My running contacts
Well, this is certainly most frequently asked question that I get: how do I get those famous fast running contacts?
In a way, it's very easy, but it does take lots of time and repetition, so it's not a method that I would advice to everyone. As every method, it has its advantages and disadvantages: the most obvious advantage is that it's the fastest way to do the contacts and the disadvantage is that it takes longer to get there as with more widely used methods such as 2on2off. I use 2on2off for most of my students too since not many are ready to work as much as needed to get a running contact.
I chose to try to get La to run her contacts after not being satisfied with Lo’s contact performance. So, I was thinking: if I can teach a dog to find a weave-pole entry, to sit or to lie down… Why couldn’t I teach her to run? I couldn’t find any objection why not to, I just needed to think of a way to make a dog succeed and then do enough of successful repetitions… And how to make a dog succeed? Well, the obvious reason why dogs jump contacts is that it’s the fastest and easiest way to do it because of an angle of a plank. Just as dogs don’t jump on a ground or on a horizontal dog-walk plank, they would have no reason to jump if you put a plank on a floor…
So that’s exactly what I did.
I put a plank on a floor, left bowl with food or a toy about 5 meters away from the end of the plank, restrained puppy La before a plank and then let her run over the plank to her bowl/a toy. At this stage, a dog has no reason to jump and you should be getting 100% of running, clicking the running at the end of the plank and letting a dog get a reward about 5 meters away from a plank, so that he doesn’t need to slow down on a plank in order to get a reward and is still running full speed. Your goal at this stage should be to get a dog run full speed over the plank, focusing ahead without checking where you are.
You shouldn’t encounter any problems at this stage, with a possible exception of dogs that are being retrained: those dogs might choose to jump because of being confused about what is expected from them. With those dogs, start with just running to a bowl/toy on a floor and then maybe start using a carpet to run over first, before adding a thin plank under it. With any dog, you should use very thin and wide plank in the beginning to make running over it as much as running on the floor as possible: too thick plank will create too much of a height difference with floor and too narrow plank will be too difficult to stay on it when running full speed. So: use a very thin&wide plank to start with! For a dog, running on plank at this stage should be the same as running on the ground. You can change to normal plank once you add more angle.
After about 5 sessions (maybe more for dogs, being retrained) of just running over the plank on the floor, set your plank on a very low object (maybe a book or a brick?) that will create a little bit of an angle. At this stage, run a dog over the plank in only one direction (from up down), ideally coming to the plank with good speed already (maybe send a dog around an object first or restrain him far enough from a plank), jumping on it and then running all the way down. Click the running at the end of a plank and still let the dog get the reward about 5 meters after a plank.
- If a dog doesn't run full speed to a stationary object, try racing him to the toy or, you can even start off with throwing a toy for a dog to chase in advance and then restrain a dog more and more before letting him go after a toy, meaning that eventually, he is running to a stationary object. You can then still either run with him, stay back or recall or ideally. all of it.
- Wherever you choose to stay, make sure your dog is focusing ahead: if he is looking back at you, he is not running full speed.
When you get 99% of running for three or four sessions at one angle, make an angle of a plank bigger and bigger by making your object higher and higher (adding more books/bricks): by 5, max. 10 cm at the time. Each time you do it, your % of jumping might grow: if it grows over 30%, immediately make it easier by making it lower. If a dog jumps, ignore it or say indifferent “ups” and try again. If he jumps three times in a row, lower a plank for a next try. You don’t want too big % of jumping at any point. After your % of jumping drops back to 1% and stays there for some sessions, progress to next height and continue like that until you get to the same angle as a dog walk has.
After your plank gets too high for a dog to jump on it comfortably, you'll need an object underneath that is big enough that your dog can turn there easily to come back running down the plank. It’s important a dog can easily turn, so that he already starts off with good speed and can achieve full speed by the end of plank. Alternatively, you can use something narrow, but long enough to restrain the dog at the end and let him get to good speed before reaching the plank (with Bi, I used a bench with carpet over it to prevent slipping and was then putting something under the bench to make it higher). You can of course also use lowered dog-walk instead of a plank. I prefer to use a plank because it takes less room and it means less running for a dog, so you can do more repetitions.
