Lorrie’s Agility Dog Blog

Musings on Dogs, Agility, and Being an Instructor

Retraining Contacts: Session 10

It was a beautiful day and I got home before dark, so I took the puppies out to play.  Maxx is doing great on his contacts.  I hope he does well at the trial this weekend.  I’m going to try to treat them the same as at home.  He did have one superman moment out of all the repetitions we did.  The video is below.

 Maxx contact retraining session 10

I just had to add this clip of my crazy girl Storm and her sliding contacts.  She is a riot.  Watch her tail – it wags ALL the time.   She’s a happy girl.  I left the sound because it is so funny to hear her slide down.  You would think I’d never have to trim her nails (I wish).

Storm contact training


April 30, 2009 Posted by | Agility, Contact Obstacles, Training | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Choosing a Contact Behavior

One of the important decisions to make when training a new dog is what type of contacts the dog will have.  The decision depends on the goals of the team, their dedication to training, and the trainer’s ability to teach the dog.  Part of the difficulty for new people is that they are making a decision without having any experience.  Their decision is further complicated by the numerous choices including 2O/2O, 4OTF, 1RTO, and several types of running contacts.  It is up to the instructor to tell them what the future ramifications of each choice might be.   Veteran handlers with new dogs have at least been exposed to the various contact performances and usually have an idea of what they want for their next dog. 

As an instructor, my job is to consider the team and guide them in the right direction or make sure that their expectations are realistic if they already have something in mind.  Everyone thinks running contacts are wonderful, but new students don’t always realize the effort required to train and maintain them.  I only recommend that students train running contacts if they meet the following criteria:  they can keep up with their dog well enough to direct them at the end of the contact, they have equipment or are willing to make something resembling equipment to practice on at home, and they are willing to practice almost every day.  If these criteria aren’t met, I recommend a different method. 

For beginning handlers, we almost always start them off with 2O/2O.  The criteria for that type of contact are very clear.  The dog has two feet on the floor, and two feet on the contact.  It is easy for both the dog and handler to understand, and it is easy to determine if the criteria have been met.  2O/2O contacts can be transitioned fairly easily to “quick release” if the student later decides their goal is to compete at the national or international level.  For long-backed dogs or large dogs with straight shoulders, I generally recommend a different type of contact behavior, like 4-on-the-floor (modified running contacts with a down at the bottom of the contact), a modified 2O/2O, with the dog stopping right at the bottom of the contact, or running contacts.  I discuss the reasons with the handler, give them the options, and let them determine their choice.  

For experienced handlers, the contact method depends on their goals.  Teams that want to have fun at the local level and qualify consistently usually choose to teach 2O/2O.  Because the behavior is so clear-cut, as long as they maintain their criteria at trials, it is very reliable.  If they want to be competitive at a national or international level, they generally choose running contacts. 

Part of the difficulty with teaching running contacts is that the criteria are not always clear.  With a 2O/2O or 1RTO, the answer is very black and white.  4OTF are a bit gray, only because the dog may lie down 6″ from the bottom of the contact, or 2′ away and the handler generally will accept either.  Running contacts are more difficult to define for the dog.  Many methods have been developed to try to “tell” the dog what the criteria are.  Things that promote foot touches are black and white, but it appears that the dogs concentrate more on the target than they do on the contact behavior.  The same is true with the box method or stride regulators.  If you can do enough repetitions, it can be argued that you build muscle memory, but what have you actually taught the dog?  Will it hold up on slatted and unslatted equipment?  How do you clarify your criteria if you are just teaching them to run into the yellow?  Do you reward 1 foot 1 inch into the yellow?  Do you only reward all four feet in the yellow?  Does the dog understand the difference?  How do you tell for sure if the criteria were met when the dog is running at full speed?

Deciding on a contact behavior doesn’t have to be difficult.   If you want to compete at the national (or international) level and you are willing to work through the gray areas, running is probably the way to go.  If you are going to compete locally and don’t have the inclination to spend large amounts of time on contacts, 2O/2O is a smarter choice as long as your dog is built reasonably well.  The most important consideration is to be sure that your choice is one you are willing to stick with.  Retraining is much more difficult than training and takes more time with less consistent results.  That’s the voice of experience talking!

