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
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:
- I would first have to see the footfall,
- then I would have to decide whether it fits the criteria,
- then the signal to move the muscles would have to travel down to my thumb
- 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 😀