Running Contacts à la Trkman: My thoughts

Since I spoke about running contacts in my 2012 wrap-up post,  I thought I would take some time to share what we did in more detail.

I had been toying with teaching a modified four on the floor before our training was interrupted in 2009. What I had been trying to work towards was a down on the end of all contacts with the front feet off the contact and the rear feet on. Since our return last year, I decided that, given Bear’s age and my concern over his structure, I would try to teach a running contact. The worst thing that could happen was that we would d be stuck with the contact performances which was non-existent.

The method we used

If you can be certain of anything, it’s that if a particular technique is useful in competition, has merits, 5 different top level competitors will come out with 5 different methods for training it – and most of them will put this into a DVD, book or seminar.

Regardless of whose method one uses, the end result is that you have a dog that will:

  • Ascend the frame
  • Descend the entire frame, without stopping
  • Placing feet in the contact zone on the way down.

Once I decided this was something I wanted to do, I did some Googling of “running contacts” among the results was a free explanation with videos and answers to questions from Silvia Trkman.

I will not get into the nitty gritty of the method, you can see it for yourself on her website. The basics of this method are teaching your dog, from the beginning that the two things that are rewarded on the a frame re 1.)speed and 2.) placing feet in the contact zone.

Bear and I went to a friends house to practice. I used a clicker to mark speed and foot placement and used a tennis ball thrown ahead as  reward. It was if the light bulb really turned on for him and in about 3 sessions I had him racing over and coming all the way down. In 4 sessions, I was able to add a bit of distance and I now had a relatively consistent behavior to reward consistently in class.

Consistent rewarding in class has lead to  a consistent performance of the a frame in a trial setting. I can only think of one missed contact in the last 3 trials

Advantages

As far as I can tell there is only one main advantage for most teams when training this method and it is speed. In super high level competition, a 10th of a second can mean the difference between 1st and 4th place.

Speed is rarely an issue for us because we always finish with time to spare unless we have to redo weaves – another story for another day.

Aside from speed  there are two advantages for us:

  1. I don’t need to slow Bear down – he prefers to go and this allows me to reward him for good performance by letting him go!
  2. I think it is a more comfortable way for him to perform the exercise (my thoughts on this are below).

Pitfalls & Criticism

The following pitfalls. criticisms and challenges come from both the internet and my own experience.

  • Not being able to front cross on the a frame descent unless you can manage a significant lead out (my experience). This means you need to explore other ways to handle changes in direction after the A frame. The two that come to mind are the rear cross on the ascent of the A frame or a verbal cue (in/out, left/right) to tell the dog where to go before he clears the a frame.
  • Criteria is murky (internet chatter) – The fundamental difference between training 2o2o and running contact for me is the ability to move from marking a fixed position (nose on target) to marking a movement within a particular space (feet in the qualifying contact zone). I think that this makes criteria murky for the human. If you are marking behavior properly (clicker/sound/voice) your dog knows exactly what you want. The running contact requires your dog to learn how to adjust his stride so he can ascend and descend properly – then he needs to use this pattern every time. I knew Bear had this figured out his stride when he could consistently place his front feet t 1/2 way down the contact zone.
  • It takes too long to teach (internet): This took us 4 sessions, over bout 3 days, I think. The thing that became clear to me in the process is that the dog and handler team that have used shaping to teach various behaviors are at an advantage because they have a clear and consistent form of communication. These kinds of teams also tend not to focus on ‘wrong’ performances which I think is easier on the dog.
  • Judges can’t “see” a qualifying performance if your dog moves too fast (internet chatter): As a judge (of a much slower sport, mind you) I find these kind of comments insulting. The few trials I have attended around here, I notice that judges always position themselves well to see contact performances.  A contact performance that is borderline is always going to leave judges wondering, regardless of how the dog was trained. In my opinion, if you train your dog to land well within the zone on his way down you’ll have no issues. If, however, your criteria is ‘run down the a frame, placing one toenail on the top of the contact and launching directly to the ground’ then yes, I can see a judge calling it as a missed contact.

Why I think it worked for us.

I think there are a few reasons why this performance worked for us and I think that if your circumstances are different then it might not be the best choice for you.

  • Equipment: We had access to an real a frame to train on outside of class.
  • Bear’s size: Slowing down enough to stop quickly is difficult for a 90lb dog, especially a dog that does not have a natural tendency to ‘creep’ like border collies. There are large dogs that can do this but I don’t think all dogs can do it comfortably.
  • Bear’s structure: Having spent some time at a few structure seminars and doing some online research, I have learned that Bear has rather straight shoulders. According to Chris Zink, upright shoulders affect a dog’s ability to absorb the dog’s weight as his feet hit the ground.  This means that a dog h straight shoulders has to compensate with muscle which may or may not be able to support this kind of pressure.
  • Our communication style: We a lot have experience training all sorts of behaviors with the clicker. Bear is able to both offer behaviors and offer something different if the behavior he offers does not pay out. This means I can change criteria fairly easily. It also means I can mark and reward tiny incremental behaviors.

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