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[Transcript] Episode 209: Blind Cross Your Way Into the New Year

This is a transcript of Podcast Episode 209: Blind Cross Your Way Into the New Year. There may be some errors in transcription.
[Sarah]
Today we’re going to be talking about blind crosses.

So, right off the bat, I just want to give a definition of blind crosses for those who may be very new to the sport of agility and are not familiar with this cross. So we often compare this to a front cross. So in a front cross the handler turns towards the dog and the handler is able to keep their eyes on the dog at all times. With a blind cross, the handler is in front of the dog but the handler turns their back to the dog to make the cross, to change sides. So, if the handler has the dog on their left, in a blind cross the handler will be in front of the dog and the handler will simply switch from looking over their left shoulder to looking over the right shoulder and have their dog on the right hand side.

So they turn their back to the dog, they don’t see the dog at all points in time, and they are switching sides with their dog.

So usually when we talk to people who are new to the sport, they’re going to learn several crosses that let them change sides, which side they have their dog on as they’re handling a course. And the ones that we usually talk about, the big three, are going to be the front cross, the rear cross, and the blind cross.

So this is the blind cross that we just defined; so what are the pros and the cons of using a blind cross to switch sides with your dog versus any of the other crosses? Well, let’s talk about pros first, let’s be positive. So because the handler does not keep their eyes on their dog, they’re able to keep their eyes on the course better. One of the complaints that you’ll hear sometimes about front crosses is that they disorient the handler, the handler ends up finishing their front cross but then being confused about exactly where they are, maybe heading slightly in the wrong direction, because they had to completely take their eyes off the course to execute the cross; with the blind cross you don’t have to do that.

So it can be less disorienting for for handlers, but I do want to let handlers know that with all of these crosses, over time you’ll build capability and you’ll be able to execute them very well without losing your place on the course.

[Esteban]
I think it can be hard to picture the different crosses. So if you’re really brand new to agility and you’re listening to this podcast then I think maybe check out the show notes, and Sarah what you can do is put links in to examples of each of the crosses, the basic crosses.

[Sarah]
Absolutely!

So one of the other pros about the blind cross is that it’s easier to keep up top speed for the handler because there’s no footwork involved with a blind cross; you’re basically running for the majority, we’ll get into some kind of exception cases, but in general with the blind cross you’re running forward and so handlers are able to keep up their momentum. They don’t lose as much time as they might on a front cross.

Jennifer, do you find that to be true? You have long legs and you run a lot.

[Jennifer]
Yeah! Yeah and I think tying in with that: easier to keep up handler speed, is also that it’s easier on them physically, easier on the knees. So I think a lot of people when they do a front cross, one of the things that causes them to slow down their speed and decrease their speed, is a little bit of protecting their body. You know, you’re spinning, you’re rotating, you’re twisting whether it be a conscious choice of past issues or subconscious that you just want to slow down, you know that twirling of a front cross at full speed can be difficult.

So we often decelerate into the front cross, and you know as we know, a body in motion stays in motion; a body at rest stays at rest. Once you lose that momentum of going into the front cross it’s hard to regain that speed again. But for a lot of dogs it’s not a problem, so you might be ahead going into the front cross but by the time you rotate through it, you exit the front cross and you’re behind. So, I think you know what helps, you know keeping the handler up to speed is eliminating that rotation eliminating the footwork and then you know another advantage it’s just being easier on the knees.

[Esteban]
Mm-hmm…I think that’s a really big deal because we have a lot of people in the sport especially here in the US who have had surgeries. Whether they’ve had hip replacement–knee replacement is very common one–on top of just old-fashioned regular injuries. I know that myself having played years and years of basketball and being a swimmer specifically with breaststroke where you have the Frog like kicking motion, it’s kind of hard on your knees. You know, my knees aren’t the greatest and it’s definitely something that you feel when you’re doing these uh front crosses. So something that you might hear from a lot of people is that blind crosses are for faster handlers or younger handlers from or mobile handlers but I think it can very much be the opposite. Right. If you’re less mobile, if you are running with a brace, you know, then I think maybe you want to look at blind crosses and really see where you can put them in your handling to give you some advantages.

