Monthly Archives: February 2015

We’ve Got Stride Adjustment :)

I hope you like running contacts because you might be reading a lot about them in near future. I *tried* coming up with a different topic for this blog post, I really did, but the thoughts about RC just wouldn’t go away.

We hit a very important milestone last week: Java is adjusting her stride to hit the target!!!

I suspected it before, but I couldn’t be sure because there isn’t enough space in my living room to vary the distance much. But last week I was able to train her at a bigger distance and she was hitting the same way no matter where she started. Not only there were no misses, but majority of the hits were very precise: first front paw hit the edge of the target, followed by the other three paws neatly spread out across a 30x80cm target. I’m over the moon that she adjusted her stride to give me the best possible hit. 🙂

We’re training on three different targets:

  • Non slip bath mat, white, 30x75cm, very thin – gives me the best hits
  • Non slip mat for washing machine, black, 30x60cm, 1cm thick – gives good hits, but I think it might look confusing on my carpet. It’s also harder to see black feet on a black mat…
  • Dog pillow, blue, 50x70cm, 5cm thick – this one is very tempting to jump over, which is great for teaching Java a difference between good and bad tries

One of Susan Garret’s Puppy Peaks videos shows Swagger running across a low wobble board as preparation for his running contacts and now I’m thinking that it would make sense to make such a board for Java as well. I’m guessing that a dog who can confidently stride through a wobble board won’t have so many problems if the training plank will wobble a little bit. I already have a wobble board in my “dog gym” (my living room 🙂 ), but its fulcrum is way too high to run through. I need something lower.

Along with working different targets it’s also time to pay more attention to turns. I like the idea of working on these from the ground up, so that the dog experiences the differences in contact hits when going straight vs when turning. We have only done a few sessions on turns so far, so it’s high time to get more serious about it.

I have to admit I’m a little unsure about what I like vs what I dislike which is why I have been avoiding them. What do I do when front feet hit the target, but one of the rear feet hits next to the target during a turn? Do I reward that? On a dog walk that rear foot would hit thin air, so I would be rewarding an impossible turn execution.

We’re training turns using a cone/pole to wrap around, so we don’t have problems with missing the target. I did try one session without a pole and Java started just skimming the target, but we soon came to an understanding that she needs to actually hit it. Still, those hits were quite high on the target and I would prefer her to cover the target well and then turn, so I went back to using a pole. Turning high on the contact might be OK on a full dog walk (haven’t decided yet), but while the target is still on the ground I see no reason to let her do it that way.

Then there is also a lurking struggle with stopping vs running. Sometimes Java decides that the training setup looks like 2o2o and offers stopping on the target, especially when the reward is in front of her, because that’s how we proofed 2o2o and she was very good at it. I can usually break her out of it by changing the setup, but it would be nice if we got to a point where I could use a static reward without confusion.

So obviously plenty of things to work on, but for now my heart is singing because Java is adjusting her stride to hit 🙂 Surely everything will be easy now!

Yeah, right.

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Missing That Running Contact Feeling

When I decided to stop training running contacts, a friend (who obviously knows me better than I know myself) laughed and said I won’t be able to stay away from them for long. She was right. I love everything about running contacts… the fluidity for performance, the rush of running alongside the dog, the thrill when you see your dog run a full height dog walk for the very first time after months of training. Everything except a whippet falling off the dog walk because they were too crazy and misstepped and couldn’t hang on. That part is no fun at all.

[Just to clarify, I’m only training RC to Java, Ruby will continue to perform 2o2o as he goes crazy when I include dog walk in a sequence and I need to babysit how he runs up so he doesn’t hurt himself.]

A search for a slower performance

Many moons ago

Many moons ago

So I was thinking… what if Java wouldn’t run full speed? I’m not talking about trotting across the dog walk, but a bit less than crazy full speed running would be nice. And especially, running in a bit calmer state of mind. Could I train a slightly slower and safer dog walk performance? I heard the warning many times that if you don’t train with maximum speed then you might never get a maximum performance of that obstacle, and that would actually work in my favor here. But can I teach the dog to consistently hit the contact while NOT running full speed?

I first learned about running contacts from Silvia Trkman and her method requires that the dog runs full out. The story goes that if the dog isn’t running full-out in training, they certainly WILL in trials and then they will leap over the contact because they will either:

  • Not care about hitting the contact when they’re in such a hurry to get to the next obstacle, or
  • Won’t know HOW to hit it at that speed

Daisy Peel adapted this method so that it can be trained at lower speeds as well and it seems that she is able to train dogs to a decent level of performance without the necessity of running full tilt from the start. So that myth is busted. She trains using a Manners Minder, which for many dogs automatically results in less speed. So this method would be a natural choice for me, right?

Well, not so fast

I would also like to change another part of the method: run the dog over a plank at ever increasing heights and click when she is running nicely (without leaping) AND hitting the contact. That’s simple for the trainer (once they learn to see the footfalls), but if I had you run for 10m and click for quality of one of your footfalls, how long would it take you to realize exactly which footfall I’m clicking for and which quality earned you that click?

Take into consideration that my timing would be way off because a series of events would have to happen:

  1. I would first have to see the footfall,
  2. then I would have to decide whether it fits the criteria,
  3. then the signal to move the muscles would have to travel down to my thumb
  4. which would then press the button on the clicker.

