Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Contact Zone

I am currently in the midst of training Sprout to have great performances on all three contact obstacles. I'm training running contacts for both the A-frame and dogwalk and a 4-on teeter. Because I live in a city home with only a small yard, I don't have space for my own contact equipment. In order to gain access to equipment, I rent an agility building once a week to train. Right now, this means those particular training sessions are very contact focused; basically, I work one contact obstacle then take a short short walk break and/or run a short jump-tunnel-weave sequence before moving on to the next contact. One hour per week, may not be ideal, but it's what I have to work with and I believe I'm making the most of it and being rewarded with good results for my effort.

A-Frame: This is the one contact obstacle where I was able to do the ground work at home. I am using Rachel Sanders box method, which I previously used to train both Poppy and Hokey's running contacts. I started Sprout by running him straight through the box laid out on the ground. I decided in order to get him a little deeper into the box and to get a better bounce, I needed to raise the back end a few inches. The cardboard insert from toilet paper or paper towel rolls works great for this, although you can also add some PVC extensions. I like cheap, quick, and readily handy myself. I worked all 3 of the stationary positions on both sides of the box:

Next I added the jump grid to the box. These are two low jumps that precede the box. The 2nd jump is placed exactly 9 feet from the back edge of the box. This simulates the down ramp of the frame. Running through the grid teaches the correct striding up over the apex of the frame then one bounce before the contact zone and then a 2nd bounce into the contact zone and off the frame. It's building muscle memory for the real thing. I did have a little bit of trouble getting the correct striding from Sprout early on; sometimes instead of the two bounces in 9', he was adding an extra stride - so two little strides then a bounce through the box or sometimes he was missing the box altogether. By messing around with the jump heights and their distances from each other, I was finally able to get a consistent 2-strided performance from him. Once the consistency came, I was able to set the jumps as I normally would have. The following clip shows us working the grid over a few different days. Again, I worked the 3 stationary positions on each side and then, once he was proficient and giving me a consistent performance, I added some motion and obstacles.

Then came time for the real deal. First, I set up the grid right next to the frame and ran him through it a few times. Then I set the A-frame pretty low and transferred the box to the down contact. I set a jump bar on the apex in case that helped him get the idea of leap over the apex; I had done this with Hokey and it had helped her. I'm not sure if it really helped Sprout or not. I didn't use one in subsequent sessions. If you look at the pictures above from our most recent A-frame session, you can see that he is now consistently leaping over the apex and catching a lot of air in the process - and getting a nice two bounce descent. For him, it seemed to come as a natural progression as his confidence increased and his drive accelerated. Here is his first session on the frame. I did raise it a little bit during this first session.

Here is Sprout's 2nd session a week later with the A-frame a little higher. As you can see, he's putting in some solid performances.

And here is Sprout's most recent A-Frame session on a still higher A-frame. Just look at him FLY! His confidence and drive are really starting to take off and he is sailing over the apex and putting in two solid hits. It can be hard to really see what's going on, but the pictures above are snapshots taken from this clip. He is catching some major air!

My plan from here is to continue to move to full height and to continue to get this kind of performance on a consistent basis, then fade the box. What is truly awesome is that NOT ONCE in any of these training sessions, has he missed bouncing through the box. He's 100% when it comes to hitting the contact on the frame so far. I am so pleased with his progress to date.

Teeter: In a previous post, I had shown a clip of the end behavior work I'd done in preparation for training the teeter. Finally, it was time to work the entire obstacle, starting with it set low, of course. Here is part of our first session (after training Hokey, I often forget that I can use a clicker with Sprout, even when it's in my hand!):

And here we are a couple of weeks later, with the teeter a bit higher:

So far, each teeter session goes like this: the first time, run like mad just past the fulcrum, then as it starts to drop suddenly panic and put on the brakes and look like a back-peddling cartoon character, end up in the contact zone, but not down close to the end. The 2nd and maybe the 3rd time through "Oh it's that scary thing that moves when I run across it. I need to be cautious." = a slow performance and a less than stellar contact performance (i.e. in the upper part of the yellow instead of down near the end of the teeter). Then the confidence builds and builds and by the end of the session he's got tons of teeter drive. My plan is to build his confidence while gradually raising the teeter to full height over several weeks. I also hope I can get him out and get him some exposure to other teeters.

Dogwalk: I'm still in the early stages of training Sprout's dogwalk. So far, I am planning a running contact performance. Unlike with Hokey and the foam tiles, I didn't do any ground work with Sprout. Instead, the last month or so, I've spent time each week letting him get used to the dogwalk by walking him on leash back and forth and letting him turn around. Then I've worked the down ramp by having my partner restrain him while I get him excited and then, when he's released, I throw a toy for him to run down the ramp and through a hoop I have set up at the end of the ramp. I had originally made the
hoop for Hokey's running dogwalk contact training and found it quite helpful since I was really at disadvantage trying to teach a solid running contact without the ability to use a clicker or any other sound to mark the correct behavior. I found the hoop taught her to run straight off the end of the ramp without leaping off while keeping her head low. She was able to retain the behavior after I faded the hoop. I'm hoping to have the same result with Sprout.

This past week was the first time I worked the entire length of the dogwalk with him (after the retrained ramp runs). Here is a clip of the result:

I'm pretty happy with this. I think his confidence will continue to build off this and his drive and speed with increase as a result. Once I feel satisfied with that, I'll start to fade the hoop and see if we retain the contact behavior I'm looking for.

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