Contacts–what to do, what to do…

Ahhh, the million dollar question…how are you going to train your contacts?  Are you going to do running?  Are you going to do two on two off?  Four on the floor?  Trkman?  Stride Regulators?  It can almost make your head explode.

Currently, I have a running aframe and dogwalk with Trip.  What most people don’t know is that both are retrains, and the running dogwalk is a complete and total accident.  When I was retraining the aframe, I somehow managed to lose my stopped dogwalk in the process.  Since I was doing it in a very accelerated fashion and didn’t have access to equipment often, I wasn’t in a good position to keep this from happening.  With hindsight and all that, if I were doing the same thing now, I’d make sure I was working and reinforcing the stopped dogwalk each session along with running the aframe, and stop the running the dogwalk the very first time she ran it.

For almost a year, I trained and reinforced a 2o2o dogwalk in practice, but got a running dogwalk in every show.  I tried to fix it, but we don’t have a lot of “match” opportunities, and she would always stop on a second attempt in the venues that allow training.  I can count on one hand the number of times she actually missed the yellow during that time.  I finally gave in and went with it, training and trialing a running dogwalk.  I use a very thin metal hoop made of fishing line at the end of the dogwalk–completely invisible.  Trip’s dogwalk is stride dependent–when she does 3 strides, she’s solidly into the yellow on even an FCI contact.  Even with 2 strides she will almost always hit an AKC contact–the shorter ones can be a little more iffy.  So, I train and reinforce the 3 strides.

I always planned to do a running aframe with Ticket.  I think the reality is that it’s necessary to be competitive at the highest levels, especially with a dog that will be competing against dogs 2 inches taller then her.  But, I didn’t start this training until I had the xrays that showed Ticket’s growth plates were closed.  So more on this later…

But the dogwalk?  What to do, what to do?  Trip has a fantastically beautiful running dogwalk, but is a “natural” at everthing she does.  Plus, it’s a complete accident, so not a great example to follow.  I think to have a successful running dogwalk, you need to understand a few things…

1.  You NEED to have a dogwalk of your own, or a place where you can practice multiple times a week easily.  I don’t think there’s any escaping the fact that a running dogwalk is a “vaguer” criteria, and requires more reps to train, and more reps to maintain.  This is even more true for larger dogs, whose natural stride can carry them over the yellow.

2.  It’s not just about the running dogwalk, it’s about your ability to HANDLE the running dogwalk.  A running dogwalk by itself does you no good if you are 20 feet behind your dog when they exit the obstacle.  The dog’s not the only one who needs to run–so do you.  OR, you have to have phenomenal verbal discrimination/obstacle skills.  I still don’t think this will allow you to be maximally successful on International-style courses, which are tricker.

3.  You have to accept that you WILL get bad calls.  And sometimes there will be a course where you feel like the judge hates running dogwalks.  Probably not true, but the course design can sometimes be pretty brutal if you don’t have a stop.

So, thinking everything through, I decided I was going to teach Ticket to stop on the dogwalk.  My goal was to teach the fastest, most brilliant, independent dogwalk contact I possibly could.  I wanted it to be completely black and white, with no doubt in her head that her job was to sprint across that board as fast as possible and get into position.  If I do that, and can’t be as competitive as I want, then I will know that I did everything possible, but it wasn’t enough.  And my next dog will have a running dogwalk. 🙂

So, that said, I still had to decide on the method I wanted to use to teach Ticket to stop.  I decided to go with the 1 rear toe on method developed by Linda Mecklenburg.  I like the idea of teaching the dog what to do with it’s rear feet, versus it’s front.  I think if you teach them that their job is for their rear feet to stay in contact with that board, that’s a pretty black and white criteria.  And I think it can help give you a little more drive to the bottom of the contact.

Here is a link to the Clean Run article where Linda outlines the method–it’s really very straightforward.

Reprint–Clean Run, One Rear Toe On, Linda Mecklenburg

So, at about 4-4.5 months, I introduced Ticket to the plank.  She very quickly “got it.”  The only things I really modified were that I don’t actually ask for 1 rear toe on, I ask for two feet in contact with the board.  I would have been fine with one toe, but Ticket never offered it to me–she always kept two feet on the board, while still doing the stretching and keeping her back straight that I wanted to see.  So, I kept it.  I also did not do a lot of reinforcement for coming off the board and stepping backwards to touch the board.   I did a bit, but I have seen dogs trained with this method who do this often in shows, and I didn’t want THAT to be the end behavior.  Even with what I did do, we went through a stage when Ticket was running the plank on the ground that she did think that was the game–she run off the board and immediately step back.  Ignoring that behavior and rewarding STAYING in contact with the board solved it, but I definitely saw how it could become a problem.

Again, I think the dog understanding the release word is very important here.  I think a lot of contact troubles stem from the dog not understanding when they’re supposed to move on.  Is it when the handler moves?  When the handler stops, then moves again?  When you say the next obstacle?  I wanted Ticket to understand that her job wasn’t done until she was released (“ok”).  So, I would click and reward multiple times in that end position on the board.  I’d also reward with a treat when I did release her.

Because of all this training, Ticket has more rear end awareness then any of my previous dogs.  There is not a doubt in my mind that she understands absolutely that she is supposed to keep those back feet touching the contact.  I first realized that when we were working with the plank, and I put it away to work on something else.  She went over to it, and picked up a rear foot to touch the plank on the wall.  She tends to touch her back feet to anything she can–she likes to do 2o2o in her crate at feeding time.  In fact, when it came time to teach her a running aframe, I struggled at the beginning because she didn’t want to run the contact–she wanted to stop at the bottom.  When I threw a toy, she’d leave the contact, get the toy, and bring it back and get into 2o2o again.

So, if you’re going to teach a stopped contact, I think 4-5 months isn’t a bad time to start teaching the preliminary behaviors, assuming everything else is going the way you want.  If you’re still working on fundamentals (focus, playing, etc), then that’s way more important.  Whether you’re teaching a nose touch, or to drive to a target, or 1RTO, the basics are great for a puppy to learn.    And teaching to run to the end of a board and stop is also going to be important in your teeter training, regardless of the contact method you use.

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