Several years ago while announcing at a horse show during the barrel racing event, I overheard a coach/instructor shouting directions to the rider: “Watch the barrel, look where you are going!” As a rider from way back, I knew the horse will follow your eyes, so I could easily follow the coach’s instructions, but thought nothing more of it at the time.
A few weeks later in my competition class, I noticed a handler wandering all about the figure 8 pattern encouraging her dog to catch up, then pulling back to slow it down. The poor dog was lagging, forging, going wide and crowding while the handler moved at different speeds, sometimes going closer to one post and wandering wider at the other. At this rate she’d lose points all over the place, and definitely not present a good picture of teamwork. Without thinking I started instructing, “Watch the post, and look where you are going!” So was born my technique for teaching a good figure 8.
I start my students a step, or about a foot, behind the center line between the posts. The majority of dogs will lag that first step or two of heeling, so starting up close minimizes the lagging before the exercise even starts. I instruct my students to take a half-step forward on their right foot in the direction they wish to go, followed by a regular-sized left foot stride. At the same time, they are to look at the outside shoulder of the first post (or if moving to the left it will be the post left shoulder). The handler should turn their eyes and head towards the post shoulder while moving in a smooth, even pace about a yard’s length around the post. The reason for this is that stepping out first with the half step will signal the dog to move a nano-second earlier and usually gets rid of lagging on that first full step. Stepping in the direction of travel with the right foot signals the direction of travel to the dog. With the eyes and head turned into the post, the handler’s shoulders, hips and feet are all naturally turned in the same direction. This signals the dog to turn in that direction. Walking about a yard, or an arm’s length, around the post gives both the dog and the handler a comfortable distance in which to maintain a nice smooth pace.
When the handler gets almost opposite of the second shoulder, I instruct him to look forward to the opposite post shoulder at about a yard out, and walk a straight line keeping the same length of stride and cadence. The reason for this is that turning the head and eyes forward straightens out the handler’s body and stops the circular motion. It keeps the dog in heel position, and if asked for a sit at heel, they will get a straight sit. As the handler approaches the point even with the post shoulder, they should be looking at the shoulder, moving to the back of the neck, and on to the second shoulder. Repeat the last steps. Here are a few tips.
- Have handlers practice walking the figure 8 without their dog until they are thoroughly comfortable with their new body positions.
- Make sure that handlers don’t “airplane” around the posts (i.e., bend with their upper body into the curve around the post).
- It will take several sessions for the dog to learn the new pattern of handler body language. Have the handlers avoid looking down at the dog while heeling through the figure 8 as this will cause the dog to lose heel position, and the handler will lose the smooth heeling path.
- Be sure to tell handlers to keep a loose lead.
As for which way to start out (direction of travel around the posts), I suggest that normal-paced dogs go to the left post, and dogs that jump forward into heel start to the right. Most dogs start off slowly into heel position, including the “attention dogs.” By moving the dog to the left, he will stay in heel position and be ready for the straight-away. Fast dogs that jump forward on the heel command will do better with the handler moving off to the right. They will keep their heel position and calm on the outside circle before the straight-away, and won’t crowd on the inside turn.
This technique can also be useful on the heeling turns. Just have the handler look in the direction of the turn a step or two before. This signals the dog to the impending change of direction.