Strata’s Contact Training Journey

Mr. Strata! (Photo by Katie Rogers/Smiling Wolf Photography)
Mr. Strata! (Photo by Katie Rogers/Smiling Wolf Photography)

In my previous post, I wrote about common stopped contact training mistakes and promised to share some of the errors I’ve made along the way with Strata. Learn from my mistakes! :)

Strata is my six-year-old Shetland Sheepdog. He’s earned his MACH and a USDAA Performance Tournament Master title, and has competed at two AKC Nationals as well as International Team Tryouts last year. So, he’s a pretty experienced competition dog.

I originally wanted to teach Strata a running contact using Silvia Trkman’s method, but after a couple of months realized that I did not have enough access to equipment to pull it off. (At the time, I was traveling 45 minutes each way to do ring rentals.)

Begrudgingly, I started teaching him two-on two-off for the dogwalk and teeter. He already had a pretty consistent running A-frame, so I didn’t need to change that.

Our first contact training problem had nothing to do with the end position. Strata is afraid of heights, and it took a lot of work to get him over his fear of the middle plank of the dogwalk. (Yes, really. Here’s a video of him trotting across the dogwalk in an Open Standard run. And this was an improvement over where he had been for some time!)

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5 Common Stopped Contact Training Mistakes

Dog Jumping Through Contact
Are you confident in your dog’s contact training? Or are you hoping, wishing, praying he’ll hit every contact? (Photo Credit: Lil Shepherd, Flickr)

As I prepare Spark for his Standard class début, I have spent a lot of time watching the Novice and Open classes at local agility trials. I am trying to find the “holes” in those dogs’ training. What is causing them to NQ? Does Spark have that skill? (Do my students’ dogs have that skill?)

Contacts are a huge trouble area for dogs competing in agility. Some handlers haven’t really trained contacts at all, and are just relying on luck to get them through. More troubling to me are the handlers who think they’ve trained their dogs to understand correct contact performance, but don’t realize the dog’s behavior is still very much depending on what the handler is doing.

Here are five common stopped contact training mistakes I have identified.

1. Multiple Cues (Physical & Verbal)

Scenario: The dog charges up and across the first two planks of the dogwalk with his handler racing beside him. As the dog begins his descent of the third plank, the handler slows down, turns to face the dog, places a hand in front of the dog’s face, and/or points at the contact zone. This is often accompanied by multiple verbal cues (“touch! touch! touch!”) or reminders to stay (“wait! you wait! WAIT!”).

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We Are Busy Bees!

Will You Go to Prom with Strata?
And on top of all of this, Strata is apparently looking for a prom date. Must be nice to have all that spare time.

May is a crazy month for us at Crossbones! I have to apologize for the lack of posts recently. Dan and I have been so busy planning for these upcoming events that my creativity is running dry. I’ve got a couple doozies in my “drafts” folder, almost ready for you all to read!

Here’s what we’ve been working on:

  • Friday, May 9th: Our first non-sanctioned agility match in Smithfield, RI. Pre-entries are now closed, but we’re taking day-of-match entries. RSVP on Facebook for the latest news about the event.
  • Sunday, May 11th: We’ll be vending at the Middlesex County Kennel Club AKC agility trial at Wide World of Indoor Sports in North Smithfield, RI. This is the first of (many) weekends we’ll be vending at WWIS this year. Come say hi!
  • Friday, May 16th: Another non-sanctioned agility match! Pre-entries for this one close on Monday, May 12th, and we expect to have room for day-of-match entries as well.
  • Saturday, May 17th & Sunday, May 18th: We’ll be vending at my club’s AKC agility trial, Colonial Shetland Sheepdog Club and Labrador Retriever Club of Greater Boston, also in North Smithfield.
  • Saturday, May 24th through Monday, May 26th (Memorial Day weekend): More vending! This time we’ll be at LEAP’s AKC agility trial in Tolland, CT. If you’re braving the bubble, be sure to stop by for some goodies.


Product Review: Leanlix Lickable Dog Treats

Finch on the Table (Photo by Katie Rogers/Smiling Wolf Photography)I had a training conundrum. 

At Nationals, I purchased a Dogpacer treadmill. I started training all three of my boys to walk on it, no problem. But when it came time to get them trotting, I learned something new: Spark and Strata can’t walk and chew at the same time.

Every time I gave them a treat for trotting on the treadmill, they would stop. And drift away. And then panic and scramble to not fall off the treadmill. Not good!

Finch, the talented little pip-squeak that he is, can trot and eat at the same time, but only because he doesn’t chew his treats much. So although he didn’t slow down on the treadmill, he could sometimes start coughing and hacking because he had a piece of kibble stuck somewhere in his throat.

Clearly, I needed a better technique!

Peanut butter worked, but was a total pain in the neck to clean off the treadmill belt. PetSafe Lickety Stiks weren’t high-value enough, and the ingredient list gave me the heebie-jeebies.

Then I remembered a different, bigger lickable dog treat one of my trainer friends used in a workshop I taught a few months ago. A quick Google search had me on my way to treadmill success!

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Agility Roundup: Good Stuff on the Internet!

