At some point while watching a dog Agility competition, you may have found yourself looking at the sea of obstacles, wondering, “How the heck does the dog know where to go?” The simple answer is that the dog and handler have spent countless hours perfecting their communication skills. However, anyone who has ever worked with dogs knows that a dog in a stressful, exciting, or distracting environment (i.e. an Agility Trial!) may not always be keen on following the cues he or she has been taught. In instances such as these, handlers rely on backup cues to remind their dogs what to do, and where to go.
Many dogs are “body magnets.” Dogs understand from an early age that their humans represent countless good things: food, love, shelter, and, perhaps most importantly, tasty treats. Naturally, dogs will gravitate towards their humans for these reasons. When asking a dog to discriminate between two or three obstacles, a handler may position him or herself in front of the dog in the “body magnet position,” which is next to the correct obstacle, directed away from the incorrect distractions. In most instances, the dog will tend towards his or her handler, and complete the course in the correct sequence. Handlers can use the body magnet position to their advantage and add a nonverbal component of communication throughout the competition by directing a dog via body movement.
A drawback to competing with dogs that are drawn to “body magnets” is that they may struggle with obstacles which require running in a straight line. For instance, over a series of jumps, a dog may veer to the side of the handler and ultimately end up with a fault. In this case, the handler may have to periodically weave across the jumps in order to keep the dog running in a straight line.
Body magnet position is just one of many tricks handlers use to effectively communicate with their dogs. The beauty of a truly great dog/handler duo is the effortlessness with which the team glides through the Agility course. This type of communication is not only the result of lots of practice, but also the handler’s knowledge of dog psychology. Even at a recreational level, dog owners can learn many invaluable lessons in canine communication by practicing Agility!