A theoretical model for training running contacts

I developed this theoretical model as an exercise in how I might approach training a running dog walk using back-chaining.  There are already proven methods for training fast and consistent running dog walks.  My intention in posting this is to generate ideas and share thoughts about training RCs with other agility enthusiasts and see where it leads.  I see it as an experiment in collaborative, creative thinking, and a way to use what we know about dog training and the behavioral sciences to see how good a plan we can come up with as a group.

Participants read the rough draft below and posted comments (plus I received some private emails) about what they would do differently and why, or posted their personal experiences with their dogs, or asked clarifying questions.   I have made changes based on the great feedback I received. This is still a rough draft so please excuse typos, potentially unclear descriptions, and inconsistency in formatting.

The following concept is based on back-chaining.  I would train this away from any “real” agility equipment to test the theory so no harm would be done to my dog’s contact performance.

STEP 1) Since this is based on back-chaining, training would start with the last behavior:  Dog knows how to GO ON, turn RIGHT or LEFT over jumps or cones…
*Foundation Skills:  an independent and fast GO ON, and RIGHT and LEFT directionals.
*Criteria: Handler should be able to send the dog, run with dog, run ahead of dog, peel away, hang back, do FCs, RCs, and… gasp… even blind crosses :).  Handler should be able to move to every imaginable position at a distance, up-close, and mid-range.  Performance should be  fast and consistent in at least 2 habitats.

STEP 2)  Use shaping to train the dog to step onto a small mat or board with all four feet and then jackpot when the dog steps off the mat/board with front feet into a 2o2o.
*Foundation Skills: dog has a ton of value for seeking out, walking over and standing in 2o2o on a small mat/board.
The reason using a short length mat or board is to encourage the dog to really think about the mat or board.  I’d try to come up with an unusual surface that the dog can really feel when they step on it.  Examples: a  yoga mat wrapped around a thin, foam “pillow,” or a mat on a board that wobbles slightly, or a yoga mat crinkled up and glued onto a board so it forms ridges, or any of these items glued to the top of a “hit it” board (with volume turned off to start).   If I used a foam “pillow” I would fade it over time by making the foam thinner and thinner until it was using just a plain yoga mat.  If using a wobbling board, I’d fade the wobble over time and end up with just a thin board or mat.
*Criteria: The dog is clicked and rewarded first for putting front feet on the board or mat, then for standing with all four feet on board, and finally jackpotted for stepping off the board into a 2o2o.  Dog is “reset” after each rep by releasing forward to a thrown toy, MM or food reward.

STEP 3) Adding motion: Dog runs to the mat/board and as soon as the dog hits the 2o2o, release forward to a toy, MM or bait bag.  I might mix crate games by putting a crate 5  front of the board, then gradually increasing the distance to 30′ or more (why not add speed and distance early on?).
*Foundation Skill:  Same as STEP 2.
*Criteria:  Click and reward 2o2o and then release forward to a manners minder or throw a toy or bait bag about 5 ‘ straight ahead of the board.  After a bunch of successful reps in a row, I’d sometimes send to the dog forward as soon as the dog hits the 2o2o position vs. rewarding the dog on the board every time.

STEP 3a)  Add a jump after the mat/board on the reward line so the dog takes the jump on its way to getting the reward.   NOTE: The reason adding a jump is so important is because it turns the mat/board into a directional “obstacle” so that you can send your dog ahead to the mat/board and it knows to continue focusing forward.  If there is nothing in front of the mat/board, the dog would be correct if you sent her to the mat/board and she did a 2o2o facing back at you.  Progress to using three jumps: one straight ahead, one ahead to the right, and one ahead to the left to practice GO ONs and directionals.  Cue the dog to GO ON, RIGHT or LEFT as the dog is approaches the mat/board.
*Criteria: Dog still hits the mat/board with all four feet, briefly pausing in 2o2o.

STEP 4) Get rid of the slight pause so the dog is striding over the mat/board and continues over a  jump to a toy or MM without pausing in 2o2o.
*Foundation Skills: a dog that will GO ON and go RIGHT and LEFT independently and has enough value built up for standing in 2o2o on the mat/board that the dog strides across the board with all four feet  touching the board but does not stop.
*Criteria: All four feet hit the board.  Due to the short length of the board, this will be a very compressed stride and should be easy to see.

STEP 5) Gradually add more extreme turns to  jumps including 90 and 180 degree turns. I’d repeat all the variations from step #1.

STEP 6)  Increase the distances between the starting point and the mat/board so the dog is running a full speed with long strides when approaching the board.  A “hit it” board would come in very handy here (especially with my small dogs since their short, fast legs are hard to see in real time.
*Criteria: Dog approaches the mat/board running at full speed and then compresses its stride so that all four feet come in contact with the board.  I’d continue to increase the distance until the approach is at least as long as the length of a dog walk.

STEP 7)  Add a 8-12′ long x 12″ wide plank about 5’ in front of the mat/board and gradually move the new plank closer to the original mat/board until they are touching and finally place the mat/board on top of the plank.  The reason I would not start with the mat on the end of the plank is because my dogs already run over a plank and I wouldn’t want to suddenly change the rules.  But I think by gradually reducing the space between the plank and the mat, they will not be confused when they are faded together.  I would paint the new plank a different color than the mat/board so I could easily see where the mat/board begins.  I might even add more planks until the dog is racing across the entire length of a DW on flat planks at top speed. Handler moves to every imaginable position listed in Step 1 mixing in GO ONs and turns.

