Here are some basic guidelines for distance work.
1. Your dog must be able to perform the obstacles without your assistance. No pointing at contact zones; no shaping the weave pole entrance; no waving your hand back and forth alongside the weave poles.
It is best to build lateral distance during your foundation training. That way you are less likely to make yourself part of your dog's obstacle performance.
If you are currently managing obstacle performance and you would like to work distance with your dog, you will have to gradually increase your lateral distance (LD). Begin with the obstacles that aren't easily faulted--tunnel, jumps, table, gates, hoops. Once your dog is comfortable with a little LD, you can introduce lateral distance to the contacts and weave poles.
Be sure you don't sacrifice your performance criteria when introducing lateral distance. If necessary, make it easier for your dog to be successful as your introduce LD. For example, you can revert to wires on the weaves, channel weaves, 2x2 or WAM weaves if your dog is missing her entries without you right there pointing them out.
If your contact performance is TOTO, you can place a gate three or four feet from the bottom of the contact if your dog is not stopping. If your dog is stopping too soon, put down a target and get him to drive to it. Once he gets the idea, start increasing your LD again.
2. Your dog has to be comfortable moving away from you. This is particularly true in NADAC distance challenges.
There are two types of distance involved in a distance challenge: lateral distance and send distance. LD can be developed gradually while doing your dog's foundation training. For me, send distance was a little more difficult to train with Belle.
A really driven dog will probably have no problem moving directly away from his handler and performing obstacles. However, most dogs are going to need training that will show them it is okay to run ahead of their handler.
Working on this skill from the beginning is best, but it can be developed at any point. I worked on this skill with Belle while playing in the park. I would send her to trees and then toss her toy. I would throw a stick across the stream and send her to find it in the high grass on the other bank. I wanted to show her not only was it okay to move away from me, but we could still play and have fun with her 30-40 feet away.
Even with our foundation work at the park, Belle still was leery about going on a great distance when there were agility obstacles involved. I worked on sending her over two or three jumps to a tunnel. Next I substituted an A-frame or dogwalk for one or more of the jumps.
3. You must be able to direct your dog from a distance.
Much of your communication will be done with body cues--direction of movement, body turning, arm signals. However, at a minimum, you should have verbal cues that tell your dog to:
- take an obstacle closer to you
- take an obstacle further from you
- turn away from you
- turn toward you
For those not directionally challenged, "right" and "left" are great cues to have in your tool bag. However, it is possible to get by with "come," "out," "turn" (meaning turn away from me), and "go." Those four directionals coupled with obstacle names should enable you to direct your dog at a distance.
4. When your dog takes an incorrect obstacle, keep going as if that were the correct obstacle.You are working on a new skill, and you don't want to cause your dog to second guess either your handling or his interpretation of that handling. Finish the run or the drill and then figure out why it went wrong. This is where video and/or a training buddy with a good eye is invaluable. If your handling was spot on, then there is probably a gap in your dog's training. Break down the exercise into simpler segments and find out what you need to work on with your dog.
5. The handler has to keep moving in order to indicate where the dog is going next. Sharon Nelson refers to this as drawing the dog's path. This is a distance basic that I have violated way too many times by coming to a stop and relying on a BIG ARM to send Belle on. It looks choppy and distracting. Better to plan to have enough of a buffer so that you can keep moving, even if it only with just small steps, to indicate where the course is going. Not only is it smoother, it also makes it easier to give timely turn cues.
6. This is a corollary to #5. The line is not your friend. It is there to indicate where you cannot go. It is not there to indicate where you should handle from. Know where the line is so you don't have to look at the ground when you are running. Plan your run so that you will have room to move toward the line if you need to. If the line is angling away from the dog's line, make sure you consider that when you are walking so that you aren't forced to move away from your dog when you don't really want to.