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Going the Distance

   Supporting agility dogs with specialist lifetime cover

Drive and basic principles...

Joanne Orrell and Anni Telford have been both friends and distance handlers for over 25 years. They come to distance handling from different backgrounds. Joanne was originally an obedience handler and trainer, whilst Anni was a behaviourist and university lecturer who applied principles of learning to humans and other animals. Neither of them could ever have been described as athletic. Due to arthritis and a refusal to give up their love of dog agility as they gradually became less mobile, over the years they have developed their distance handling skills. In this, the first of three articles, they share some basic information you need to help you achieve more independence with your dog and start your distance career.

The first thing we need to consider is what exactly do we mean by 'distance handling?'

You see all manner of people at shows who claim to 'do distance' so we want to be very clear here.

  • Distance handling is when the handler takes up position in one area of the ring and does a minimum of running or moving with the dog.

  • Independent handling is when a handler, who does run with their dog, sends it over several obstacles before picking them back up again or layers some equipment and picks the dog back up again.

Distance or Independence?
We are not claiming that one is better than the other. Joanne and I currently train people in each style and are very happy to do so. Both of us always try to help the partnership that is in front of us. We do not use a 'one size fits all' approach. What we hope people will gain from these three articles is a better understanding of how they can stretch the distance their dog will work away from them or, if their dog is already working independently, how they can improve their handling at distance. Handling at distance is very different from the type of handling done when people run with their dog. There is usually an extremely different handler 'line' for a start. It's a line which frequently catches out judges who are unused to distance handlers and the further away you work from your dog the stranger the line and signals become.

We'd like you to start off assessing your own partnership by asking the question 'Where currently do my dog and I sit on the proximity continuum?'


Sends on over nine obstacles + turns + flick flacks + contacts + weaves + rounds + pull throughs and all complex manoeuvres

Distance - handler works dog from a fixed point on the course with minimal movement


Sends on over eight obstacles + turns + flick flacks + contacts + weaves


Sends on over five obstacles + turns + flick flacks + contacts

Independence - handler only present for handling manoeuvres


Sends on over 3 + turns + flick flacks


Sends on over two obstacles

Dependence - dog relies on handler being present


Dog runs beside handler

This is the continuum we use when assessing how to help handlers who want to improve either their independence or distance handling. If you are going to put these articles into practice, then please identify where you currently are and, as the articles unfold and you practice the exercises, reassess where you have got to.

Voice! Voice! Voice! - or why do distance handlers sound like fish wives?
The second basic concept, often forgotten by people, is quite simple. Whilst you may not be with your dog in person - indeed you may be on the other side of the ring -  but there is one part of you that must always be with your dog and that is your voice.

Verbal commands are the very essence of distance work, and distance handlers have many commands above and beyond those used by running handlers. If you are at the other side of the arena, and it's a busy show with dogs barking and the public address system reading out the names of the winners from a class elsewhere, it is essential that you voice is loud enough to be heard clearly by your dog. This can be difficult for handlers more used to relying on their body presence.

Joanne Orrell on the podium at PAWCAs people move to greater independence and distance, some of the usual transition faults are:-

  1. Not recognising that voice must be with the dog instead of the physical presence and fail to give their dogs enough commands. After the initial release, most running handlers rely on their moving body to tow or push the dog round the course. During transition you see a lack of voice when the dog starts to curl into the handler when the voice stops on a straight line send away, or when the dog fails to drive to an obstacle.

  2. Handlers don't like shouting and their voices can't be heard against the ambient noise. You see this lack of volume when the dog starts making up its own course because it can't hear directional commands. It knows it must drive on but is unsure what it should be driving ahead to.

  3. Lack of enough different commands to cover the range of actions the dog has to perform alone. Many running handlers rely on very few directional commands and use 'check check,' here, and out for a whole gamut of different actions. They have been so used to relying on being there the dog is responding to their body and not what they are saying. This results in dogs turning in the wrong direction or making very wide turns when the same simple commands are used for complex manoeuvres at distance.  For example, a running handler might get away with a simple 'check check' command for a wing wrap in either direction as the dog will usually turn towards the side their handler is nearest to. At distance, however you need to be able to wrap the dog around either side by voice command alone and need at least two very different commands to be able to do it.

  4. Timing when handlers are too late with their commands. When running a late, or even a missed, command is not catastrophic, with a distance dog late commands leave the dog in a sort of limbo. It has always been encouraged to move forward towards the next obstacle but, with late commands, has no idea which obstacle to move forwards to. As a result, you see dogs that land and spin in one direction before heading off in the opposite. In worse case scenarios this can end up with very frustrated dogs who spin, bark at, or even run back and bite their handlers. If you want the dog to turn right after the next obstacle you must give the turn right command before it has taken off for the obstacle it is to turn right after. If you want the dog to do an eight jump sweep you must cue move forwards before every obstacle you want it to take.

  5. Commands being too similar. The shape/tone of the words are important. Help the dog to differentiate between your commands in high speed, high distraction situations by making each word as distinct and different from other ones as possible. Some of the most basic of the commands we use include swing, lala, wrap, brrrrrrr, in, back, this, arrrrround, out. It's a good idea to start a distance training diary, where you can make a note of all the commands (and how they sound) you are about to teach your dog.

Don't feed the dog!
We have worked with many handlers who come to us saying 'My dog will work independently from me most places on the course except on the contacts or at the weaves. She always waits for me and I can't get her to drive over the next obstacle.'

