On Course With… Dennis Murphy
By Brenna Fender
When Dennis Murphy and his Border Collie, Bodhi, step up to the line at an agility trial, something amazing happens. Using a walker, Dennis moves slowly out on to the course while Bodhi waits. From that vantage point, Dennis directs Bodhi around the course using his voice and a few hand signals. The result is a demonstration of human/canine communication like no other. Their agility dance leaves goose bumps on the arms of some spectators and tears in the eyes of others. How do they do it?
Brenna Fender: You handle Bodhi and a great distance. How did you train this kind of distance work?
Dennis Murphy: This is what everyone asks, but truthfully, I did very little. My difficulty in walking developed very slowly over the last year and half. So as it [deteriorated], it was essentially an ideal teaching situation.
Teach your dog in small increments of asking for slightly increased challenges. Bodhi just continued to work farther and farther from me. I remember I had asked his breeder Jan DeMello for a biddable dog, though I barely knew what that was. He is a wonderful, honest dog and always tries to do his best at what he understands I am asking.
BF: Does Bodhi know every obstacle name and send to each obstacle by name? If so, how did you train that?
DM: Clearly he knows all the obstacles, and his directionals are very good. I think they learn from the congratulations they hear in your voice when they get something exactly the way you were trying to say.
BF: Do you use a lot of body language in your handling or other physical cues?
DM: When I could still move a few feet, I supported his direction by whatever movements I could make, even a short way. Normally a handler has direction, varying speed, turns, and body movements. We have the remaining cues of voice and commands. You can communicate a lot with the volume and quality of your voice. I use a soft voice for an intricate movement he needs to back off of, and a louder sending voice for a long smooth run. I have often had him go to the wrong obstacle because my loud voice suggested an obstacle at a distance, though my words said some other obstacle close at hand.
We’ve had to make up for lack of motion by broadening the number of commands I use and stringing them together. For example, Left Around is for a 180 or 270, while Left Out Around, and Out Easy Left Around, all mean different moves to him. One of the most useful is Back, which I mean for him to reverse his direction without any reference to where I am. So with Easy Left Back, I am asking for a tight wrap back on a jump when I might be a distance to his right.
Divorcing Back from my relevant position is the hardest part of this because I originally trained it to mean “away from me.” We’re still working on this.
I have to give a huge credit to my trainers, Stuart and Pati Mah. One thing that makes Stuart such an extraordinary teacher is his instructions are for you and your dog. No one shoe fits all.
There was a real breakthrough when Stuart began working with the rhythm and quality of my commands. With his instruction, I began giving many more commands than you normally would, even for obstacles that are “given” (for example, a jump right in front of the dog). In this way, a rhythm is set up with Bodhi where he is always listening and is able to respond to tightly strung-together commands. When we began working in this way I was able to move to movements on the flat. So Easy, Left, Right, Jump, Right Around A-frame could direct Bodhi to setting a V to the left before he then moved to the right and made a shallow 180, avoiding a trap jump that would have been inevitable if he’d gone directly at the jump.
Currently, Stuart is helping me “pick my spot,” which means that where I stand may not be like a normal lead-out. This necessitates being able to direct Bodhi at the start from a very lateral position, which can be difficult.
BF: Do you find certain classes or agility organizations are better for distance handling? Which ones and why?
DM: FAST, Gamblers, and to some extent Snooker are easier because a good part of the course can be adjusted to your abilities. But Standard and Jumpers are challenging and rewarding.
BF: Have you considered using a wheelchair or other mobility aid on course?
DM: I have been looking at wheelchairs since they won’t let me come to the office until I am more stable. I’m looking at various options this week. I have also looked at a Segway, which I have been able to ride! I’m not sure it’s in our budget.
BF: What accomplishments are you most proud of?
DM: That would have to be a Steeplechase local qualifier where Bodhi placed 4th last Thanksgiving. It had a lot of subtle movements he made with real style.
Unfortunately, later that weekend, I fell at home, dislocating and breaking my shoulder. That meant three months without handling Bodhi and we are just now building back our skills.
A funny thing happened in that period when my wife was running him, which he thought was great because he loves her so much. He wouldn’t stay at the start line. He will stay for me four to six minutes while I limp my way to my spot in the ring. But for her it was like he was saying “You don’t need that”. He is very smart.
BF: Do you have any advice for other handlers with limited mobility?
DM: Training is more important than handling. That’s the only way the dog will learn what you mean within your limitations. Have fun, that’s the point. Your dog’s doing it for you.