Advice for the Novice Gambler

by Jack Buhite

(Photo Courtesy of Bill Newcomb)




Jack handles Skyedance and Caper and particularly loves Games, including, Gamblers, Snooker, and Jumpers. Jack trains at Power Paws Agility with Nancy Gyes and Jim Basic. He has attended several seminars led by Nancy and Jim, as well as Stuart Mah and the Boltons, and has brought his own trial experience to bear in writing this article.

In "real life" Jack uses his mathematical skills to send satellites into orbit. Is there a connection between launching satellites and launching Beardies?

Jack is also President of the Northern California Bearded Collie Fanciers.

Gambling is frequently the toughest challenge faced by a novice handler/dog agility team. To succeed, the dog must perform agility obstacles while working at a distance from the handler. The following are day-of-show recommendations which I learned from classes and seminars with the masters (Jim Basic, Nancy Gyes, Stuart Mah, and the Boltons) and have found very helpful with my two enthusiastic Beardies. Before reading on, I suggest you try the following exercises.

Gambling Exercise 1: Standing 5 to 10 feet away from a jump, drop a bar or leash in front of you to use as the handler line and place your dog between the jump and line. Get as close as possible to the line; turn your feet out and lean forward to get even closer. Now, send your dog over the jump; you may flail your arms wildly and scream as necessary. Continue until this approach seems pointless.

Gambling Exercise 2: Step back 3 to 5 feet from the handler line, and try to send your dog again while moving toward the jump. If necessary, cross the line and show him what you want. Success is not guaranteed, but I bet the outcome was much better than in exercise 1.

Plan for the Perfect Gamble

The most important part of a gambler's course is "The Gamble." The opening is a forty second practice session for The Gamble. The warm-up jump exists only to prepare the dog/handler team for The Gamble. All planning and strategizing are centered on performing The Gamble. In other words, Focus on The Gamble.

Start planning your gamblers course by looking at the gamble sequence. In novice class, the obstacles are limited to jumps, tire, tunnels and table and are usually aligned on a forward-flowing path. Imagine your dog executing the perfect gamble. He enters the gamble area and performs the first obstacle at high speed, his momentum carrying him forward toward the second. Upon exiting the second obstacle he orients himself quickly to perform the third obstacle, and again orients himself to perform the fourth obstacle. How proud you are as you exit! Note that there's lots of time left over, the gamble took less than half the time allotted.

Now that you have determined the dog's track, its time to put you, the handler, into the picture. Where are you when the whistle blows? What track do you follow to support, encourage, and direct your dog on his perfect gamble? Your track must be smooth and flowing, since body language speaks so much louder than words. Avoid crossing behind your dog, making sudden stops, and jerky movements in general as these send confusing signals to your dog causing him to lose momentum and "check-in" for new instructions. Note the critical places on the gamble track where you need to give an extra push and make sure there's room for you to move forward at these points (see exercise 1). Note also that most dogs "check-in" with their handler when exiting a tunnel, so plan to issue a send-out command after each tunnel.

Plan Your Entry to the Gamble Area

You know where you and your dog should be when the whistle blows. Make it happen. Look around near the start of the gamble for obstacles which build momentum, lead into the gamble (over the first obstacle and aimed towards the second), and can be used to mark time in case you arrive too early. Jumps and tunnels are usually best for momentum. The dog walk is a poor choice, since it takes so long to execute and requires a controlled exit at the contact.

Plan Your Opening to Rehearse the Gamble
A successful gambler plans the opening sequence carefully to achieve three objectives: practice handling techniques needed to perform the gamble, get to the start of the gamble on time, and rack-up the required number of opening points (20 points in NADAC novice, 24 in open and 28 in elite).

Plan a smooth, forward-flowing course which lets you practice working at a distance from your dog. For example, a loop containing a tunnel, A-frame or teeter, and two jumps provides all the opening points you need if taken twice, and allows you to practice handling at a distance. Since the gamble contains jumps and tunnels, plan your opening to "send" your dog to jumps, "send" your dog to tunnels, and "send" your dog to obstacles when exiting tunnels. If your dog is confused by these commands in the opening, show him what want and try it again. If the gamble requires you to handle the dog on your right (non-heel) side, plan your opening accordingly. Look for a copy of the gamble sequence, or key parts of it, elsewhere on the course and take full advantage of it.

Avoid the Over-and-Back handling (taking each obstacle twice before moving on) that you see many handlers using. This is a technique for racking up high opening points, but it can shut down the independent thinking your dog may need for the gamble. If your dog feels that he must check in with you after every obstacle, he's less likely to "flow" through the gamble sequence. A forward-flowing opening gives your dog confidence to carry forward to the next obvious obstacle during the gamble, and this will usually be what you need in a novice gamble. High opening points are nice, but nothing beats the feeling you get from a successful gamble.

Time your opening sequence for a smooth transition to the gamble area. Hopefully, you know how many obstacles your dog can perform in 40-seconds (time this at home or in class), so that you and your dog end your opening on those obstacles you identified near the gamble start. Make sure you keep a few obstacles "in reserve" in this area to use up any excess, since dogs and people can move faster than expected in competition. Plan for a smooth transition to the gamble sequence from any point in this area.

Practice Distance Work during Warm-Up.

Use your warm-up period to practice distance work, either over the practice jump, or in an adjacent field. Starting at a "normal" distance (whatever normal is for you and your dog) from your dog and the jump, send him over the jump. Keep him flowing, move farther from the jump and repeat. When he doesn't understand what you want move in and show him. Keep this a happy session and minimize close control commands - you are not going to "heel" in a successful gamble.

Refine your Plans and Smooth out your Handling during the Walk-Through

Judges have a lot of leeway in games, so listen carefully to the judge's briefing and ask questions about anything that is not clear to you. Then walk through your planned course to see if it will work. All too frequently, the actual course flows differently than the posted course. Start with the gamble and practice all of your hand and body motions, as well as your verbal commands, to see if they flow smoothly. Now rehearse your opening. Try a few options, ask people you respect for advice, but remember that your plan should reflect handling techniques that are familiar to you and your dog. Rehearse the whole sequence including the transition from opening to closing. Use a stop-watch to estimate how far you can get during the 40-second opening. Since your dog won't need all of the time allotted to run the gamble, be prepared to use a few seconds after the whistle blows to get both you and your dog aligned and to build momentum. Preparation will help keep you calm during the run.

Stay Calm in the Competition

Surprises always happen during competition, so be prepared to make split-second revisions to your plan. Try to execute your plan if possible, but always keep your opening as smooth flowing as possible and a happy experience for you and your dog. And get to the gamble area on time - those mad dashes across the field after the whistle blows seldom flow into successful gambles.

Start working at a comfortable distance from your dog - success on the early part of the course will build confidence in both of you. Gradually increase your working distance, issue a lot of "out" commands and maintain a smooth steady flow. If your dog misses an obstacle because you are so far away, step closer and show him what you want on the next obstacle. Keep mental track of the time used relative to your expectations, and be prepared to move towards the gamble when appropriate.

When the whistle blows, stay calm and follow your plan. Get yourself and your dog aligned for the gamble, and build up some momentum before sending him into the gamble area. Keep your body movements smooth and steady, and hope that everything works. It's a great feeling when a gamble works!

If he just won't go into that last tunnel, don't flail your arms in frustration (see exercise 1). Go out there and show him what you were asking. This will help prepare him for the next gamble. Don't forget to praise him for the job that he did. Distance work is a new concept to many dogs and handlers, and experience is usually required.

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