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!)

To resolve that problem, I did exercises with Strata to improve his balance and core strength. These included exercising on a FitPaws egg, teaching him to “beg,” and pivots on an elevated plank.

Should I Stay or Should I Go Now?

My second contact training mistake was error #5 in my post: hesitation caused by early release. I did not know the difference between an “early release” and a “quick release” and after a few trials, this really wreaked havoc on Strata’s understanding of correct position.

I resolved this problem by waiting him out and only releasing him when his front feet were on the ground. This is totally a “handler problem,” not a “dog problem.” The better I get about this, the better he is. Every once in a great while, the hesitation creeps back in to his contact performance, and that tells me I’m not being as consistent as I think I am!

Permission to Launch

As Strata’s confidence on the dogwalk improved, our new problem was launching off the contact. This is error #2 from my last post: releasing on motion. I didn’t realize that, in practice, I was usually decelerating to “help” Strata stop. In trials, the adrenaline had me keep running, and off the contact he would come!

This was the most frustrating problem because I thought I was proofing these scenarios in training. I was also being very consistent about carrying him off the course if he launched off the contact, because I knew that agility is a behavior chain.

Then I started video taping my practice sessions. ;)

I realized that I was being pretty good about running forward as Strata got into his two-on two-off position at the end of the board. He would stop. Then I would start doing all the tricky stuff – bouncing a ball, dropping food, flapping the tug toy around, etc.

I touched on this briefly in the “errors” post, but I’m going to explain this more because I think it is such a key part of any stopped or stay behavior. It applies to start-lines, tables, and obedience stays, too.

Ask the Hard Questions

There are two separate questions you need to “ask” your dog in training:

  1. Can you stay in position (sit/down/2o-2o/stand) while I: run away, bounce a ball, drop food, play with another dog, do a backflip, etc.?
  2. Can you get into position while I: run away, bounce a ball, etc.?

I was only asking question #1. That’s not the important question in agility. #2 is.

Strata could not sufficiently ignore the distraction of me sprinting away to another piece of equipment and still stop in two-on two-off position. But, if he had already stopped, he could easily stay in position while I did that and more.

To fix this, I started working on all of Strata’s “control” behaviors – sit, down, and two-on two-off – while doing silly things. I would toss a ball in the air repeatedly while asking him to switch between “sit” and “down.” Or, I would kick over a container of dog treats while he descended the down plank of the dogwalk. If he landed in two-on two-off, he got released to the treats; if he tried to leapt over the contact, I snatched them up.

Practicing this with “sit” and “down” allowed me to practice any time, even when we were away from equipment. I now incorporate this into my warm-up routine for Standard at agility trials, too.

 In Conclusion…

I was able to fix my contact training mistakes with Strata by video taping my runs and training sessions. Having these videos to watch over and over allowed me to figure out where Strata was ending up on the contact (in position, slightly above position, launching) and, just as importantly, what I was doing when that happened.

I could then take what I knew about clicker training and behavior chains to come up with a training plan to address the “holes” I found in Strata’s contact behavior and bring it closer to my ideal standard of performance.

Remember that dog training is about the journey, not the destination. The training process is what makes this sport so challenging and fun!