Handling Techniques

Working Without Verbal Commands

This technique is good to use to help people who are talking to the dog too much (for example, conveying their panic to the dog with screeching commands or overusing commands until the dog is just tuning out the handler) or people who have poor timing with the verbal commands. It's better to have these people concentrate on getting their body in the right position rather than worrying so much about the timing of the verbal command.

While it is difficult to get people to run courses totally mute and it's not necessarily advisable, practicing this technique allows you as a handler to focus on your position and your dog's reaction to your position--for example, figure out just how far out you can push your particular dog by stepping towards him as your moving or how far he will pull in towards you if you step away from him. This is very valuable information to have when negotiating handler challenges on an actual course. In addition, toning down your commands in competition allows your recalls or corrections in competition to be much more effective. If you are constantly chattering at your dog, it's more difficult to call him off obstacles because at a certain point he just tunes you out. (Monica Percival)

Your dog is completely capable of reading your body language without actually looking right at you. Your dog gets at least 95% of his "cues" from your body position -- the verbal commands are just reinforcement (or confusion if they disagree with what your body position is saying). How many times have you seen handlers try to deal with a tunnel/dogwalk trap, for instance, who stand there with their bodies pointing right to the tunnel and yelling "dogwalk". What does the dog do? It will be a rare one who will do the dogwalk!

It is much more important to concentrate on what you are telling your dog with your body than worrying about whether you call a tire a "tunnel" or a "table". (Jo Ann Mather)

It is always good feedback to have someone or something (like this mute exercise) identify *why* it is that you and/or the dog are currently not really clicking as a team ; i.e. too many commands, dog overly responsive to particular body language, etc. Sometimes the observation can help you to alter your handling style so that you are able to get through the next few trials a little more successfully than you might have otherwise. But then, you need to ask yourself if your modified method is going to overly limit your handling options.

This technique is good feedback on your dog's current performance level. Most dogs go through various stages of motivation/demotivation as well as ever increasing levels of experience during their agility career. What was the right way to be handling a dog one year may no longer be the best way to be doing it a year or two later. So every now & then you should try doing a few exercises silently - If the dog does markedly better or markedly worse then you should learn something from it.

Let's say the dog does better; he either goes faster or more smoothly to the next obstacle, or pays more attention to you, or doesn't have as many obstacle faults. This tells you should work without verbals for awhile & re-introduce the ones that actually benefit your performance (that all important "come" for example).

Let's say he does worse. In the case of an unmotivated or unconfident dog, this could tell you might need to be giving more verbal commands and/or feedback. Here one common scenario: beginning & intermediate level dogs often get lots of delighted verbal feedback from their handlers. At some point, the novelty wears off for both dog & handler; some handlers then start giving progressively less (positive) verbal feedback and commands and the dog that is very motivated by this will begin to perform less well, causing the handler to become unhappy with the dog, causing a whole bad downward spiral to the performance.

If a very motivated, fairly experienced dog doesn't do well at the mute exercise, this should be a warning sign to the handler that they are not perhaps as versatile in their bag of handling and dog skills as they could be and perhaps even more training of this type would be a plus. Some types of trial venues can be impossible for a dog trained to work primarily on verbals; for example, at the USDAA Nationals, some years the crowds have been so large and the audience noise so overwhelming that the dog trained to work solely on verbals has been very disadvantaged. (Janet Gauntt)


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