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TEACHING DIRECTIONALS:
No Need to Get in a Spin about Turns!

Introduction to Directionals

Directional commands are verbal cues you give your dog so s/he turns left or right, making a change in direction, while running an agility course. These turns are in relation to the dog's position, not yours!

When running a course, verbal directional commands can be used independently of body directional cues, or in conjunction with them. By training the behaviour you want first (the turn), then putting it onto a verbal cue (e.g. left/back, right/close), the dog should understand what you want even when you don't use body directional commands to back up the verbal ones.

The method on this page uses clicker training. You can use a clicker to mark the behaviour you want at the precise instant that the dog performs that behaviour. Your dog should already know that the click means a reward is coming (e.g. food treat or a game with a tuggie). Like us, your dog is more likely to repeat behaviour that s/he finds rewarding.

The various stages of work on this page should each, to start with, be done off lead in a room away from distractions. Generalise the behaviour by moving to different locations (other rooms, garden, drive, field, park). The dog needs to learn that the same rules apply in different environments.

When generalising, be prepared to help your dog cope with greater distractions in the new environment by relaxing your criteria, or starting again at an earlier stage than that already reached. You'll soon catch up in the new environment, and the behaviour will be more secure as a result of your patience.

Free-Shaping or Luring the Turn

Behaviours such as turns can be taught using free-shaping. This involves observing the dog for the slightest sign of the end behaviour you want. So if you are shaping a turn, you might select (click and treat) a turn of the head, and gradually raise your criteria to require greater turns. Free-shaping can be a very rewarding interaction, but requires a lot of time and patience waiting for the behaviour you want to be offered.

An alternative approach, less favoured by clicker purists but more practical for clicker novices, is luring. This involves using something the dog wants such as a toy or treat to encourage the dog to produce the desired behaviour, rather than waiting for the dog to offer the behaviour of its own accord.

To give an example, holding a treat just above a dog's nose and moving it backwards and upwards is luring a sit (which you can then CT). Free-shaping the sit would be waiting until the dog sat of its own accord, unprompted, and then CT.

Here, we will concentrate on luring the behaviour. Remember that the lure and the reward are two separate things - you must always remember to reward the dog after clicking!

Before you start training, you need to consider and define:
• the end behaviour you want (dog turns on verbal cue).
• the many small steps needed to achieve that behaviour.
You will be most successful in your training if you have clearly defined (in your mind or on paper), before you start, what you are trying to achieve and how you are going to achieve it.

Getting the Turn Behaviour

The first stage is to encourage the dog to produce the behaviour you want - the turn. At this point, you are not going to use your verbal cue yet. It is important to repeat all the stages below with your dog on your right side as well!

1. Play with your dog with a toy, and get your dog following the toy as you move your hand back and forth. Use a food or other type of lure if this works better for your dog.

2. With your dog on your left side, move the toy in a curve anti-clockwise, encouraging your dog to follow it. CT any head or body turn the dog makes, however slight.

3. Gradually increase the amount of turn before you click and treat. Use a jackpot (lots of treats or other reward) to mark major improvements, e.g. faster turns, tighter turns.

4. Continue until your dog does a complete turn - jackpot!

Up until now, you have been using a toy or food lure in your left hand to show the dog the turn behaviour you want. Your aim is to progress to a point where you no longer need the lure in your hand, and your hand does not have to be right in front of the dog either. This process is called 'fading the lure'.

You fade the lure by gradually having your hand further away from the dog as you indicate the turn behaviour, and also by having the food or toy lure increasingly less visible in your hand until it disappears. Remember that you still need to provide a food or toy reward when you click/treat!

The fading process takes time and patience so that you don't lose the behaviour. If your dog isn't sure what to do, you need to go back to an earlier, easier stage and put in more practice. The time spent, and your patience, will pay off in the end.

Bear in mind that the stages above will take several training sessions to get the behaviour secure. Remember to repeat your training with the dog on your right turning clockwise! Soon your dog will have the hang of this turning game.

Verbal Cues and Turns on the Move

The next stage is to put the behaviour 'on cue'. This is where you start to use the verbal commands (left/back, right/close) you are going to use to cue the turn behaviour. Remember that words are meaningless to a dog unless associated with a behaviour that the dog both knows and finds rewarding!

1. As you cue the turn behaviour with your hand (and lure if still being used), clearly say the verbal cue. CT and repeat!

2. Raise your criteria by gradually reducing the prominence of your hand signal, so that the dog is increasingly turning to a flick of the hand combined with the verbal command. CT!

3. Eventually, with patience, you will reach the stage where the verbal command alone is enough to get your dog producing a lovely twirl to the left. CT - what a clever dog!

At this point, a reminder to generalise the turn behaviour to various locations, with an increasing range of distractions.

1. Once your dog is confidently turning on both verbal and hand signals, start cueing the turn with your dog moving alongside you in the 'heel' or 'side' (on your right) position.

2. Next, you need to turn as the dog turns. If the dog is on your left and being turned to the left, you turn to the left as the dog starts turning. A 180 degree turn will see the dog finish on your right side. This side change is called a 'rear cross'.

Take your time with the two steps above - it is very important to get this right, and not get the dog turning the wrong way because you are now also moving. Click and reward!

Once you and your dog can turn together, in either direction, you can start combining several turns. Always remember to click and reward, and go back to earlier stages the moment the dog shows any uncertainty about the behaviour wanted.

Well done - your dog now has the basic directional commands it needs to succeed in Agility!


A solid foundation training is vital if you want to progress quickly in agility lessons. Work on directionals will help perfect 'shadow handling' the dog on the ground away from equipment.


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