April 29, 2009 Posted by | Agility, Contact Obstacles, Teaching Agility, Training | , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Retraining Contacts: Session 9

The weather wasn’t as nice today, but we are still plugging along, working on Maxx’s contacts and Dash’s weaves.  It started raining before I got to Storm, but she will get her turn eventually.

 My dogwalk only goes ½ height or full height, so I took the plunge today and raised it.  I also raised the A-Frame to about 4 ½ feet.  This weekend is a NADAC trial, so it will only be at 5’.  We did 10 A-frames and 10 dogwalks.  The good news is that he is still running all the way down the dogwalk and A-frame with the hoop.  The bad news is that he bailed off of the one A-frame that he volunteered when my back was turned.  Hopefully it was just because I wasn’t paying attention.

I’m teaching tomorrow night, and attending class Tuesday, so we probably won’t be able to practice at home again until Wednesday.  

April 26, 2009 Posted by | Agility, Contact Obstacles, Training | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Retraining Contacts: Session 7

No video today, but I went out and had Maxx do contacts for his dinner.  We did 10 repetitions each of the lowered dog walk and lowered A-frame with hoops.  On each obstacle, when I was standing right at the end of the contact, I got one unwanted repetition of the old 2o/2o behavior.  Otherwise, he ran through with decent speed.  I’m going to continue to use the ball, though.  Surprisingly, he runs faster chasing the ball than he does for the food.  Pretty amazing for a dog that didn’t play with toys at all for the first two years I had him :-).

Dash and Storm worked for their dinners as well, so everyone was happy to get a chance to play.

I’ll continue to keep you posted on our progress.  It will be interesting to see what happens the first time we trial after this retraining phase.  We will find out May 2 – 3!

April 23, 2009 Posted by | Agility, Contact Obstacles, Training | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Retraining Contacts: Session 6

I took Maxx out for a short training session again today.  He is still running all the way down the dogwalk at half-height.  I raised the A-Frame about a foot, and he ran all the way to the bottom of that one too.  I am harboring no illusions that I will get this same behavior at trials yet, but at least I think there is hope for the future!

The link to the video is below.  It is very short (20 sec or so) because the camera died after the dogwalk section.  The mountains aren’t so pretty today – sorry!

Maxx session 6

April 22, 2009 Posted by | Agility, Contact Obstacles, Training | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Retraining Contacts: Session 3

I gave up hope that we might be able to play outside yesterday (Saturday) and decided to work with Maxx inside instead.  My plan is to get him running through a hoop, transfer the hoop to the bottom of the contacts, get him running all the way through the bottom of the contacts, fade the hoop, and THEN start using a different contact word.  They won’t be true running contacts since I want him to slow down, but hopefully he will hit a higher percentage than he is now. 

So far we have had three sessions of running through the hoop, and in class I used the hoop at the bottom of the dogwalk.  You will see in the video from today that he started out running through with his head up.  I started putting treats on the ground and throwing treats down the hallway before he ran through so his head would be down as he went to the treats.  I hate using the lure and props since I have to fade them later, but I couldn’t think of any other way to do it that would produce results in a fairly short period of time.  Click on the link below to see the video of our training session.

Retraining session 3

I think he is doing well.  The hard part will be transitioning it to trials.  I’m being a bad trainer – I know I shouldn’t trial with him while I’m trying to retrain, but we have trials close to home every weekend in May!  I am signed up to be chief ring steward or scorekeeper, so I can’t miss them.  My plan is to not use any word for the contacts while I’m trialing.  I will use my body motion to tell him to slow down and if he hits them, great, if not, I can’t complain since I am sure he will be confused for a bit.  I still have a couple of weeks to really work on this before the next trial.

Don’t you wish they understood the English language?  If I could just tell him “You can keep playing if you will just run all the way to the end,” I don’t think I would have a problem any more :-).  I guess that’s why I have a clicker (or my word “yes”) – it’s the best way to communicate I have found so far.      

April 19, 2009 Posted by | Agility, Contact Obstacles, Training | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Blurb on Contacts

While I was thinking about retraining Maxx’s contacts, a few notable thoughts popped out.  Here is the first one, and for a change, it is not a book!

What makes contact training so different from training things like weave poles?    Weave poles usually become better over time, while contacts frequently deteriorate.  It would appear that consistent performance in the weaves is at least as difficult to teach as consistent performance on contacts, but fewer people have issues with them. 