[Sarah]
And I think that there are sequences that are better and sequences that are worse for blind crosses. But, there are people who will make every single side change a blind cross because of the issue, because of you know, protecting their knees and I am always conscious of when I give feedback and you know when I’m looking at a video I might say, you know, I don’t think this is the best place for a blind cross but if you do that to protect your knees keep doing it. You know like you can still be successful even if you know the cue isn’t as good for the dog in terms of giving them the information they need as one of the other crosses might be.

So, there’s always exceptions to to every handling rule out there and that’s definitely one where that medical side plays a part. I think, in addition to keeping the handler speed up, I think, that there is an element of potentially speeding up the dog. You’ll find with some people that their dogs really key in on the fact that the handler is able to run so fast–it encourages that chase from the dogs and so just like Jennifer was saying, in a front cross the dog might catch up to the handler and for some dogs they’re gonna catch up and then wait.

So, they’re gonna slow down a little bit whereas if you’re able to run full speed as the handler then the dog puts in a little bit of extra speed and drive there.

[Jennifer]
Yeah! The same thing with the shoulder rotation, you know when you’re doing a front cross you’re rotating towards the dogs and as we know shoulder rotation towards the dog is a turning cue. So for some dogs even though you may be ahead as you rotate towards them you put that pressure on them, some of them will back off and and pull back out of stride–slow down a little bit where with those blind crosses, a lot of them you’re rotating away, so you keep the shoulders facing forward as a forward cue so not only does it promote the chase from the standpoint of the motion, but also from the shoulder position as well.

[Sarah]
Right! Alright, so then let’s talk about the cons. Well, a lot of times it’s just the flip side of everything else, so keeping our eyes on the course–that’s a pro. Not keeping our eyes on our dogs? That’s the con, so when you turn your back to the dog you don’t get to see exactly what they’re doing. So you are going to experience–if you do blind crosses or if you watch other people do blind crosses–you are going to see times where the dog doesn’t read the cross and and stays on the side of the handler–the initial side of the handler–they never come to the new side. The handler loses track of where the dog is especially. I mean it can happen with any dog, but usually with a big dog you figure out pretty quickly that they’re on your the wrong side because they pop up there. With these small dogs sometimes you lose them all together! You have no idea where they are on course. So you’ll occasionally see that you may not see whether your dog even takes the obstacle.

Sometimes the dog might go around an obstacle that you had indicated for them to take and then when you executed the blind, they pulled off of the correct obstacle and you never even saw it happen. So that can be a con. I would say that for the most part even if you could see what the dog was doing, the mistake has already been made so even if you could see your dog bypassed the jump–does that really help you? Not really so as long as you are executing your blind crosses as well as you can. The fact that you can’t see them–to me, a lot of that is much more psychological than it is a true deficit of the handling.

So, here’s one that Jennifer and I were talking about before the podcast, that we both wholeheartedly agree, that there is a myth out there that blind crosses do not require the handler to be as far ahead as front crosses. So as instructors we have both had people justify doing a blind cross because they couldn’t make the front and for the most part, blind crosses when done properly require the handler really to be even further ahead than the front cross. Now, there’s a subtlety there because you don’t have to slow down, so you might be able to get up further ahead easier than you could with the front where you have to do the twirling motion and as Jen mentioned, there’s some element of deceleration no matter how quick you are with your front cross. But you really have to be just as far ahead, if not further, than the front cross.

[Esteban]
Yeah, I think you’re right! I’m wanna hear what Jennifer has to say about this.

