One simple rule that applies to the performance of all obstacles for all of my dogs is that it is my dog’s job to recognize and perform any obstacle that I have placed in their path, according to how they have been trained to do so, from the instant their focus is placed on the obstacle until they have completed it. I can and do assume that my dogs are fully intelligent enough to look ahead; recognize and perform all obstacles and that once they are trained well enough, will do so in any circumstances.
Other than identifying the obstacles, there are basically 2 conditions to consider in each case. Obstacles where turns have no impact on the performance of the obstacle and those where turns do have an impact on the performance of the obstacle such as is the case in jumping and when exiting tunnels. Linda Mecklenberg defines turning and non-turning obstacles and I agree with this view and the importance of it in considering the criteria for performance of any obstacle. From this perspective, I consider each of the contact obstacles to be non-turning obstacles.
For all contact obstacles I want my dogs to perform the obstacles independent of my motion while committed to performing the obstacle from the instant they focus on it until they successfully perform the exit. My motion, after they are committed to the obstacle and while performing the obstacle will only provide information for where they are going once they have completed the obstacle. If the exit of the contact obstacle includes a stay, as in a typical “2on/2off” contact, then driving into the stay is independent of my motion as is the actual stay itself.
The performance of these obstacles is for the most part, independent of their path entering and exiting each of the contact obstacles. The actual position laterally on the A-frame defined as acceptable in the performance criteria may vary on entry and exit for maximum performance and one might want to define and accept slight changes in braking, or collection on the exit of the dog-walk and A-frame according to the direction of exit following completion.
Also, if training a 2on/2off, the position I expect from them is the same for all of the contact obstacles. In all cases, driving into position, remaining stationary and the release from the stationary position are independent of my motion. This does not happen on its own or by accident. The release is only cued verbally. At this time, however, I am not training 2on/2off position for any contacts unless it is necessary for unique reasons in individual dogs, as is currently the case for Jimmi on the teeter. My intention is to eliminate the 2on/2off position later in her unique case once she gains greater self-control in her overall performance.
Since each dog is unique, it is essential that I consider their individual character and abilities and define criteria individually for each of my dogs, as I think every individual handler/trainer should for each of their dogs, so even though I may have the same goal at the outset, the criteria used and the actual shaping I do to get there must be unique to each individual dog in order to maximize their capability and performance. The final performance criteria may actually be the same, but the process to get there will always be unique to each dog if maximum performance is desired.
Another consideration is that the performance of obstacles by my dog is rarely if ever a constant distance from me laterally or behind/ahead of me and the absolute direction and speed, as well as our relative position and velocity are constantly changing. In fact I insist that this is how we play the game, so proofing this relationship of motion and position relative to obstacle performance is extremely important for all obstacles.
So prior to moving on specifically to contact obstacle criteria, I will briefly present what I mean by shaping or proofing obstacle performance. It’s always my goal to keep all obstacle performance throughout the training experience, as close to the desired final criteria as possible.
Achieving performance that meets the criteria set out requires “proofing” or “shaping” of desired behavior and performance that is gradual when it comes to the addition of their speed to their performance; the addition my motion and increased speed to my motion; the addition of deceleration and acceleration gradually and lateral movements closer and away from my dogs; then the addition of more and more sudden changes in direction, rear crossing entries to signify direction of travel on exit, etc.
Since I always expect the same performance, I must eliminate all aspects of the situation that contribute to variability or deviation from my criteria. Which of the above attributes I can change and how much I can push, or challenge their abilities at any time is solely and completely determined by the performance of my dog and my accurate and detailed observation of their performance is absolutely required. The better I am at observation and setting up my dogs to achieve the criteria and work successfully at their threshold of ability, the better the final performance of the obstacle will be.
To quote Vince Lombardi, perfect practice makes perfect. This means that we must control the antecedent conditions carefully, that is the environment and circumstances that are present to get what we want in the performance of our dogs. We gradually add excitement and distraction, reality that is, slowly and successfully into their performance. Confidence comes with consistent success and achievement and lots of reward for the correct choices. I must provide the environment and observation to enable this achievement.
In the next installments, I will add specific criteria for the performance and shaping of the Teeter, A-Frame and Dog-Walk and the status of my dogs in their contact obstacle training.
Richard Ford, M.Sc. (Psychology)