Crossing Behind the Dog
The amount of impulsion a particular dog has when working agility has much to do with what handling techniques a handler will choose to use during competition regardless of size. It's not so much being able to use any one particular technique, it's more a matter of knowing how to guide one's particular dog around the course. There is no one correct way to handle any challenge in a course, it all depends upon the dog and the way the team works and what gets you that qualifying score! The various techniques are just that, techniques to use when you need them, should you need them.
Not that one shouldn't train for all occasions! It's just that when competition arrives the attitude of the dog, its impulsion, and where the handler is when the challenge is faced determines what needs to be used to successfully negotiate that sequence. Sometimes the dogs deserve better handlers!
Small dogs almost always have a more difficult time becoming comfortable with the handler crossing behind at a jump than large dogs because:
- The handler's feet are more threatening.
- The small dog is likely to be accustomed to his handler being slightly ahead of, or with, him as he moves from one jump to the next. In order to cross behind the dog on the take-off, the dog must *move ahead* of the handler on a verbal command, which many small dogs aren't comfortable with, even advanced levels.
- Large dogs quickly become adjusted to working ahead of the handler because they must--they are usually faster than the handler. The small dog often isn't any faster than the handler therefore never has reason to move ahead of the handler unless specifically trained to do so.
- In order to cross, the handler must wait until the dog commits to the jump before attempting to cross (if he tries to cross too soon, the dog may be intimidated into a run-out or interpret the motion as let's change direction now). The small dog will not commit to the jump until 1 to 2 feet away; the large dog may commit to the jump from as far as 6-10 feet away. The small dog handler must therefore run nearly all the way up to the jump before crossing (unless the dog will confidently send ahead to the jump). The result: The handler runs up to the jump and stops (waiting for the dog in order to cross)--body language that tells the dog to run up to the jump and stop. The handler of the large dog can probably continue running toward the jump without changing pace because once the dog commits to the jump (several feet back), the handler will still have plenty of time to make the cross. Thus the large dog never senses a slowing of forward motion as does the small dog, only the change of direction.
- The small dog is *airborne* for a much shorter length of time than a large dog. Thus a spin is much more likely (when teaching cross behinds) with a small dog than a large--it is not a fault of poor timing on the handler's part. (Do not chastise your student). It is not a mistake--it is merely a reflection of inexperience. When a dog jumps, if the handler was on his right at take-off, he expects the handler to remain on his right and will plan to turn toward the right upon landing. If the handler foils him and crosses behind, the dog that has mentally committed to going right upon landing will do so. In order to follow in the new direction the dog must then continue turning right, resulting in a 270 degree spin. As dogs gain confidence (i.e. more speed and longer take-off distance) and experience (they begin to read the handler's motion behind them), the dogs can learn to adapt to the cross, make the appropriate change of direction adjustments in the air and land going to the left, on the left lead, with the handler. This is easier for the large dogs to do because they are airborne relatively longer due to the fact that they A) naturally take off farther back from the jump (more horizontal jumping effort) and B) jump higher (more vertical jumping effort). They spend more time in the air and thus have more time to A) recognize that the handler is changing sides, B) decide to follow and C) get the change of direction message from the brain to the feet to accomplish the switch. Sharon Nelson advises not doing any rear crosses until the dog and handler team have gained a lot of experience and the crosses can be timed properly. Some small dogs (and large) must be taught to confidently move ahead on a verbal command to allow the handler to do a rear cross (i.e. experience alone isn't enough to acquire it).
Many handlers (particularly novices) have a difficult time learning the footwork required to execute a cross in front. The instructor should arm the student with the knowledge of the basics of both the cross in front and the cross behind and then provide opportunities to practice each. One or the other method will emerge as the one that is "better" for that particular dog and handler team.
With many small dogs the immediate solution on the course is to execute the rear cross or cross behind on the landing side of the jump. This allows the handler to continue running past the jump (no slowing of forward momentum to confuse the dog), eliminates the risk of a run-out (the dog is already over the jump), and is more forgiving if there is a timing error. Of course the handler still has to be careful not to step on the dog.
In the meantime, the handler should be working on sending the dog ahead. Set up three jumps in a line to the table. Run the line of jumps with the dog to the table several times until the dog knows the exercise and is happily going to the table (a treat on the table helps). The handler starts to hang back little by little and allows the dog to go to the table more and more independently. In Ruth Hobday's exercise, the goal is to ultimately send the dog from the start down the line of jumps to the table. In this modified version, the handler crosses behind the dog as it goes for the table (first between the jump #3 and the table, then as it jumps #3). If the dog allows the cross, let the dog go on to the table, consume its treat and then call to the handler and get another treat. After several times of this, eliminate the treat on the table, the dog only gets the treat from the handler. End of exercise for that day! The next day start out the same, then change it so the the table is now positioned 90 degrees off the 2nd jump for a left turn. Run with the dog on the left, cross behind at jump #2 and call the dog to the table, away from jump #3. Return the table to the end. Repeat straight line several times. Change table to the right after jump #2, run with dog on the right, cross behind at jump #2 and call the dog to the table, away from jump #3. Etc.
It is more difficult for small dogs to learn this skill and so instructors should not become impatient with their small dog handlers if they don't progress as rapidly as the large dog handlers may.
Does the dog dislike the handler crossing behind or cross behinds only on jumps? Does the handler cross behind close on the dog's heels when she moves from one side to the other? Isolate the problem, then work on specific parts of it. Try doing cross behinds on a Pipe Tunnel first; the dog can't see you move around as much; this may help desensitize the dog. Try sending the dog to a target several times over the jump. Once the dog has succeeded in the behavior chain Jump -- Go to Target -- Eat then you can add variables like crossing behind from left to right; from right to left, close to the jump, far back from the jump.
When you work on a drill like this, be sure the jump is very low (6") at first so that the dog is able to concentrate only on the new skill, not on the skill plus the effort of jumping full height. Adding skills to full-height jumps doubles up on variables and does not give the dog as many quick chances to succeed. Especially when you're teaching new and tricky things, or doing many repetitions of the behavior, low jumps are much easier on the dog.
When teaching your dog to allow you to cross behind, you must give the dog a reason to focus ahead. Try throwing a ball for the dog as he goes over. Or if he is not ball motivated use a food tube or food target. Throw the object as you cross. Make sure your cross is not at an acute angle. It should be a shallow crossing as much as possible at first. Acute crossings risk the dog pivoting to see just what the heck you are doing back there. The more experience your dog gets allowing you to cross behind, the less likely that problem becomes. The more momentum your dog has the easier it is to cross behind. Try doing a cross behind on a curve instead of a straight away, it's easier for the dog.
Set up jumps like this: With your dog on your left and looking straight ahead there should be jump 1 just in front of you, Jump 2 is several paces straight forward as well, Jump 3 should be several paces forward and curved to the left. 2 jumps straight on and one that causes the dog to turn to the left at about a 45' angle. Starting with the dog on the left, run with the dog to the first jump, (no lead outs) letting the dog get ahead of you (you can't cross behind unless the dog is in front of you). As the dog rises to clear the 2nd jump, start to cross behind and throw a ball over the 3rd jump. The dog should turn to the left to follow the ball. If the dog does not go over the jump, move it, to be in the path of the dog for the next try. Try to make it as easy as possible for the dog in the beginning. Turning sharply to a jump is not what you are working on, letting you cross behind is. You can also do this without a 3rd jump. Just throw the ball as if there is one. Don't forget to practice both sides of the dog.
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