Handling in Agility and Injuries

(Original Post on December 12, 2013)

With Kelsey’s 4th birthday, I was reflecting on all that I have “gone through” with her in our training and agility. It dawned on me that she has been an excellent catalyst for me to question my understanding and to re-examine what it is that I know, what it is that I do well, and what it is that I still need to improve. There are two things that really popped out for me: handling and injuries. These two things are related, both for the human and for the dog.

First up are injuries. Some of you may know that I have been battling with a bum-shoulder – no it’s not a new anatomical feature of two body parts put together – but rather I had managed to tear a tendon in my right rotator (3/4 – not quite all the way through). While the injury started with repetitive strain associated with my blessed 3yr son, which I ignored and “pushed past the discomfort,” the thing that did me in was a complex handling sequence that I did over, and over, and over again in one training session. The next day, the game was over. The arm would not work at all. While the subtle pains started in December 2012, the Big OW! day was in June… it’s now December and it’s still healing. (Lesson #1: Listen to the body! Rest is super important!) Then in September, Kelsey also started to show shoulder and back quirks. Nothing significant in terms of lameness as identified by care professionals, but given my own lesson, it has led me to put Kelsey and me on a full month’s rest, and re-evaluate our training plans.
I also recently read Kim Cullen’s research on canine injuries in agility (ouch.caninesinmotion.com), and I would like to highlight a couple of points here.

First, most injuries are non-specified in terms of their source of injury, meaning there was no one incident that led to the injury. This, to me, speaks of the importance for us to be mindful in what we are training and how repetitive our training is. Just like my shoulder, if I over-train turns or weaves without balancing the bend-work with straight work then I’m asking for a repetitive stress injury for my dog. Similarly, if I over-focus on 2o2o contacts, then I’m putting a lot more strain on my dog’s shoulders, neck and back than if I balance my training with tunnels, table and circle work. Susan Garrett talks about BALANCE in training a lot, and as trainers and our dog’s protectors it is important we keep training journals to see whether or not we are overdoing it in one area or asking for a non-specific injury in our dogs. These journals would also be helpful to help identify the source if your dog should become injured.

Second, an interesting result was the factor of experience in our dogs and the handlers as injury risks/protection factors for injuries. I would hazard a guess that 95% of our dogs fall within the less than 4 years, and that ~97% of the handlers fall into the less than 5 years of experience here in Newfoundland. In other parts of the country/world, the bulk still lies with those dogs and/or handlers with less experience. This means we need to be aware of what we ask our dogs to do (in training and in competition). This brings me to the handling side.

There has been a lot of discussion of handling in the agility community over the past 18 months or so, with “new systems” emerging and new ways of running courses. But what this line of conversation has not highlighted is what I think is really important to understand. Handling has four components, and each component is really important to understand and practice in order to have smooth and effective runs, but also to help prevent injuries.

1) HANDLER MECHANICS.

This component of handling is what we typically think of when we talk about handling. It is the understanding of all the physical maneuvers a handler can make on course to communicate to the dog what handler’s expectations of the dog. Some common ones are: front cross, rear cross, static cross, blind cross, shoulder rotations, lead out pivots, serpentines, threadles, support arms. More recent mechanics include: ketchker turns, early rotations, and a resurgence of the blind cross. Within the handler mechanics are the actual footwork, arm-work, shoulder-work, head-work, handler’s running path, and location with respect to the dog. At our local club, we start these with our circle work in pre-agility, continue developing them in Beginners, and then start to focus on them in Intermediate I. However, in these courses, we are muddying the waters with HANDLER MECHANICS and the second factor DOG TRAINING, which is why I had started the Handler-Only courses. Without handler-only practice and feedback, handlers are often ‘sloppy’ in their mechanics, which usually leads to confusion by their canine partners, miscommunication, and increased risk of injuries (due to dog-handler collisions, or hard adjustments (wipe-outs or strains) made by the dog to meet late/ill-timed handler requests).

2) DOG TRAINING (a.k.a. Dog’s Comprehension of Handler Mechanics).

This factor is often not managed sufficiently to ensure the dog understands what it is we are trying to get the dog to do. What does it mean when we present a serpentine arm/shoulder? What does it mean when we present a support arm? What does it mean when we have running arms? All of these need to be trained just like we train the dog how to jump a jump, or run through a tunnel. Circle work helps a lot for creating the understanding for front and rear crosses. Single jump exercises (like the ones in Susan Garrett’s “Success with One Jump” DVD) and exercises with just a wing (with a noodle covering the cups) or pool noodle upright (Puppy Peaks) help create more clarity on these handler mechanics as well. For example, as I was trying out the new moves in Susan Garrett’s camp I sometimes had points where I had to stop and say, “This is a dog training issue, not a handling issue.” Then I had a decision to make: either I train the dog, or I practice without the dog (revert to handler mechanics). Nine times out of ten the best answer is the latter, practice without the dog. If it’s new to me, I had better get the movements down pat before asking a dog to learn what it means. In a different handling camp, I worked with a different (fully-trained) dog. It was awesome as I got to test out and work on my mechanics and see how my mechanics impacted the dog’s performance. With a novice dog, we don’t have that option. So without proper DOG TRAINING and understanding, the dog may increase his/her risk of injury by not collecting when collecting is needed, or inadvertently set a path for collision with an obstacle due to misunderstanding of the handler’s request.

3) STRATEGIC CHOICES.

This factor of handling is where the handler decides what to do where on an agility course. Which cross is the best one? Where should I be, as the handler, to best communicate my dog what s/he’s supposed to do? What will give the clearest communication to my dog that will lead to the safest, fastest, and smoothest completion of this course for my dog? I cover this in my online map analysis course, and I teach it in my local club in our Handler-Only Advanced course, in map reading workshops, and the highest level courses (AAC prep, etc.). This factor requires a little less of the physical abilities and training that the first two do, but it does require a set of knowledge and understanding of the purpose of the mechanics, an understanding of your own dog’s performance, and an awareness of your context (is the grass wet, do we have to “go hard or go home,” is this an exposure/training scenario, what is the overarching purpose for you and your dog in this particular run/trial/training session).

4) COMBINING ALL THREE.

Each of the above three factors can be a bit of a stand-alone. However, it takes skill and practice to integrate all three. To this end, a mix of short, medium, and long sequences is important to build confidence and competence in the final scheme of things. Running full Masters courses when you haven’t practiced figuring out 4-6 obstacle sequences first is just asking for mayhem! 🙂

So as you can well imagine, the time it takes to get through all four factors of handling is quite closely related to the dog’s four years of agility experience and the handlers more than five years of experience. Until you rack up those years of experience (develop #1 and #3), until your dog develops the understanding (#2), and until you as a team can do all three (#4) in short to long sequences, you need to be aware that your dog is at a higher risk of injury (you too, if a collision occurs, as we had a member break her ankle/foot this way).

Keep a training journal to ensure you don’t over-work one thing and ignore another. Also be sure to practice your own mechanics first without a dog! We do it in competition all the time, be sure to implement in your training and classes too! In our rush to play with our dogs, we can lose sight of the more important piece: it isn’t fun if someone is hurt, so be aware of your building blocks and make sure your training is balanced as you build your agility team!

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