[Jennifer]
Yeah, I hear it a lot, “oh I can’t make the front cross so I’m gonna do a blind cross” which you know, I think is not necessarily the right way of thinking. You know, just this past weekend. I had to do a side change and my dog was almost kind of right next to me. So, if I would have tried to do a blind cross, there’s no way there was enough time or the dog far enough behind me to read the blind cross, but with the front you know he was right next to me. I just rotated that shoulder towards the dog, brought up the outside arm and even though I did not have it done. Because I had started it, the dog kind of slowed down, waited on me to get the cross done and then I was able to open up. Was it the prettiest line? No, I got it on film. I can attest to it. It wasn’t the prettiest, but I was able to do it and save the run and Q. On the blind, there’s no way it would have happened. By the time I did the blind, as you mentioned Sarah, my dog would have still been on that initial side. Because, there were no turning cues happening so on those blind crosses where you’re rotating away you don’t really have any turning cue indicating that it’s about to happen. You cue the dog to commit to the jump or any obstacle and after mental commitment you do the blind and by the time they land they’re on the new side.

They’re not really making the decision to cross sides. With the front cross, you at least have that little indication in advance as you begin the shoulder rotation towards the dog to indicate that it’s about to happen. So yeah, I think that’s one of the misconceptions that I see from a lot of people is, “oh if I can’t make the front I’ll do the blind” and you know that just doesn’t work in all cases.

[Sarah]
Right! Exactly! And that was actually a bullet of one of the cons that I had explicitly pulled out. In addition to having to be further ahead than the front cross is that it delays turning cues, in my opinion, relative to the front cross, so the way that I often explain it is the front cross, as soon as you start it, you were giving your dog turning cues. With the blind cross, the turning cue doesn’t really happen until you are finished with the blind cross. So that’s why you have to be further ahead you have to have time to to actually finish the blind cross and pick your dog up on the new side.

[Jennifer]
Yeah, 100% agree that. That’s a good way to explain it.

[Esteban]
Mm-hmm…yeah, so I guess a front cross you can do pretty close to the dog; a blind cross–I guess the closer you are to the dog, the more catastrophic the delay is. I guess in that turning to you–the presentation of the shoulder that Jennifer was talking about.

[Sarah]
Well, that’s where you to get the heel kicking up and catching the dog because they’re right right there next to you–and the collision.

[Esteban]
Oh sure, yeah, I think we all seen pretty bad things when blind crosses go wrong.

[Sarah]
I think that actually that could probably be its own con: is that when because you don’t really know what’s happening, when they don’t go well, they can be really bad for the dog and the handler. Especially, I would say for the dog it’s a…it can happen anywhere but what what’s really catastrophic for the handler is coming out of things like tunnels, where the handler just has to guess at where the dog is and commit to the blind and they’re running across the dog’s path and if the dog comes out earlier than they thought, then that’s where you get a lot of these collisions.

[Esteban]
Right, right.

[Sarah]
And then I think the final con, and I think this is a con that is heard a lot but has a great big caveat. So I think the con that some people might have heard is that blank crosses cause confusion in the dog. The dog, if you do a lot of blind crosses, the dog’s not going to know which side of your body to be on whether they’re gonna be on your right or on your left. If you go far enough back on this podcast you might hear one of us say that the blind cross causes confusion in the dog, and I think that very often it does, but here’s the huge caveat: when it is done poorly, when it’s not executed well. And the second part of that caveat is that ANY maneuver can be poorly executed so when blind crosses are done really well there’s almost no opportunity for confusion. And we’ll get into a little bit of the execution but all three of us here, we view a blind cross is something that happens while the dog is busy doing something else.

They’re busy taking a jump and you’re changing sides while they are engaged and then, you know, we say “picking them up on the other side” that you switch sides while they’re doing something and if you kind of keep that rule in mind and if your execution is very well then there should be no confusion because the dog never has a choice to make, it just kind of happens in front of them and they go with it. So we’ll talk a little bit more about execution but that’s where I think the confusion really comes in, is when people’s execution isn’t very good and I think that that comes in two forms. It comes when people don’t necessarily understand how to execute well, kind of to the original point that people think that the blind cross is something they can do when they can’t make the front cross. Probably the majority of those particular blind crosses are not done well. If the handler did it as a last ditch “I can’t make it” then it’s probably going to be a pretty late line cross. The cues aren’t going to be very good.

I think the other thing that we see is people just not being clear with their execution so they’re there but they’re not distinguishing the “blind cross” versus the “not blind cross” well enough in their own handling. Making it super clear for the dog. So, the timing of the blind cross as we were just saying it’s while the dog is doing something and I love–Jennifer has like the most succinct way of describing this ever–so Jennifer, tell us, what is the timing of a blind cross?

[Jennifer]
Yeah! So, on the blind cross, I actually think somewhere if we go back through some podcasts or articles, I did some demos of this and talked about this, is really finding the sweet spot between mental and physical commitment. So, tell the dog where to go and get mental commitment–that’s the point you can kind of look at the dog look in their eyes and they say “okay got it. I’m taking that blue jump.” Once you see that you have that mental commitment as quickly as possible do the blind cross and try to have it done by the time the dog lands off of that obstacle. Or even better if you can have it done before physical commitment because you know when the dog takes off, that’s going to affect what lead they are on, what angle they’re on, over the bar collection versus extension, so you’re really trying to find it between the sweet spot of mental and physical commitment.

And when I say do the blind quickly I guess what I’m talking about is, yes, it’s called a blind cross which means you’re gonna be taking your eye off your dog but the moment that you are blind to the dog should be as short as possible and I think this is a little bit of what you’re talking about with the connection and the reach back. So you know if I have my dog on my right and I cued the jump and I see that mental commitment I want to quickly turn my head, quickly switch my arms and try to have that reconnect back over the left shoulder as as quick as possible, so the moment that I am blind to them should be the moment that they are committed to an obstacle.

So there’s not that opportunity for them to just be, you know, choosing sides, choosing obstacles, you know and swerving behind me. So that mental and physical commitment, and I think, you know, what sometimes is hard is people can recognize that and understand that but then it is identifying mental and physical commitment.

Physical commitment being pretty easy to identify: the front feet lift off the ground. That is the physical point at which the dog cannot take back the decision to do the obstacle. It’s the mental commitment I think sometimes people have a hard time identifying which I think comes through a bit of experience. You know, the longer you and your dog are a team the more you can figure that out, but also having a good eye contact, having good connection, you know like I said, I kind of look back at my dog and I can see my dog look at me go “yeah I got it, okay I’m taking that jump” and that’s when I’ll go right into that blind cross.

[Sarah]
Yeah and a little bit I think pushing for that mental commitment. So I think a lot of people haven’t really thought about that and they’ve never really asked their dog to do anything between mental and physical commitment. And so, you know, by pushing themselves to move on to the next part of the course earlier, to trust that their dog is doing what they’re doing, then they can learn where that spot is.

If you never ask your dog to to stick to that mental commitment while you do something else then you don’t even know. You don’t know what they’re capable of. You don’t know when you can go and and do anything. But yeah, I 100 million percent agree with what you said about making that head turn as quick as possible and I think this is probably THE biggest mistake that I see when I review student videos and I think that this is what is happening in their heads: I think that either consciously or subconsciously, people are so scared about that moment where they have to take their eyes off their dog that they put it off as long as possible. So, when they do a blind, they tell their dog to take an obstacle and they watch their dog for as long as they can, and then they try to flip around, like you know, they do it quickly but they just do it at the last possible moment when I would encourage them to to turn their head at the earliest possible moment so, they’re doing the exact opposite thing.

They’re doing the exact wrong thing there. They’re keeping their dog on the initial side as long as possible and then trying to flip to the new side. Whereas like you said, you’re looking for that moment they have mental commitment and that’s well before they actually take the jump. And the way that I think about it in my head is, I’m telling my dog to take an obstacle, and then I’m blinding. I don’t tell them to take the obstacle and then wait to see them do it. I just tell them to do it and then I blind, and I think that that really quick change and that early change can, not only is it the right way to do it, but it can actually save a slightly out of position blind cross. So if you didn’t quite make it there but you have already switched your the side of the shoulder that you’re looking over, you’re already reaching back with the new arm, then even if the dog lands slightly on the wrong side, they can more quickly correct on landing.

The other big mistake that I see, a little bit of my own personal soapbox with line crosses, is not enough what I call “reach back” so not enough strong reconnection. When you do a blind cross you’re really kind of disconnecting with your dog for a moment and it’s really important too reestablish that connection, so it’s not enough just to change sides, it’s not enough even to reach the new arm back. I like to have the head turned back towards the dog, re-establishing that connection with the dog and I like it to be Super Duper strong. Really turning the shoulder back to the dog, even as you run forward, having the side that you want your dog on, really reaching that arm back to re-establish that connection. You don’t have to keep the arm back, you know, for the next three obstacles but it’s just reestablishing that connection and making sure that you have your dog and this is where I think that a lot of places in agility, as dogs and handlers gain experience, you don’t have to give them as much help. You don’t have to babysit a backside as much. Right? You give the dog the command, the dog goes to the back side. And I think that people think of this–in the blind cross–in the same way. Well, now me and my dog, we’re both experienced with blind crosses–I don’t need to reach back as strongly on the blind cross.

But I personally think that’s a mistake because I think it is that strong reach back which eliminates the confusion, which eliminates any possibility of the dog being unclear about which side of your body that you should go to and I’ve seen so many blind crosses where if you are looking frame by frame, and we do a lot of video review, you can show the handler the moment where the dog is, you know, in the air or even landed and the handler is facing forward–running–and there’s no real clear indication whether the dog should be on the right or the left. And even if the dog guess is right 70 percent of time, even if they guess right 90 percent of the time, if there was any guessing at all then that’s not clear handling and to me it’s the reach back that eliminates the guesswork on the dog’s part.

[Jennifer]
Yeah, I think it’s a pretty common exercise or fairly common drill too, even in like puppy classes, you know we’ll do stuff, I’ll do a restrained recall–tell a handler to run across the field…you know, a six-month-old dog, have a really reached out left arm and make sure the puppy will recall to the left side. Or put out your right arm or look over your right shoulder. And we do all these drills as a young dog, basically with the purpose of teaching the dog the priority of recall to the side I’m looking at, recall to the side where the hand is.

But then we kind of forget this as we go into the blind cross. You know, we drill it into the dog we understand the importance of teaching it to them when they’re young. And then you’ll see people get a little casual with the reach back, a little bit casual with the reconnect on the new side and then, you know, wonder why their dog is having confusion. So we do all this groundwork, we do all this foundation work, to teach them come to the side the hand has come to the side where the eye contact is and then sometimes we forget to utilize it when we are at speed or on a course. So you know, I agree the the importance of the quick reconnect and really exaggerating that hand putting that hand back reaching back making it clear to the dog what side they’re supposed to be on.

[Sarah]
Yeah. “Casual”–that’s a really good word. I use the word “lazy” sometimes, “casual” is better–it’s that you assume they’re going to come to the right, the correct side but I think that that needs to remain strong no matter how much experience you have and I think video-review will really help people to because I’ve seen plenty of dogs, and I’m talking all levels, you know it in in my personal opinion, I have seen absolute top trainers, I’ve seen you know winners of Nationals that I wish they reached back more on their blind cross. I think, you know to me, it’s like, it’s something that pops out at me whenever I am looking at video but when you analyze lots of video you’ll see the dog take one step in the wrong direction and then correct. You know, things like that, and you’ll see it happen fairly, you know, a good amount of the time and I think that that’s the reason why–not enough clarity on which side they should be going to.

[Esteban]
Mm-hmm…I think it’s an important point because what we’re seeing over the past few years is a huge explosion, I think, in the popularity of the blind cross, right? People are using it now more than ever, people have never used it before, are trying it now and people who use it a lot before are trying it in different places, right? Spots where you wouldn’t normally think to try a blind cross. I know that I have a rule of thumb if my dog needs to turn more sharply than 90 degrees, in general, I don’t blind cross there, I’ve favored the front cross but we have very talented and winning handlers like World Championship gold medalists, like Pavol, who are out there blind crossing on really tight turns, you know, in spots where I wouldn’t. You know, and so I know that as far as blind crosses go in general, relative to many of the top European handlers, I’m relatively conservative.

