Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Walking the Course

I wrote this article for a beginners workshop that I ran a couple of years ago... So if you are an uber-agility nerd, it may well be a little too basic for your liking...

Over-coming Amnesia – How to remember the course

Handlers that struggle to remember a course have been a stumbling block for many agility teams. There is no ‘quick-fix’ to solve this problem, but here are some pointers. You generally have about 8min to walk the course, use them wisely. And remember, ‘walking the course’ is also something that can be practised at training, during your agility classes. Make sure that you are in the marshalling area on time. Don't get caught in a situation where you only have two minutes to walk.

When walking the course the first time, just follow the numbers and make sure of the route you have to follow. Try and find the flow of the course. An agility course is like a big doodle on grass, instead of paper. Close your eyes and try to see the pattern.
When walking the course a second time, walk it from your dogs pint of view, notice what your dog sees as he approaches an obstacle. Make a note of the obstacles your dog sees when he is coming out of a tunnel. Remember, what might seem obvious to you from your birds eye view, might look completely different for your dog from his point of view. You know both your and your dog’s weaknesses. Think about these as you walk the course. For example, if your dog struggles clearing a jump on a 180 degree, make a note of how much space he will need to complete the hurdle successfully. Or if you have a dog that is difficult to call off tunnels, try and find a position where you can pick up the dog without having to scream at the top of your lungs.
Now turn your back on the course and see your dog running it. See the exact route you would like your dog to take. Exactly where you would like them to take off, the precise line you would like them to take into the tunnel. Visualise your dog’s ‘perfect round’.
Keeping that in mind, walk the course again. Now you have to figure out where you need to be to create this ‘perfect round’. Where exactly you need to do that front-cross. Find yourself landmarks for your movements. For example ‘ front-cross, directly in line with the dog-walk, in front of jump number eight’. In reality you are likely to be out of place quite often, but this just gives you a sense of three dimensional direction. If you have performed something in training then run it like that on the course. Don’t suddenly try to compromise or ‘baby’ your dog around the course. Instead of being ‘safe’ you will only confuse your dog to what you have taught it to do. Repeat walking your route on the course a couple of times. Remember, the show aint over ‘til the fat lady sings, so walk the course right up to the last jump. Run it at the pace you would be running at with your dog. You are now conditioning yourself to run this specific course.
Again turn your back on the course, close your eyes, and now visualise your and your dog’s perfect round. See your ‘perfect team effort’.
Once you are sure of your route, walk the course again. This time checking where al the obstacles are positioned, where you are in relativity to everything else on the course. This is called course positioning. It is heart-breaking when a clear round is forfeited when the handler reverses neatly into the wing of a jump, or trips over the edge of the dog-walk.
To make the flow of the route easier, find the manoeuvres that you have done so religiously in training, within the course you are walking. Find pinwheels, slaloms, straight-lines and boxes. Sometimes they are obvious, sometimes they are harder to find. If you have trouble remembering the numbers of the course, then lay out the patterns for yourself. For example, straight line, pin-wheel to my right, straight-line onto slalom, straight line into tunnel, go-round, straight line into pin-wheel on my left. Repeat this to yourself, while walking these movements.
If you do need the advise of a trainer or friend, do not interrupt them while walking the course for their own run. Wait until they have finished walking the course. Don’t spend all your precious time discussing one or two problem sections with them, listening to their advise, consider the alternatives, make a decision and stick to it. At the end of the day, they are not running your dog, nor do they handle exactly like you. They can advise you, but only you can run your round. If you spend 6min changing your mind about one little section of the course, you are more likely to forget where you are going. By repeating the exact movements you want to do, you are conditioning yourself to run it in exactly that way.
Agility is a very fun and social sport, but you do not need to catch up on all the gossip while walking your course. At one show you will only get eight minutes to walk the course, while the show is more than likely to continue for a good few hours. You have more than enough time to catch up on your social.
Try not to copy your fellow competitors while they are walking the course. Once again, they don’t handle like you and their dogs don’t run like yours. Besides if you are concentrating on a fellow competitor, you’re not giving your full attention to the course.
Once all the handlers have cleared the course, before the first dog runs, stand outside the ring and trace the course with your finger, in the air.
There is such a thing as 'over-walking' though, once you feel comfortable with the course and KNOW where you want to go, go and relax until you have to prepare for your run.
If possible, watch the first couple of dogs run. DO NOT change your mind about your own handling. Just observe how a dog is actually running the course.
Through out your agility career, you are bound to get caught off-guard many times. Off-guard and out of position, there will be many times that you will either succeed or fail at thinking on your feet. But by walking the course correctly, you are just minimizing the chance of this happening.
Having said that... from a judges point of view, do not linger around on the course once the marshal/judge has cleared the course. There is nothing more frustrating than having to repeatedly ask competitors to get of your course when the walking session has already finished.
At the end of the day this is all supposed to be fun, but inevitably the nerves will spoil this a bit on occasion. Beware of your nerves affecting your dog.

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