a Taj MuttHall Dog Diary: Walking a Dog Agility Course the Taj MuttHall Way

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Walking a Dog Agility Course the Taj MuttHall Way

SUMMARY: You've heard this all before, I'm sure.
Yesterday I talked about how often I walk a course and how I know when I'm done. Today: What I do while I'm walking.

What do I do during walkthroughs?

After all these years of walking courses, reading about walking courses, listening about how to walk courses, and taking workshops on how to walk a course, I've concluded that there is not just one right way, and any given method isn't necessarily appropriate for every course.

For example, it's common to be told to walk the course the first time without thinking about your handling, just to get the idea of the flow, the gotchas, what the dog is seeing on the course, and where you might have to make decisions. (Some folks walk as close to the dog's line as possible--walking between the jump uprights and so on.)

Great advice. (Really.) I do that maybe once out of every, oh, um, well, pretty much never. Two reasons:
  • I see all that stuff right away (whether from years of experience or being good at spacial relationships in general). I don't much think about it. I may make handling mistakes, but I almost never come off a course saying, "huh, it never occurred to me that xxx would be a problem."
  • I find that, no matter how I first walk through the course, that tends to be the way I'll want to run it. So, on my first walk-through, I try to pick how I'm going to handle it and just walk it that way. (That doesn't mean that I know for sure--if I see handling options that I might like, I'll try them each *during the first walk-through* so that I can pick a good working theory and continue walking the course with that in mind.)

What I'm scanning for as I walk:
  • What are the laws of physics going to make my dog do as she's running? In other words, is it really a straight line from A to B to C, or will she have to change direction, no matter how subtly?  (More on that later.)
  • Is there any obstacle within a 180-degree range of the direction she's going that she could possibly confuse with what I really want? (Probably up to 30 feet.)
  • What are known challenges for my dog? Tika and Boost don't always have the same issues. (And what are known challenges for ME--like, I'm not always super-fast or nimble and my timing's not always great.)
  • Are there multiple ways that I could handle each obstacle or each section of the course, and which of those choices works best for me and my dog(s)?
  • What are other handlers doing on that section of the course? (Amazing how many good ideas one can pick up from watching what others are doing. But you have to watch the right people. If you have a large, fast dog, watching what the people with slower, smaller dogs are doing won't do you much good.)
  • What markers can I use to ensure that I'm where I need to be at any given time? (E.g., when doing this front cross, I need to be beyond the wing of the red jump before my dog exits the tunnel--or--I need to run all the way to that bare piece of ground before starting my rear cross motion--)

Yes, I do all that on the first walkthrough. It's quick for me. On subsequent walk-throughs, I'll revisit and concentrate on the last three, because I've picked up on the first three the first time around.

For those additional walk-throughs, I'll add things like:
  • Can I actually get there? I don't usually run a full course full speed during walk-throughs--only those occasional parts that I need to test or get a better feel for.
  • Are there weird things that I need to be aware of or that I can fix? (Deep hole hidden in the grass right where my path takes me. Unused obstacles lined up right outside the ring ropes so they might look like course obstacles to the dog--those are not challenges built into the course by the judge and I just fix them if I can, or ask someone to help.)
  • On a really difficult bit that I can't puzzle out, I might just ask another handler what they're doing and why (or why they're doing what they seem to be doing). Sometimes the explanation helps me to decide something completely different.
  • Walk challenging or nonobvious sequences several times to embed them better.

So--are all my runs perfect, then?

I'm far from perfect. I make mistakes. I forget where I'm supposed to go. I miss my cross. I don't get to where I want to be. I expose my dogs' training deficiencies. But when all's said and done, when I mess up, it's virtually never because I haven't walked the course enough.

Laws of physics and straight lines

It intrigues me how often people mistake the angle of an obstacle for the angle of the dog's approach. Or can't determine where the dog's straight line really is. Here are a couple of examples:

I also know, in the first example, that any obstacles along that straight line from #2 to oblivion are possible off-courses because they'll be easier for my dog to take than doing the #3. I think some people miss those because they're thinking that the dog is going straight from 2 to 3.


  1. Interesting read. I must admit I am one of those people walking in between the jumps and crouching at the exits of tunnels :-) Not always, but often.

    It took me forever to realize the jump angle thing. I guess from years of watching horse jumping on tv, where the horses pretty much always are given a straight on approach... For ages I would always set my dog up perfectly straight for the first jump. Can you guess I'm not a very good pool player either?

  2. I'm not disparaging that way of walking a course, not at all! It's just not something that I personally need any more.

    I also think that not setting up one's dog straight to a jump depends on the instructor setting up situations and pointing out the better way to do it. Lots of instructors apparently don't.