The Figure 8 is unquestionably the most compact portion of the heeling exercise. It incorporates turns, three different paces (fast, slow, and normal), and two halts. All of this is accomplished in a condensed area around two human strangers. The Figure 8 can be a daunting exercise, and in the opinion of many trainers and exhibitors is very difficult to perfect. Certainly it’s an exercise that is all too often underestimated.
Both the Novice and Open Classes and many of the optional titling classes require that a Figure 8 be preformed as part of the heeling exercise. In Novice the Figure 8 is done on leash, while in Open the Figure 8 is performed off leash. Personally I think the Fig. 8 should be a separately scored exercise in and by itself, but to be honest, AKC has never asked me what I think:-)
This is how it works:
Generally the Figure 8 comes at the end of a heeling pattern, though in Open B and Preferred Open the Figure 8 can on occasion precede the heeling pattern, depending upon the order chosen by the judge. When it is time for a team to perform the Figure 8, two strangers will enter the ring and go to a prescribed area and situate themselves 8 feet apart.
These two strangers are two ring stewards---who are volunteers, by the way, so be especially nice to them. They will stand facing one another, and in this capacity are generally referred to as ‘posts.’ They are human posts who will stand still and silent while you and your canine partner perform the Figure 8 upon the judge’s orders.
You will set up midway between the stewards on the opposite side of the judge. In other words, you’ll be facing the judge on the opposite side of the 'posts' .
Btw, "midway between" the stewards does not mean that you set up directly in the middle of the two stewards, such that if you raised your arms on either side you’d be waving at their noses. This position would put you at a distinct disadvantage, as you would have to heel directly into a left or right turn on your very first step. ‘Midway between’ simply indicates that there should be an equal distance between each post and you. You’re centered, but at some distance back from the posts.
Optimally it’s best to stand approximately two strides back from that center point between the two stewards. This allows you to take two straight strides before having to begin the turn around one of the posts. These two straight strides assist your dog into getting into the swing of things and often prevent potential bumping or lagging.
When beginning the Fig.8 you may choose to go in either direction. The judge is no longer required to remind you of this. You are supposed to know. But it’s important that you be aware that the decision as to whether you begin the Fig 8 by going around the right post or left post first is entirely your choice.
Once you are set up, the judge is going to ask you “Are you ready?” I know I’ve said this before, but let me repeat it anyway: if you are not ready, say so! Don’t jeopardize your performance and flush months and months of training down the drain just because you feel rushed or pressured. Politely tell the judge that you are not ready, fix what needs fixing, then smile and say “Ready.”
It's important to recognize that the three paces—the fast, the slow, and the normal—are executed by the dog, not the handler! These three paces are a natural consequence to heeling in an '8' configuration.
Let’s look at how this works:
Should you elect to go around the post to your left first, the dog will obviously be between you and the post as you go around the steward. Because of this ‘inside’ position, your dog will necessarily need to slow down in order to maintain heel position. If he doesn't slow down, he will be in a forged position. This is then the ‘slow’ pace I’ve been discussing.
Conversely, when going around the post to the right, the dog will be on the ‘outside’ and will need to shift into a faster pace in order to keep up with you in heel position. This is the ‘fast’ the judge is looking for.
It is important that you, the handler, sustain an even, rhythmic pace to best assist your dog in these changes of pace. Just consider: if you slow down around the left (inside) post to better support your dog, you’re actually making it more difficult for him: he now has to go even more slowly than ever!
Likewise, should you speed up around the right (outside) post, your poor canine buddy will have to go even faster to keep up! Your good intentions actually hinder rather than assist.Furthermore, you’re not fooling the judge. By changing pace yourself, whether it be the slow or the fast, you are actually bodily cuing your dog. It’s practically a double command, as in “Slow down here, Prince. Now go fast! With me, with me.”
Nobody’s fooled, believe me. Not even your dog.
Keep your pace even. It must be brisk, but does not have to be as brisk as you would walk for a regular heeling pattern. The Figure 8 would be very difficult to execute at a standard brisk pace and would probably end up looking choppy instead of smooth.
Think of driving a car. On a straight stretch you can go 80 MPH, but out of necessity you have to slow down a bit to take that cloverleaf off ramp. It’s just natural. So, too, is this true with the Figure 8. You need to shift gears a bit in order not to burn rubber or have a fender bender with your dog!
I work very hard with my students teaching them to silently count as they’re practicing the Figure 8. Counting forces the handler to walk at an even pace around each post. The beat depends on the team, of course, but the act of counting makes it smooth. You might want to try this.
Now let’s talk shoulders. Boy…I can’t tell you how often I see that left shoulder thrown back on the inside (left) turn, then yanked way forward for the outside (right) post. A discerning judge is going to nab you for handler error. You can bet your blue ribbon on that!
Natural, folks, natural. Making a left turn with the top half of your torso pointing backwards is not natural. Sure, you’re going to do some minor shifting, but never so much that the judge does a double-take and says “Oh, my!” Teach yourself and your dog to rely on subtle shifts. Nothing glaring!
As concerns the turns themselves and the distance you can allow yourself from the posts, a good rule of thumb is about an arm’s length away from the posts as you go around. There is no mention of any rule regarding distance from the posts that I can find. So that word ‘reasonable,’ a word highly esteemed by AKC, comes to mind. Make the distance reasonable, neither so wide that you lose sight of the posts nor so close that you risk intimacy with the ring steward. What you want is a comfortable distance for you and your particular size of canine pal. Be conservative but not stingy.
The judge will have you go around and between the stewards two complete times. This means that there will be two halts. Where the first halt will be, either after going around one post, two posts, or three posts first, will be dependent upon the preference of your judge. The final halt will be after having negotiated the two posts two times in total prior to the judge’s saying “Exercise finished.”
In AKC halts during the Figure 8 are rarely given anywhere save between the two posts. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a competitor complain that the judge stopped them during a turn, only to learn upon observation that the ‘halt’ itself was issued between the stewards, but the competitor continued to take 4-6 steps before finally stopping, thereby putting herself into the turn—and into a less than optimal situation. In all my years of competing in AKC I have never been given a halt while circling a post. Overall the judges are professionals and are very alert and attuned to the needs of the team. They are not there to trick you or set you up for failure. It’s just not on.
(That’s not to say accidents don’t happen, or that you get a judge with a grudge. But both are rare and far from the norm.)
The heeling pattern and “the Figure 8” are, as I mentioned earlier, scored as one exercise. An occasional lag or forge, a bump or unevenness in heeling will be scored, naturally, but not excessively; however, should your teammate decide not to budge from his comfortable set up, resulting in your dragging him around the ring while he burns his break pads, well then a Qualifying score just isn't going to happen that day.
Always remember: overall what ultimately matters is teamwork!
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