By the time you would hear the click you would be at least one stride further down the path. The only way to have good timing is to start *predicting* whether the dog is going to hit and clicking in advance. Otherwise you’re clicking on her first step OFF the dog walk – which is just about the worst timing possible, as you don’t want the dog to focus on how to get to the ground as soon as possible.

Some dogs have nice even strides that make this prediction easier. Other dogs soon realize that you’re always late with your clicks and figure out that the click wasn’t about reaching the grass at all, but about what they did on the plank. Java doesn’t seem to belong to either of these categories. I think she believed that my clicks and verbal markers were for running on the ground, not on the plank, so it “worked” for a while, until she found a shortcut – just jump straight to the ground 😛

Well, Ruby also didn’t belong to either of those groups of dogs, I just persisted long enough that he somehow figured it out. But there has to be a better way, right?

There has to be a better way to teach that it’s all about the last 60 or 45cm of a 400cm long plank

Devorah Sperber of Art And Dog Blog got me thinking about building a Clicker Board, which is a great idea since it’s cheap and ensures perfect timing of the click. I even bought a board and a bunch of clickers to test it 🙂 Unfortunately I don’t have my own dog walk to incorporate the clicker board onto, so I would have to use it on top of the club dog walk and I felt it was too bulky for whippet sensitivities.

For a while I was tinkering with building an electronic contact board which would be much slimmer. (I know I could buy a commercial version, but they seemed a wee bit expensive to me, especially when including shipment to Slovenia.) I got it partly working, but not well enough for training. Maybe some day when I get around to it 🙂

Enter foot targets

There used to be a widespread belief that foot targets were an ineffective way of training RC, but these days I see more dogs with beautiful running contacts that were trained that way. Another myth busted. Of course a foot target needs to be faded in the end. Still, if it helps to bring clarity I’m all for it.

A year ago I tried Dawn Weaver’s method because her dogs seem to have a very controlled style of running the dog walk, no craziness (yay!). I am not at liberty to discuss the details of her method, but will say that her dogs have both stop and a run and her method reflects this. Unfortunately Java became quite conflicted over when she should stop and when she should run. Then she got injured in April and I had a lot of time to think.

I was crushed. I thought what’s the use in training a really really difficult behavior when the dog could get injured at any time (not necessarily during agility, but even out on a walk like Java). Even the big names of agility world take two years or longer to train all possible entries and exits to a running dog walk in all sorts of situations. Running contacts might *look* trained once they start using them in competition, but there is a lot to be done still. Wouldn’t it be wiser to just go with 2o2o like I first planned so we could finally start running agility courses?

But 7 months (April-November) was a long time to wait, and I was still curious about running contacts. I started looking at other methods that use foot targets at least in part – whatever I could find out about Susan Garrett’s, Martina Klimesova’s and Laura Chudleigh’s method. Of course, after learning about different approaches, I couldn’t just sit on it and not try it out. Watching my friends training running contacts with their young dogs might have had something to do with it as well 😛

This is probably crazy, but three weeks ago Java and I started playing with foot targets. At this point she is basically going through retraining, which is generally a very bad idea. The best way is to train ONE type of performance and stick with it. Java has done some Silvia Trkman’s method, some Dawn Weaver’s method and some stopped contacts – enough to confuse anyone 🙂

Wish us luck, we’ll need it 😀

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Is Fear Really The Enemy?

Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.
– Mark Twain

This post was written about two months ago, my finger was on the trigger, but I didn’t post it. The main reason is that I thought it would be misunderstood by the majority of people. But there is also an odd chance that there is someone like me out there who really should listen to their fear MORE, not less, and every single article they read is telling them to blast right past their fear, that everything is going to be all right. You know what? Popular culture is often wrong.

It took me a while because I’m dense sometimes… It took me a very long time, in fact, to realize that I should listen to myself, not to other people. Listen to my instincts, not to other people’s truth.

People say to just go ahead and do what you’re afraid of doing. Fear is bad. Do what you’re afraid of. Conquer your fear by barging right through it.

But fear is there for a reason and saying that it should be disregarded is like saying you should disregard the pain that tells you your hand has just reached into the fire. Yes, sometimes pain needs to be ignored, like when doctor takes your blood. But more often than not it is useful, and the same is true for fear. It’s a warning.

For the past few months I gave myself permission to listen to my fear. This was harder than you’d think, since I have practiced ignoring it for so long. I had to remind myself several times that it’s OK to listen to what fear had to say. And when I listened closely it usually had a valid point. There was a step I was missing. There was something else I could do. I was rushing things. I wasn’t ready. Or my dog wasn’t ready.

Sometimes what fear had to say was inconvenient. It meant I would have to change my habits, take the longer path to the goal, bend some rules, find new solutions, build new relationships, test my commitment and the limits of my health. But it was good information.

Maybe I’m the only one who didn’t know that fear needs to be heeded sometimes. Maybe it’s because I was raised to disregard my feelings or because I took the common advice “do what you’re afraid of” and applied it too literally. I don’t know. It was a stupid thing to do.

Fear is like pain. It’s only safe to ignore it once you know what it’s trying to tell you. It doesn’t have to keep you from taking action, only from taking action blindly.

So act less like this quote:

Always do what you are afraid to do.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

And more like this one:

What is needed, rather than running away or controlling or suppressing or any other resistance, is understanding fear; that means, watch it, learn about it, come directly into contact with it. We are to learn about fear, not how to escape from it.
– Jiddu Krishnamurti

Or maybe I’m the only one stupid enough to ignore fear even when it carries a useful message. If so, please disregard this post.

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