Exploring (and Improving!) the Figure 8
The figure 8 can be a frustrating piece of open and novice runs. Done well, it looks easy; but it is a test of several factors. It’s a social tolerance test, an impulse control test, and a test of heeling skills. It’s possible to lose more points on the figure 8 alone than you lose on the rest of the entire heeling pattern.
The dog’s job is to heel with you. Your job is to make that look as smooth as possible. Understanding the effort from the dog’s perspective helps you make handling choices to make your best impression in the ring. (Obviously, dog attention will, as always, be a crucial element!)
To make the figure 8 as smooth as possible, you try to walk straight lines through the middle of the figure 8 rather than the curves of the number 8, so that the dog can be aligned and balanced and agile as he approaches the turns. On the inside turn the dog is decelerating, and must limit the reach from his front end while moving his rear end laterally as you navigate the inside circle.
At the end of the inside curve as you are even with the post's right shoulder, the dog must go from minimum speed to sudden acceleration (assuming you start our figure 8 to the left as the majority of handlers do) in order to be at speed sufficient to keep up with you on the outside turn.
At the end of the outside turn, the dog still has to be moving pretty quickly to complete that outside turn, but is decelerating as you hit the straight line, and in most cases must be able to do the halt in the center and end up in a straight sit without forging or rumping out.
For some dogs, the acceleration spurt from the slowness of the inside turn is difficult. It requires bigger dogs to go from a walk or even a pace to a strong trot in one stride, which is tough to do on a curve, so has to happen on the straight line with the dog’s head leaning in the correct direction to avoid the appearance of a lag or wide step. Littler dogs may be able to sustain a trot during the inside turn, but still have to shift balance as you switch from a left curve to a right curve. If you try to achieve that while curving left and then leaning right, rather than on a straight trajectory, you will see a slight lag or wide as the dog shifts leads and his center of gravity, as illustrated in the first photo to your left. Hitting the straight line earlier allows the dog to accelerate correctly as in the second picture.
Socially sensitive or curious dogs can feel very pressured on the inside turn as they have to walk close to the post, and then get a look at the judge just as they finish that outside turn and are supposed to be speeding up. Worrying about the second person (or just wondering if it would be fun to go say “hi”) can drain enough brainwaves to eliminate or delay the speed transition needed to hit the outside turn at best speed. So if you start your figure 8 to the left, you will need to do a frequent reinforcement schedule on the second half of the inside turn for attention in heel position, and then will need to do frequent attention checks, perhaps with the hand target, and encouragement for acceleration on the straight line portion approaching the outside turn. This is a place where either tossing treats and toys forward or presenting them deliberately ahead of heel position is appropriate because it motivates the drive forward you need. Naturally, balance those efforts with rewards more accurately placed so your dog doesn’t just decide to dash ahead of you and then dance backward while you catch up!
The halts for left-first figure 8s are usually in the center coming off of the outside turn. (A few judges have you go around one and a half times for the first halt, and then just around one post for the second; but they are rare.) For dogs really pushing around that outside turn, if you don’t do your halt on a straight line, you are likely to end up with a crooked sit, as illustrated in the third picture. Additionally, if you stay on that outside curve too long, even if the halt is good, it means you end up facing out of the 8, and your first step on the next forward command has to be a rather abrupt left turn. Unless your dog is great at left pivots, you risk a bump and possibly a messy inside turn as you both try to get straightened out. The fourth picture shows a straight halt that will allow a straight take off for the second round.
Starting to the right on the figure 8 is an option with several advantages for many dogs. For curious dogs, it means you get the dog moving a little better before he gets close to that very interesting inside post. The downside is that a curious dog with poor attention has a greater chance of a slow or sloppy take off and more time to look outward and spot surrounding points of interest. But for a dog who really tries hard, the start to the right utilizes that energy and reduces the frequency of forging and bumping errors on the first turn, and improves the potential for nice straight halts because the halts tend to happen as the dog is finishing the inside turn, and has his rear end pulling in rather than pushing out.
Here’s a link to a video (if the video on the bottom left doesn't work for your browser) showing figure 8 to the left as circles, then done with straight lines in the middle, then done to the right, and finally a clip with a speed motivation progression. http://youtu.be/feHz_M-iiVo Even with my limping, you can see the difference in the smoothness of the dog’s efforts between the straight lines vs. the circles in both left first and right first figure 8s. Your choice of direction will be determined by your dog’s talents and focus. But train for the best, don’t just handle to cover weaknesses!