It’s time for another Agility Roundup, the somewhat-regular series where I link to stuff you should check out if you’re a bored agility enthusiast! Here goes:

  • How to Use an Agility Table for Fun or Sport – Hey wait, I wrote this one! (So you better read it!) It’s an article I contributed to that takes you through training the table start-to-finish.
  • The Bad Dog Agility Power 60 has been updated through February, if you want to know which AKC dogs are running really really really fast.
  • NeverMind Dogs (video) – Just watch it. Or don’t. Whatever.
  • 2014 Americas Y El Caribe – This event was held in Lima, Peru last week. Huge congrats to my friend Rita and her awesome Cocker Spaniel, Lucy, on winning the small dog combined event!

And if you missed it, here’s what I have contributed to the blog-o-sphere lately…

Finch the English Springer Spaniel on Agility Table
Finally – Finch pictures! I do love this little brown dog. (Photo courtesy of Katie Rogers at Smiling Wolf Photography)

Did I miss something interesting this week? Tell me about it! I’m always looking for new blogs to read and videos to watch. Leave a comment and let me know what I should check out next.

Our Trip to AKC Agility Nationals 2014: Part Two

In part one of this series, I wrote about the trials leading up to Nationals and our trip to PA. Today I’ll recap the actual competition!


We started the day by driving to the nearest Starbucks so I could become sufficiently caffeinated. (This is a necessary dog show ritual.) It was empty in there, so they didn’t bother asking us for a name to write on the cup. It wasn’t until after we left that we realized the barista was a kindred spirit:

Get pumped! It's TUUKKA TIME!
Get pumped! It’s TUUKKA TIME!

For those who are not aware, Dan’s favorite thing in the entire world is hockey, specifically the Boston Bruins. I’m a big fan, too, (and I liked Tuukka Rask before he was cool, I’ll have you know) but not the way he is – he is obsessed with hockey. This is why all of Strata’s gear is black and gold, and I dress to match him accordingly.

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My Crew’s Favorite Dog Treats

Do you have trouble finding great training treats for your dog? In today’s post, I share which dog treats work best for my three dogs in training.

Strata’s Favorite Dog Treats

Strata Gets a Dog TreatStrata is by far the easiest dog to find treats for. He will eat almost anything with a smile on his face and song in his heart. He wasn’t always this way! As a young puppy, he was so picky and I was always offering him new things. Once he hit about 8 months old, his “sheltie stomach” kicked in and he started eating anything and everything, including fruits and veggies!

Strata has some food sensitivities, so anything with feathers (not just “conventional poultry” but also duck, ostrich, etc.) is out. Previously, we thought his sensitivities included beef, but recently we’ve reintroduced it without a problem. We generally stick to the protein sources of fish, lamb, and pork for his dog treats.

Strata’s favorite treats are…

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Our Trip to AKC Agility Nationals 2014: Part One

Strata at the 2014 AKC Agility Nationals!
We have arrived!

Wondering why the blog went quiet for a little while? I was a busy bee getting ready for the 2014 AKC National Agility Championship in Harrisburg, PA!

We started the journey to AKC Agility Nationals by trialing for a few weekends leading up to the big event. I know some handlers feel better if they focus on training, but I feel that my dogs and I do better the more we compete. So compete we did.

The weekend before the NAC, we showed at the LEAP AKC agility trial in Tolland, CT. This was our first opportunity this year to trial on a surface other than rubber mats, which was nice for a change. The facility in Tolland has field turf, which really lets the dogs dig in and run as fast as they can.

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Cat Food for Dog Training? Yes!

Today I’d like to let you all in on a little secret. My go-to high value training treat is…

cat food. 

Yes, really.

Why Cat Food Makes a Great Training Treat

The more I use cat food – specifically, wet cat food that comes in cans or pouches – for training, the more I love it.

First, it’s extremely portable. Small cans of cat food are just 3 ounces. The pouches usually weigh even less than that. It’s easy to throw a few cans into your training bag and you don’t have to worry about them getting crushed or spilling. (Is there anything worse than cleaning the “powder” from freeze-dried treats out of the nooks and crannies of your bait bag? If you get it wet at all it just melts… ugh.)

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Puppies in Dog Agility Classes

I am often asked if I offer a puppy agility class. Potential students want to know how young is too young. The myth of “puppies need to be six months old to begin training” persists. It’s not true for basic training, and it’s definitely not true for puppy agility.

Puppy Agility: Safety First!

Sheltie Puppies Playing Tug
How young is too young to start agility training? Well, it’s never too young to start playing!

Well-meaning veterinarians often advise their clients to wait until their dogs are “done growing” before starting agility classes. The thought is they might damage their growth plates due to excessive trauma or impact. It’s absolutely true that puppies should wait until their growth plates are closed before learning to jump, weave, or perform the teeter. But what these veterinarians are missing is that a good foundation agility class doesn’t focus on jumping, weaving, or contacts.

Bear in mind that I’m talking about foundation agility classes. I define that as a class which builds a “foundation” with the goal of enjoying the sport for years to come, and possibly even competing. My Pre-Agility class falls into this category.

I am not talking about “pet agility” classes designed to be a one-time, four- to six-week exposure to the sport. In many cases, these classes are taught by instructors unfamiliar with the sport of agility who may unknowingly push youngsters too soon. Continue reading