maneuvers that work together to help the dog choose the correct obstacles as quickly and clearly as possible.
A good handling system is simply the way that handlers communicate with their dogs on course. Every single agility handler, whether they realize it or not, has a handling system that they use with their dog. A single handler may even have multiple systems that are slightly different from each other because they are tailored to the needs and history of their individual dogs. Learn more about handling systems here: A Newcomer’s Guide to Handling Systems
Once we understand that handling is really a form of communication, we can begin to fix problems like wide turns, refusals, off courses, and dropped bars. We speak to our dogs with our system of cues. When we deliver a verbal cue like jump, the dog takes into consideration our relative position, motion, body language, and spoken word--and then decides where to go next. When we are late with a cue, confident dogs may choose the wrong obstacle while less confident dogs gradually slow down over time to wait for confirmation (in order to avoid making a mistake). The proper timing for cues depends widely on your dog’s tendencies and skill level. In this article (with video), Jennifer explains the difference between mental and physical commitment for your dog: How Committed Are You?
As humans, we learn most of our handling by watching others and copying their performance. In agility, handling also requires understanding of when to use specific maneuvers. Everyone should have a basic understanding of how and when to perform any given handling maneuver. Read this podcast transcript about handling flexibility and different styles of running: The Importance of Handling Flexibility (Transcript)
For example, sometimes Esteban will favor front crosses on one course but rear crosses on another, as he explains in this article comparing his handling choices at Westminster versus the AKC National Agility Championship: What’s Your Bread and Butter Agility Move?
Beginners especially should start with the following in depth Facebook Live shows that break down the basic crosses with slow motion demonstrations and easily understood explanations of when to use one cross of another:
For more information about blind crosses, read this transcript (or listen to the podcast): Blind Cross Your Way Into the New Year (Transcript)
For most agility teams, the dog is capable of running much faster than the handler, so we try to create handling systems that support this fact. Thus, distance handling is a commonly used term in training. We explore distance handling in this Facebook Live: How to Create DISTANCE
Are you having problems with wide turns? Try the ideas presented in this Facebook Live: Turn Tighter with This Key Move (Facebook Live)
Finally, if you’re looking for handling challenges, we have many good ones that you can try at home: