Today we’re going to talk about the importance of handling flexibility and let me illustrate what I mean by starting with a story. When I was an up-and-coming handler with my Rottweiler Sammie, I really enjoyed the sport. I thought I was getting really good at it and we were the best dog in our breed and we got invited to go to the AKC Invitational. And I remember in the year leading up to that event, we would be in class and the instructor would demonstrate a couple different ways to do something and then she would say something like “…and now we have the front cross option which only Esteban is going to be able to do.” Right?
So I definitely had a way of handling that capitalized on the tools that I had available to me, which was basically long legs and an ability to run fast and get out in front of my dog and it was the only way that I really knew how to handle. And I liked it, it was comfortable, I was good at it and I felt like it gave me an advantage over other competitors. So of course, what happened? I went to the Invitational and I did all these front crosses and then I got in this standard course and I did a front cross before an a-frame and I lost my dog immediately to an off course trap behind me because the judge had created a course that basically left me doing the front cross too late. Right? So it’s a late cue, the dog’s not getting the cue on time and they just go and they take the off course.
And it was at that time that I needed–that I realized that I needed more than what I was doing. That you could have a lot of success, you can have a lot of fun and do things with a very specific way of handling. But that in order to address these courses that were a little bit tougher at this event than at local trials, I needed more. I needed more handling. I needed to be able to handle those situations and the way that I was running wasn’t able to do that. And so for me, that was developing a rear cross.
So that was something that I really focused on the next year. Fast forward a year and now we are running at the Invitational. We’re in the finals, we’re running clean in the finals, getting third place, being on Animal Planet, being on TV and it was really, really exciting. But what I had to do was look at my handling and say, okay you may think you’re pretty good Mr. Hotshot, but I think we need a little more handling flexibility. So I will open it up to the ladies here. What do you think about handling flexibility, having heard my story about the Rottweiler?
I have a very similar story, you know, I was doing all these fronts with Guess, prepping for the…I think it was 2006 World Championships, and I got there and the course was just such that the front cross wasn’t going to happen. I absolutely, positively had to rear cross the tire and I remember basically almost being in tears in the locker room, thinking “Oh my gosh. I don’t do rear crosses. I don’t do rear crosses.”
Well, it’s that vicious cycle of “I don’t do a lot of them.” So they maintain to be a weakness. They continue to be a weakness and because they’re a weakness, I don’t want to practice them, and that kind of vicious cycle, and I remember I did survive the course. I did do the rear cross. I think what gave me a little bit of ease is it was at the tire, so less risk of the bar coming down and I vowed in that moment when I walked off that course that I was going to go home and I was going to make sure that I could have any option that a course presented.
If I need to do a front, I could do a front. If I needed to do a blind, I could do a blind. And it’s unfortunate that it took such a scenario for me to get there. And I think that’s what we’re here to do. We’re here to tell everybody: don’t let that happen to you! Don’t let our stories become your stories.
That is such an amazing story because we have that exact same experience in two very different places motivated by this panic attack, this failure or near failure that we had at this really big event that was really important to us, that we had invested a lot of time in. And at that time, both of us had been in the sport for quite some time, but I think it’s had a powerful impact on how we do things and how we do things at Bad Dog Agility–and Jennifer, even how you do things over at Incredipaws. So tell us a little bit how you approach it there.
Yeah, so at my live facility here in Columbus, I’m in charge of curriculum and lesson plans and we try to focus on having kind of a theme each week. Because we have classes five days a week, different instructors, but I’ll do the lesson plan and maybe this week it’s on front crosses and next week it’s on blind crosses. And when we do have those themes, we will try to build two or three or four different sequences where you’re using that skill and getting really good at kind of the execution and the perfection of that skill. And I like to design sequences, not where I just say, you know, hey, I want you to do a rear cross here because I want you to do a rear cross, but really to design a sequence where the rear cross makes sense.
But then about once a month, we also will set up where the lesson plan is, instead of running three or four different sequences the same way, we will set up one sequence and then we will work through running it different ways. So you may only have one or two sequences but that one sequence we’re going to say, okay. Let’s run it with a front. Let’s try it with a blind cross. Now let’s try it with a rear cross. So that you’re really getting a chance to kind of compare and contrast what works and what doesn’t and at least one of those is probably going to be a little bit more uncomfortable for you and we’re going to kind of force you to work through that, because as I tell people over and over: your weaknesses will never become strength if you refuse to work on them. So we kind of have a slightly different vibe to our lesson plans, sometimes working on execution, but making sure that people understand the importance of that flexibility of being able to identify different ways to do it and then practice those different ways.
I think that’s a fantastic way to structure your lessons because as an instructor, if you leave students to their own devices, many of them are going to go out and they’re going to run the sequence the way that they’re most comfortable doing. And then a fair number of those students, if you give them an opportunity to run it again, they run it the same way. Maybe they try to get a tighter turn or fix something else about the run but they’re not always going to use that opportunity to try a completely different handling maneuver. So for example, the typical ones that we would choose from would be front cross versus rear cross versus blind cross. So that’s a great setup to try and do. And I think there’s huge advantages to doing that for the students because they figure out what works. Because people think they know what’s going to be best for them and their dogs, and they may be right, but occasionally they’re going to be wrong. Occasionally, they’re going to discover that the maneuver that was NOT their first choice is actually better in that scenario for them and their dogs. And then like you said, just pushing the boundaries of what you’re doing so that you get better at everything.
Yeah, this concept is so important that we’ve actually built it into all of our prep courses, and I think a lot of listeners out there…we’re releasing this podcast today, right? That’s Thursday…and the deadline for signing up for the NAC prep school starts tomorrow? So that’s the National Agility Championship. It’s not just for competitors, but very helpful to everybody ESPECIALLY beginners because as we’re talking about here, it gives you an approach–an approach to agility and approach to your training and on exactly how you should be doing all of the things that we talk about in this sport: front cross, rear cross, well when do I do it? When should I do this? When should I do that?
Jennifer was just talking about putting together the first module for round one and how we always like to come up with different options. How would this look like? How would this look with rear crosses? How would this look with front crosses? And she was saying that she’d come up with four different things. And so she went and videotaped all of them. And so everybody’s going to come there, who signed up for the course, and they’re going to benefit from all of Jennifer’s experience.
And they’re going to have four different ways to approach this one path that your dog has to take on the course. You know, we picked the trickiest part or the lowest qualifying part of all these courses from previous national agility championships and then give you different ways to run it. And so that’s a really powerful thing to do and something that took me and Jennifer several years… you know, we told you our stories and now we can turn to you and say you don’t have to go through what we went through. You don’t have to have the tears in the locker room. You don’t have to have the bitter disappointment, for me, which was winning round one at the Invitational and then going off course, off course, off course in rounds 2 3 and 4 and having the very long drive back from California to Texas, being really disappointed with my “front cross-only” approach that really kind of, I felt, let me down there. And so we’re going to give you those tools in this prep course, but that’s something that you should really be looking at.
There’s one other thing that I wanted to mention because it’s super important and that is for people to understand that if they go out and they try something a certain way and it doesn’t work, that does not mean it wasn’t valuable to try. Because in looking at students videos who are working with us and they’re trying different ways, you may look at a particular sequence of a particular course, they’ve tried to run it and you may say, “Yeah, in this spot, you cannot make that front cross given your speed and your dog’s speed and that’s okay.”
But now you know what your limit is, so you know that failure is information. We talked about that last week with goal setting but it completely applies here. We want you to try different things but failure is just letting you know where your limits are.
I think there’s one other way of looking at handling flexibility, and I wanted to ask Jennifer what she thought about this. We’ve talked a lot about a specific sequence, where instead of a front cross you do a rear cross, but the sequence is the same obstacles. One, two, three, four the dog is going to do what they’re going to do. But now what about handling style? There’s some handlers who use more distance. There’s some handlers who, like when I started agility, are going to run basically from obstacle to obstacle–“wing to wing” I like to call it, where they handle in a very close style and I feel like a lot of the really good handlers out there on the international level are able to kind of go back and forth between the two. So Jennifer, let’s talk handling styles. What do you think is out there?
Yeah, I have to agree that a lot of what I’m seeing in some of the top handlers is the flexibility and the value in doing both. So you may be very fast, very athletic, running with your dog, be with your dog, do a lot of fronts and blinds, you know, think about Jessica Patterson at the Agility World Championships, but then also the ability to use a really incredible send and have the distance when you need to use that distance to get downstream. Or kind of the opposite, you know, we kind of have this idea that the Russians are known for all their distance work and being able to work far away from their dogs and being able to keep the dogs tight and technical even at increased distance, but they can also do really nice wraps or really nice threadles, even when they’re right with their dogs.
So I think what where that brings us back to is the importance of having flexibility and not getting into the situation of “oh, well, I’m a distance handler and I only can handle with this 15 foot bubble and my dog can’t get closer. I can’t get closer to them,” but being able to say, “well I have distance, I can work away from my dog, but I also can work really nice and tight to them” and have you know, really really nice wraps or again, threadles or whatever. So I think we’re looking at the flexibility and handling not only from the maneuver–front versus blind versus rear–but also the flexibility in the style.
The distance versus the more handler-focused, on the dog that can do Premier and do some of the technical but also can go out and qualify in FAST, you know, and work towards that excellent FAST and I think that’s a little bit of what AKC is trying to develop with their Grand Champion title–is that versatility, the FAST legs, the Time to Beat, the Premier, the Regular and I think that’s what you’re seeing–a lot of handlers striving for and really kind of taking things to the next level in that flexibility.
Yeah, one thing that I’ve always said is that I want to be able to handle anything that is legal and safe. So I don’t want to be in a situation where I look at a map and I say, oh this particular setup I don’t like but you know, I might not personally like it because you know, I don’t enjoy a certain style or a certain distance between obstacles. But as long as it’s legal and safe, I want to be able to do it.
I think that’s a great point.
So for all of you out there who are going out practicing on your own, practicing in your own backyard, or maybe doing things remotely with online classes…we hope this gives you a way to structure your own training to get the most. It’s also super effective because you get to use sequences that you set up in more different ways and build your skills that way with less course building and things like that. So, you know think about that the next time you go out to your yard and as we said earlier in the podcast, the NAC Prep Course does close tomorrow. So if you’re listening to this right away, then you have probably less than 24 hours at this point to go register for that course, and we will be walking you through this methodology of running sequences different ways with demonstration, analysis, and optional feedback. That’s it for this week’s podcast. Happy training!