Don’t repeat jumping. If a dog jumps three times in a row, don’t hesitate to go down again. Unsuccessful try now and then is good as it allows a dog to see a difference, but your success rate shouldn't be lower as 70%.
When you get 99% of running on a plank that has the same angle as a normal dog-walk, progress to normal dog-walk. To make it look more like your plank, put your dog on a top of down plank, restrain it and then run with him towards a bowl or food, set 5 meters after the end of dog-walk (and make sure a dog knows it’s there). Then set a dog further and further back on a dog-walk. Within one or two sessions, most dogs can run the whole dog-walk. Don't forget to vary your position (ahead-behind, close-far, left-right…).
For most dogs, this step is an easy one. You can expect more problems if
1. you’re retraining
If you’re retraining, you should stop doing normal dog-walk the old way at least a month or two before you take a running contact from a plank to normal dog-walk. Try to make it look as much as a plank as possible, maybe use an actual dog-walk plank for last few steps of your plank work, so that a dog doesn’t go back to the old way of doing a dog-walk.
2. your dog is shy and timid kind of a dog and might be afraid of a dog-walk
You normally don’t encounter this problem since a dog did so much plank work that he is totally used to high, narrow things by now. Still, it might be a problem with some dogs, so your % of jumping might grow significantly because a dog will not be running full speed as he is afraid to do so. Ignore the jumping, keep going and jackpot when a dog starts to actually run - at this point, the problems go away on their own. However, you might be encountering problems with new, different dog-walks. As always with this type of dogs: patience is a key to success.
3. your dog is so crazy about agility that can’t think when on agility field
Take a dog-walk off agility field and practice there until he doesn't need to think anymore.
When you have 99% of running with a bowl/toy 5 meters after it, with no regard to your position, try to use a different way to focus a dog ahead. For Bu, it was a tunnel: first in the place of a bowl, then after one jump, then after two, three, four… - not necessary in a straight line anymore. With La, I kept using a bowl, but further and further away (after one jump, two, three, four… not necessary in a straight line anymore). If you have room, you can of course do this already when still running on a low plank: I started this step with Bi very early in the process and had no problems transferring from stationary reward to throwing a toy only after she has got the contact.
As with any other place on a course, a dog should be always focusing ahead: until being told otherwise. With the speed your dog will be coming off the dog-walk, it’s especially important that he does pay attention when being told to change focus, otherwise you might have problems with turning him after dog-walk. If you have this problem, solve it first on other obstacles – when you do so, turning a dog after a dog-walk won’t be any more difficult as it is after a straight tunnel. If you want to train for even tighter turns - read on:).
Steps above are written to give you an idea of the process. You should adjust the training to the dog you're training, though, and use whatever works best for you. To give you an example of my three dogs, trained that way: to get full speed running, I was using a food in a bowl for La, a tunnel for Bu and a toy for Bi. With La, I did most of the training sitting 5 meters after the plank, sending her up and clicking when she was running down. With Bu and Bi, it was easier for me to see what their legs are doing from behind, so I was mostly staying behind. And yes, with every new dog, it was difficult for me at the beginning to see the movement fast enough to mark it correctly, but I promise: it does get easier with time. It also helps if you can tape some of the sessions and see them in slow motion, it helped me enormously. Don't worry if you sometimes click what you didn't want to, it does happen to everybody, it's not the end of the world.
The major thing that I changed in the article above today, two years after writing it's original version is the length of time recommended to stay at each level. I used to go up real slowly, but then noticed that people that are somewhat in a hurry and jumping steps are still getting the same results, so I'm not sure anymore that this method really takes more time to master as a good 2on2off... With dogs that understand a click really well and were clicked before for using their front&rear legs for several different tricks, the progression is actually very fast, I'm pretty sure you can get to the final height in two weeks or so. That doesn't mean you should progress that fast, it means that you should listen to your dog and do that many repetitions as s/he needs to understand what you're clicking and to be able to adjust her/his striding accordingly.