One possible explanation is the policy of no-fault weaves in the beginning levels of competition.  The dog misses the entry or pops out of the weaves, it is obvious to both the handler and the judge that the dog didn’t perform the obstacle correctly, and the handler returns to the weaves to complete them.  They are allowed to go back and fix them without penalty and if they don’t, they can’t qualify.  The dogs learn to complete the obstacle in a trial setting no matter what.

With contacts, the definition of “correct performance” may not be the same between the judge and the handler.  Since dogs can’t return to the contacts in some venues, and in other venues it is scored as an elimination for training, handlers are much less likely to insist on the same contact behavior at trials.  If the dog hits the yellow, even though he is not maintaining his trained behavior, he can still qualify.  Even when the opportunity exists, unless you have someone like me, who has been burned by letting criteria slide, the incentive is not always there for the handler to go back and insist the dog performs the obstacle “correctly”.

What do you think?  More importantly, if it is a contributor, how can we counteract it in training?

April 15, 2009 Posted by | Agility, Contact Obstacles, Training | , , , , | 2 Comments

Retraining Dilemma

Anyone who knows me is aware that Maxx and I have struggled with contacts throughout his agility career.   Last night in class, Katrina commented that she recently went back and looked at my goals over the years, and one of my top goals for 2005 was to fix Maxx’s contacts.  That’s right, 2005.  Guess what one of my top goals is for 2009?  Thank goodness I knew more with Storm and Dash – they both have much better contacts!

Obviously the contact issue hasn’t kept us from accomplishing a lot, but it is extremely frustrating, and if it weren’t a problem, we could have accomplished so much more.  Even more frustrating is that his contacts are perfect in practice.  In the past year of classes, I have managed to cause him to break exactly once.  Trials are a different story.  At the recent USDAA trial in Loveland, most of our NQ runs were due to missed contacts.  He appears to have a very solid understanding of the behavior in a class or fun match situation, but no understanding whatsoever at trials.  So, for about the past month, I’ve been chasing ideas round and round in my head, trying to come up with a plan.

I filled a whole page with thoughts about why contacts are such an issue for so many teams and what makes them different from weave poles or jumps.  That page will be fodder for another post, I’m sure!  I didn’t come to “a” conclusion, but it did make me think through all of the issues involved in training/retraining.

First, I tried to determine the cause of the problem.  Basically I decided that my inexperience during the early years with Maxx was the biggest contributor.  Maxx is the first dog I’ve played agility with, the first dog I’ve ever participated in a sport with, and the first dog I’ve tried to teach anything other than basic family obedience to.  When I started with him, I didn’t know anything about training contacts.  I didn’t realize that not maintaining my criteria in trials would cause the behavior to deteriorate so significantly (hey, beginning students, reread that sentence!!!).   I thought that with such a hard-headed, driven dog, stopping him on the contacts was the only answer.  I am beginning to rethink that position.

All the retraining I have done up to now has revolved around a stop on the contact.  With his drive, Katrina and I thought that anything else would result in him donning his Superman cape and flying over the contacts altogether.  We’ve tried getting a down in the yellow – but in a trial situation, he stands and looks at me like he doesn’t know what the command means.  Judges don’t allow you to stand at the end of the contact waiting for a down for the entire day  J.  We’ve tried taking him off the course if he doesn’t maintain his 2o/2o.  It worked for a few months.  Katrina recently suggested I go to a nose touch, but I honestly don’t believe that I will be able to maintain that criteria at a trial.  I can picture myself standing silently at the end of the dogwalk, waiting 20 seconds or more for Maxx to dip his head, while he is barking at me in frustration.   

The definition of insanity is doing what you have always done and expecting a different result.  My opinion is that Maxx’s biggest roadblock to having great contacts is his desire is to continue on the course without having to come to a stop.  Although it seems contrary to what I have always believed, I have decided to experiment with letting him run through the contact and continue as long as he goes all the way to the bottom.  Crazy?  Maybe.  But no crazier than continuing to fight with him over a stop. 

I have a plan, and I’ll try to keep everyone up to date on his progress.  So far I have shaped him running through a hoop, and in class last night I used a hoop at the end of the contacts.  My biggest challenge will be figuring out how to communicate to him that running all the way to the end is what allows him to continue playing.  Wish me luck!   

April 15, 2009 Posted by | Agility, Contact Obstacles, Training | , , , , , , , | 5 Comments