Taking the Lead
Best foot forward…
Many years ago I wanted to find a way to get my dogs round a course faster than they were going at the time. I worked on fitness, nutrition, motivation and general agility training but the reality was that dogs can only run as fast as their genetics and physical abilities allow them to. How else can I get them round the course in a faster time? I analysed my dogs on video in slow motion. I watched other dogs, then more dogs and then even more dogs.
Then I spotted the answer…
It was about getting them on the most efficient line for that course, the perfect line. What I spotted was the lead leg. I had ridden horses in the past but never really understood what I was being told or asked to do so I didn’t really understand anything from them. I had not found any writings on lead legs for dogs even on the vast internet. So I decided to attempt to study it myself and try to figure out what was happening with these four dangly limbs and why it made a difference. In British agility I don’t think agility trainers/handlers give it enough thought, America might be ahead of us with this. So for the last few years my training and teaching of handlers and dogs in agility has been geared towards giving handlers the information and understanding of lead legs and how the dogs use them in agility and the importance of them.
I teach many horse riding instructors that have never given it a second thought to their dogs but leave my lesson to teach almost the same thing to someone on horseback. It never occurred to them to apply similar teachings to dogs. Whilst mentioning horses, I would like to emphasize they are different animals to dogs. They move differently and use their body and legs differently, so do not just adapt horse logic to dogs.
My observations, breaking it down to very simple terms, what I discovered was that, if the dog was leading with its front left leg, then it couldn’t turn right very well. If it was leading with its front right leg, it couldn’t turn left very well, if at all. Now, lots of people know this but, what many don’t know, is how to get them on the other leg when needed.
Of course, the back legs play a part in agility too but, I tell handlers to pay attention to the front end mostly and to which leg is coming down second as that is the lead leg. With extremely fast dogs this can be hard to see. I can spot this by how they move out of a turn, but it can be difficult to see when they are running 35mph. The best way to see it is via slow motion video, but it can help to get an eye for it. Start by watching steadier dogs run and then progress to the speedy ones. Most dogs – but not all – tend to run on the lead leg nearest to the handler. I believe this is because we have inadvertently trained this by rewarding from us when they were puppies, so to make it easier for them to pop into us and get a reward from the front of us they run on that leg to make it easy and efficient for them. That is my theory anyway, could be totally wrong. This is why some people find it difficult to flick the dogs away from them. The dogs cannot flick away unless they change to their other leg. So we get a spin from the dog.
Two of my little darling Border Collies; Shy and Bold are from breed show-lines. They were not bred for the agility ring but to stand up and look pretty in a breed ring. For them to be able to compete against dogs that have been bred from agility lines for many generations, it is essential I get them on the correct lead-leg for most of the course.
At the time of writing this, Shy is ten years old and Bold is 8 and a half years old. They are still competitive at the top level amongst much faster, genetically gifted dogs. The reason they can be competitive is because, when I concentrate and handle well – and if the course allows me – I can give them the information as to which leg to run on, enabling them to turn efficiently and drive out of the turn quicker and earlier. Thus I am able to keep them on the neatest line. This means landing softer and tighter with less impact which hopefully means a longer injury-free career. If there are 10 or more lead leg changes in a course, I am usually hopeful of a good place in that class. The reason is because I attempt to give my dogs the information as to which leg to be on before the jump. Many other handlers give the information after the jump. This makes a big difference to the times the dogs can achieve. If however, there are only 2 lead leg changes on the course, I know that my dogs don’t have the speed to compete against the athletic dogs.
My handling style is based on what most dogs seem to do naturally. It has very little to do with training. As the dogs obviously do not speak our verbal language, I try to use body language to communicate where I want them to go next. My handling is all about giving the dog the information it needs before it reaches the obstacle, enabling it to get onto the correct lead leg before the take off point. This saves lots of time and takes strides out of the course which the dog might have taken if it were on the wrong leg for that line. The dog cannot go in the direction we are asking until it is on the correct leg for that turn. The earlier we get them on that leg the faster they will be. If you have a genetically gifted, amazingly talented agility dog and you get them on the correct lead leg before the jump for that particular turn, then you are going to get incredible times on the course.
When dogs lead with the wrong leg, some common mishaps that can happen include knocking poles, falling over on their shoulder and crashing into the floor, spinning, wide turns and even missed weave entries. Something that I see about 10 times every show is handlers sending their dog into a u-shaped tunnel that turns right when their dog is on a left lead leg. The dog cannot physically turn in the tunnel as it is on the wrong leg for that turn so it hits the back of the tunnel, then changes and comes out on the correct leg. This can be potentially damaging. We don’t spot this as it’s in the tunnel but trust me, it happens so much.
Cue-ing turns is essential. There are many ways to cue a turn. Other handlers have their own variations which work well. Verbals, however, do not tend to cue the change of leg before the jump which is what I try to achieve. That isn’t to say it isn’t possible as it certainly is. It’s just a lot more training and, in the heat of the moment, dogs will go on body language over verbals 9 times out of 10. I certainly use verbals to steer my dogs, but that is secondary to using my body.
Using body language has a ‘best position.’ By that I mean, there is a best place to be and that’s usually ahead of your dog by four or five metres. But we can’t all run like Usain Bolt, so I encourage handlers to practise my handling style from a distance, backed up by a verbal command. As dogs have amazing peripheral vision the handling isn’t totally reliant on being able run fast and keep up with the dog.
I am constantly evolving and tweaking my handling if I think something works better. It is essential we are open to new ideas, either our own or those of other people and don’t get stuck in the rut. There is always more than one way to do things. All of it though is about equipping the dog with an Agility Sat Nav. In my late teens, I used to play snooker at a reasonably high level. An important part of the game was positional play and thinking three shots ahead. When you potted a red ball it was important to leave the white ball in a good position to pot the next ball, so it was about flowing from one ball to the next but thinking and planning three shots ahead all the time. That sounds more complicated than I meant it. I do think this has helped me plan ahead on an agility course. Thinking 3 jumps ahead and planning which leg the dog needs to be on – and how to get them there – can win you the class.
These are the ideas I give people on my training days or private lessons. If you are not lucky enough to have a genetically gifted dog, flying at lightning speed round the course, then you may want to think about how you can save time by handling and giving them the information they need.