Of all the elements in the “Playground for Higher Learning” the Labyrinth is probably the most iconic. Studies done by Anna Wise have suggested that going through the Labyrinth activates all four hemispheres of the brain for both the handler and the animal which helps explain some of the profound changes we have seen with this deceptively simple exercise.
What you need:
Poles of various material such as PVC pipe, half-rounds, guttering, ropes, painters tape if in a building.
The general size of the Labyrinth may be adjusted for smaller or larger animals and the pole lengths you have available—generally 8-10 feet for dogs.
The Labyrinth can be done in various leading configurations. Generally begin with one handler, with two points of contact for dogs. Adjust leading positions as suitable to each individual animal.
Regardless of which leading position you choose you generally want to stop before each corner to regroup, refocus, and re-balance. Requiring a slow, mindful, negotiation of the corners will mean that the animal will better use themselves and organize rather than just fall through the turn.
Give yourself plenty of room to ask for a stop before you actually get to the corner. Remember that the signal has to go from your brain, to your body, to the animal’s body, then to their brain and back to their body before you actually see the response. Pausing before asking again will usually result in a more responsive partner. If you are in Homing Pigeon, the person on the outside asks for the forward signal, ideally towards the outside corner, while the inside handler waits for forward momentum before signally how much turn there should be. Imagine turning a Tractor Trailer around the bend rather than a scooter.
If an animal is having difficulty falling in on one side, consider using a variety Homing Pigeon to help maintain balance and create boundaries. Does your dog have separation concerns? Consider navigating the Labyrinth with the Bee-Line so they have the freedom to move towards and away from their “person” without feeling too controlled.
Be mindful of HOW your animal is using their body while they go through the Labyrinth. Do they bend the same left and right? Does the speed and rhythm of their stride maintain through the transitions? What does their posture do as they start and stop? Notice how they track through the turns and whether they are able to shift their balance and reorganize.
With its humble beginnings as a first step to help horses become comfortable in the trailer loading process, the use of Surfaces in the “Playground for Higher Learning” and “Confidence Course” has grown exponentially. Now much more than a piece of plywood or tarpaulin, Surfaces of all kinds are used for horses and dogs alike. The only limit is your imagination!
Poles or similar items are great exercises to help improve balance, focus, confidence and self- control. This pattern is especially good to slow down horses who rush.
What to use:
Poles can be used in a variety of ways:
Simple, yet effective, cones can help Improve flexibility, focus and balance.
Increasing flexibility through the rib cage can be helpful for dogs with reactivity issues.
Cones can be used as focal points for both dog and handler. You can use this in Homing Pigeon with the handlers staying on each side and the dog weaving.
Vary the distance depending on your dog’s flexibiity.
Tires offer another element that gives you options. You can use different types of tires – car tires are larger and stable—you can put them on the ground to walk through; you can put a board on top as a walk over.
You can also use motorcycle tires—a little smaller and easier to transport and store. Alternatively, bicycle tires work well, a bit like using hoola hoops but they don’t move as much.
Platforms and Bridges
If you have access to the materials, low bridges and platforms can be an excellent addition to the “Playground”. These can be simple and temporary, made with tires and boards, or solidly build out of lumber or pallets into longer term, “elements”.
Platforms and Bridges can help enhance confidence and balance and create clear signals.