You’re gonna see me putting in some fronts and some rears but that’s something that I can do knowing I have a height and speed advantage over some of these handlers as well. And so you’re going to see judges respond to this trend, right, you have this trend of “increase in blind crosses”–you’re gonna see these judges start throwing up traps specifically for blind cross handling, right? They know these handlers are gonna be out there and running and if you’re gonna be very casual in the middle of it suddenly your dog is gonna be off course before you know it.

[Sarah]
And it was actually, now you just got my memory going, because it was two years ago, FCI agility world championship where they had that one course that had like an 11% Q rate, wasn’t that two years ago, do you all know which one I’m talking about? It had exactly what you’re talking about it, it had the blind cross traps. It had the juicy jump right on the dogs line where if you encouraged a blind cross because of what was coming up and if you didn’t reconnect with your dog or you didn’t make the blind that you were trying to make, the dog was over the wrong jump. So it is definitely already happening that judges are being tricky about that kind of thing.

[Esteban]
Yeah, I think overall though it’s a good thing. You’re gonna see handlers pushing the limits–here in the United States as well, and you know I think that’s good for the development of the sport.

[Sarah]
Yep! So, I think in wrapping up I would say that blind crosses are very powerful but they require really good execution. Not only to make the blind cross and we know that a blind cross that you don’t make can cause a lot of problems on course. You know, if it’s in the wrong spot, it can cause collision with the handler so we definitely want to, you know, successfully do it. But in addition to just making the blind cross happen, we want to make sure that we aren’t breaking our ability to do other handling maneuvers. We don’t want our dog to default to blind cross, that’s the other reason it’s really important to get that really good execution. So you know giving yourself a little bit more room to be a little further ahead of the dog, having a strong reach back, executing it earlier rather than later, I think those are all key tips to getting the most out of your blind crosses.

[Esteban]
Okay, let me take a straw poll with all three of us right here. I’m gonna ask you two questions. Okay question number 1. In a vacuum, you don’t know any information, someone walks up to you, they say they do agility and they ask you should I be doing front crosses? Okay, Sarah you’re first. Yes or no? Should I be doing BLIND crosses?

[Sarah]
Umm…if you would like…

[Esteban]
No! That is not a choice. It is a yes or no question. I come up to you, I’m an agility handler, should I be doing blind crosses? I’m not currently doing them now. Yes or no?

[Sarah]
If you’re having success, no, if you’re not having success, consider it.

[Esteban]
Okay, Jennifer same question…blind crosses? Yes or no?

[Jennifer]
Yes, I think it should be in your toolbox, for sure.

[Esteban]
Okay, my answer is also yes, I’m with Jennifer on this. Okay, next one. Do you want to blind cross more, less or the same–this frequency–than you currently do right now in your handling?

[Sarah]
More…

[Esteban]
You wanna blind cross more.

[Sarah]
Yes!

[Esteban]
Okay, Jennifer?

[Jennifer]
Me, personally?

[Esteban]
You, personally!

[Jennifer]
Personally, yeah, I need to definitely be doing more. I still default to the front. The whole eye contact and a little bit of some protecting some bars. So I certainly can without a doubt say I need to be doing more.

[Esteban]
Gotcha, okay that’s also my answer. My answer is yes, I would definitely like to be doing more blind crosses. I’m looking for spots to put them in there and there are definitely situations where I feel very uncomfortable doing the blind cross and I would rather go for a front or reach for a rear cross.

[Sarah]
Alright! there you have it blind crosses are not to be feared. They can be a great part of your agility handling and I think we’ve given you some good tips on some of the common mistakes that we see people make and if you don’t make those mistakes you are going to be that much closer to blind cross perfection. And that’s it for this week’s podcast.

Happy Training!

[Sarah] (post podcast joke)
What do you call a droid that takes a long way around?

R2 detour

*Drum Splash*

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