Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Foundations: Running Contacts

I finally have time to report on the progress I've been making with Hokey's agility foundation training. In fact, I have so much material, I'm going to have to split it into more than one post. This post will be dedicated to our attempts to develop solid running contact behaviors for both the A-frame and the dog walk. 

But first, let me report that we all survived "Superstorm Sandy" (I still prefer the pre-storm moniker "Frankenstorm") without any hardship. However, Hokey begs to differ with that assessment. She was convinced she'd melt by getting rain in her face. Is this not the most pathetic sight ever?

Hokey "suffering" the effects of Superstorm Sandy

So back to running contact training starting with the A-frame. I have introduced Hokey to the PVC box. The introductory step involved me sitting in a chair while shaping her moment into the box (i.e. first moving toward it, then a foot in, two feet in, etc) by building value for it with lots of tossed treats. She moved through those steps very quickly. Then I ran into some trouble at what would ordinarily be the next couple of steps - me still sitting in a chair off to the side of the box with her moving straight through without looking at me while getting a nice pounce into the box then bouncing straight out. Because of her deafness, I had trouble imparting this concept to her and actually ended up jumping ahead a couple of steps. The main problem is that I have yet to come up with a good alternative marker to use in lieu of a clicker.  Such a marker would need to be visual, yet not require her to look at me for information (i.e. some remote device that she would look at to get her information regardless of my position relative to her). It would also have to have very little delay so that the feedback would be virtually instantaneous. I've experimented with a couple of things, but none of them have worked out quite to my specifications. SO, I decided to jump ahead and see how she would respond to me working the 3 positions around either side of the box (front corner, side, back corner) with me tossing a treat or toy to keep her focused on driving forward. Being a bouncy jack, she naturally picked up on the one bounce into the box with a bounce straight out. She really gets some nice pouncing action, as seen in this still from the video that follows:

Hokey "pouncing" into the PVC box

And here is the video of us working the 3 positions around the box at full speed followed by half speed:

We've also started to work on the foundation for a running dog walk contact. I want to try to train this and see how it goes. So far, it's proving to be challenging and sometimes frustrating. I may need to rethink how I go about certain things, but I figure if it doesn't work out, I can always switch to a 2o/2o instead. I think it would be an easier transition to retrain a running to a 2o/2o contact behavior than the other way around. Currently I am using interlocking foam tiles as a portable substitute for a plank. They are 12" x 12", so 12 tiles represents a DW ramp and the last 3 tiles are equal to the USDAA contact zone specifications.
One of the interlocking foam tiles

When training a running DW contact, you want to teach your dog to drive forward with speed while remaining completely independent of handler motion. Therefore, in these early stages of training, I remain stationary and position myself at either end of the "plank". I have a remote controlled treat dispenser placed several feet from the end of the plank that acts as the "goal" for Hokey to drive to. I've also used a tug toy stuffed with hot dogs placed or thrown at the contact end of the plank. However, if I use the toy, I give up the control of rewarding her for a correct vs. incorrect performance since she's often driving forward far ahead of me. In other words, the toy reward is indiscriminate; it rewards her for performing both correct and incorrect contact behaviors. Therefore, I prefer to use the treat dispenser so that I can reward her only when she runs all the way across the plank without leaping off the end or stepping off the side. The downside to using the remote dispenser is that it has a little bit of a delay, so that sometimes in my eagerness to deliver the reward to her at the correct moment, I anticipate her performing correct behavior and instead end up rewarding her for an undesirable behavior.

Remote controlled treat dispenser
Unfortunately, as mentioned before, I haven't come up with a good clicker substitute with which to provide her with instant feedback for performing the correct behavior without her having to look at me, so, right now, Hokey is stuck with the imprecision of trying to learn what gets her a reward and what doesn't and trying to tease out what she did right from the wide range of possible behaviors. This is a currently source of frustration for the both of us and something I need to give more thought to in order to come up with a better solution.

Below are video examples of our hits and misses.

In this clip, I stand stationary at the "contact" end of of the plank near the treat dispenser and release her toward me:

I have found that she tends to show a little more speed and drive if I am at the opposite end with her and do a restrained release, sending her across the plank toward the dispenser, as shown here:

As I mentioned before, Hokey is a bouncy jack russell and has a tendency to add an occasional leap amid her strides as she runs. Sometimes these leaps carry her right into the contact zone, such as here:

However, this is not the most desirable behavior as it can easily turn into a leap that has her sailing completely over the contact zone:

A frequent problem I'm having with her is that she has a tendency to run off the side of the plank as she's heading toward the treat dispenser.

This is happening more often lately and I need to fix it now before it drifts into habit. My thought is that I either need to take some steps back and build high value for staying on the plank before running the entire length at full speed OR get a helper so that one person can be available to give some sort of visual "click" for the desired behavior. Or maybe some kind of combination of the two.

Like I said, it's a work in progress with some kinks to be worked out. We'll see how it goes as we move forward.

Another post on our progress focusing on other skills should be up within the next few days. Stay tuned!

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