When asked to demonstrate, we find that they are almost always giving a reward / reinforcer by hand. That means they are inevitably beside the dog when giving it the treat or playing tuggy. Even if the dog has run the whole length of the contact or done all the weaves, it must wait for or go to the handler to get their reward.

A reward is a reinforcer.

The laws of learning theory apply here and they state that 'a reinforcer increases the frequency of the behaviour that occurs immediately before it.' If the behaviour which occurs immediately before the dog receiving it is something to do with the proximity of the handler - either the dog waiting for them or turning towards the handler - then that is the behaviour that is being rewarded, not the driving to a contact or completing 12 weaves or anything else. Just being close to or turning towards the handler is the very last thing the distance handler wants.

Get the reinforcer - or reward if you prefer that word - away from you. Get it out there at the end of the independent sequence. Throw a toy rather than play tuggy or get someone else to throw a toy. If your dog is a food junky, throw a toy with food in it or buy a remote-controlled automatic feeding device. Whatever you do just don't use direct hand to mouth transfer to do it.  If you want to play tuggy, throw the toy first so the dog is first rewarded for moving away from you.

Joy and confidence
Distance dogs need to be supremely confident. They must feel they can go off and explore life without their human partner. This can cause some problems for the human handler who, because they are used to more traditionally trained dogs, can put control in too soon.

If you have a pup or a young dog, then reinforce independence. If your pup goes off exploring, praise it. Don't 'over obedience' the pup and don't encourage it to 'watch me.' For distance work, you need a dog which looks forward towards the next obstacle, not peers round at their handlers for reassurance that they are doing the right thing. Forward drive and obstacle commitment reign supreme in distance work.

The Driving Arm
The advice of always using the arm nearest the dog to indicate with is sound for dependent dogs. It does not, however, hold up all the time when handling a dog at distance when the driving arm needs to be used. This is when the distance handler uses the arm furthest from the dog to send the dog up a line of jumps.


Use the opposite arm? Well. yes. The driving arm is a fundamental skill for distance handlers.

Here is the rationale behind it. Imagine you want to send your dog up a straight line of six jumps. The dog is on your left. As your dog passes you at jump 2 and you carry on using the arm nearest to the dog, your shoulders will automatically start to turn slightly to the right, away from the line of jumps you want the dog to continue up. By switching to use the opposite arm, bringing it forward so it is reaching almost directly out in front of you, your shoulders will orientate into the line of jumps. The chances of the dog pulling out are, therefore, minimised as your body language, although static, is pointing into the obstacles you want the dog to take.

Driving away
Here are some exercises that should help your dog build up the confidence to drive away from you at speed. They are the backbone or foundation of all distance work. The most important thing about them is to remember Do not rush things! Get it right.

Exercise 1
First get your dog's favourite training reward. Then set up three jumps in a straight line.

Run the line of jumps with your dog on your left, giving your 'go' or 'go on' command at the first obstacle as the dog approaches it and then each time the dog lands to push it onto the next one. When the dog rises for the last obstacle throw the toy out over the last jump. You must do this before the dog turns to look at you. Try to get the toy to fly low past the dogs head rather than up in the air. Repeat this with your dog on your right.

Do this several times, playing with the dog and toy after each run. High excitement is what you are after here. Do not worry too much about waits or other control elements at this stage.

Exercise 2
Once the dog is flying down the jumps to get to the toy, start off beside the dog as before. Making sure you continue to give your driving 'go/go on' commands as before, start to pull away slightly as you run the length of the jumps. You want to veer away gradually to one side, not far enough to pull the dog out of the jumps but finishing perhaps six feet to the right or left of the last obstacle. Always throw the toy out beyond the last obstacle as you pull to the side. Gradually build up the distance between you and your dog. Veer off say ten degrees at first, then fifteen, then twenty etc.

If your dog pulls out at any point, you are going too fast. Go back in nearer the dog and repeat the process until the dog is flying down the jumps again. Do this on both the left and the right until you can finish around fifteen to twenty feet off to the side of the last obstacle.

Exercise 3
Put the dog on the lead and walk up to the last jump. Throw the toy out a little way past the last jump. Make sure your dog sees you do it. Now walk the dog on the lead back to the start. Start the dog as normal but this time you are going to go forward slowly, still going out to the side and giving your 'go/go on' commands at every obstacle.

Exercise 4
Put the toy out after the last jump and walk the dog back to the beginning. Release the dog forward giving your driving commands but stay still.

Exercise 5
Start adding in more obstacles, one at a time, until you can send your dog down a line of eight jumps without moving.

Gradual Distance Development

 The handler is beside the dog and using the arm nearest the dog.

 The handler has started moving out to the side and is using the driving arm.

 The handler has moved further to the diagonal and is using the driving arm

 The handler is stationary and positioned well away from the jumping lane. She is using the driving arm.

 The handler is positioned in the far right hand corner and is using her driving arm and voice to send the dog up a line of six jumps.

Going the Distance by Joanne Orrell and Anni Telford will be released for e-reader and in paperback in 2021. The book has been designed to help improve both the agility dogs drive and willingness to work at distance as well as handlers distance skills.

Both Joanne Orrell and Anni Telford are available for workshops and training days.

If you would more information, either about the book or workshops, please email Anni or Joanne

First published 12th July 2020


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