STEP 8)  This step could be done before step 7 too on just a plank (no mat/board yet).  Train angled approaches to the plank by setting up every possible scenario for dog and handler, using a small object placed at the front edge of the plank to encourage the dog to approach the plank straight on (like Silvia Trkman does).  I would keep switching between using different small objects placed at the corner of the plank and I would also sometimes not use any object to mark the corner so the dog did not become dependent on the object being there to have a straight approach.

STEP 9)  Not sure this would be necessary, but I might also run the dog over a plank on a gradually increasing angle (like Silvia Trkman does), with the mat/board at the end.

STEP 10)  Transfer the behavior to a real DW by placing the mat/board at the end of a DW.  I’d start every session (early on) doing a few reps with the dog starting close to the mat (on the down ramp) like Step #2 to reinforce the behavior.  I might start with a lowered DW (if I had access to one) but I’d quickly increase to full height since a DW is not very steep and doesn’t affect a dog’s striding like the extreme angle of an A-Frame does.

STEP 10a)  Fade the mat/board.  If the dog is running fast across the dog walk and hitting the mat consistently,  I’d quickly start alternating between using the mat and not using the mat so that the dog’s performance on the DW did not become overly dependent on the mat.

ENDING NOTE:  I don’t think this theoretical RC training method would create as fast a running DW as Silvia Trkman’s method, since it creates a very compressed stride at the end, but perhaps training slight collection to maintain the criteria of 4 feet running through the contact zone (vs. 2) would result in a more reliable performance.

Please post ideas as comments on this blog vs. posting on a closed Facebook Group page so that everyone can read your thoughts, insights, comments.  Thanks!

29 thoughts on “A theoretical model for training running contacts

  1. So step 2 and 3 is basically using a small plank, like a foot target? What if the dog doesn’t notice the foot target? Runs by it, looking back or seeking out more visual obstacles (my experience)?

    • If that happened, I’d go back to rewarding the dog for just standing on the board (stationary position) while I moved around. I used a platform in this way for training precise positions for freestyle and it didn’t take long at all for my dogs to rush from their crates to stand squarely on the platform and then wait for their reward.

      • The secret here is the platform – how high are you thinking? What if going to a lower mat, dog doesn’t notice it anymore?
        I do however use platforms for my dog’s conditioning and found it super effective for positions training too. Like you say, my dogs rush on them whenever I put them on ther ground.

      • The platform I happened to have was 1.5″ tall…but before I built that one, I started with a .50″ and that worked well enough for what I was using it for (precise positions). I added height to make it easier for me to see if that far back leg was on the platform without really needing to lean over my dog to see it when at my side.

        In the case of RC platform I would start on the minimum height needed for my dog to understand “4 feet on” then I would reduce it to the height of the plank I intended to use before adding motion.

  2. Dev, I think this would be really good, especially helpful when training my new pup. Ponto is good at her contacts 2o2o with a go so they look almost like running contacts, I retrained her the Toni Dawkins (DVD Ultimate Contacts with Toni Dawkins and Stuart Harmes) method when my own previous coach’s target methods didn’t work, however I think I prefer your description. Was going to do ST’s puppy foundation and contacts course hopefully in the end anyway.

  3. Other questions going through my mind:
    1. Is Swagger doing it with left lead leg? Was he doing front feet targeting only?
    2. Is it possible he is doing 2 left leg pounces on either AF or DW down planks? So is is maybe not just one foot target method but TWO foot targets method?
    3. In step 3, do you still expect the dog to wait for a release? Do you feed in position before the release?

    Also, motion behaviors have to have a chain. Units of behavior if you will (like weaves are made of entry and continuation of the same rhytm). I want second unit of behavior within step 3 already. Second unit being the next obstacle, jump (with a directional) let’s say. I think this is the weak point of behaviors of motion (RCs) – if the reward happens right after the contact. Dog should think: I want to go on to the next obstacle (where the reward happens), but I need to do smht first. If he doesn’t hit the foot target, the behavior is halted. There is no directional for the next obstacle. Directional in itself becomes the reward. Trying to think within framework of 2x2s. But don’t know exactly HOW – the devils is in the details:)))

    I would want the dog to have crazy desire and understanding to hit the mat. In this case, steps 6-10 would be irrelevant. Or they would be just to test the value, but not as part of the behavior.

    • Step 4 progresses to not rewarding at the platform anymore but if the dog had a lot of failures, I’d go back to step 2, then step 3.

      I did a similar thing when training a 2o2o with Lil and she “gets” stopping until released earns her a reward away from the obstacle or earns her the opportunity to do more obstacles.

      So Yes, your description fits perfectly to release forward or give a directional as a reward which I had listed as step 4.

      • I would maybe want to do stopped foot target (release to contunue needed) WITH a jump already (so in step 3, right?). Just for a short while. The jump ahead is like 2nd set of weave poles. Reward after it. Then start giving immediate releases off the target plank. And as you say, add the go on or other directional.

        I agree with step 5, also am thinking about one thing: WHEN do we say the directional in this stage? As the dog is approaching the target area? In which case the directional serves as a distraction (like initially the 2nd set of weave poles makes it confusing for the dog where to enter and he might skip the first pair – or the target in our case). I would however ask for more turns, or equal amount of straight exits. I find it that when I set up really hard challenges, my dog somehow learns with double speed. He really gets it then.

      • Katrina, hmmmmmmm re: Step 5: adding turns, I’d likely start with a little back chaining.. just a step, then two steps before the turns to refresh the dogs memory of going to the end of board + turning. If I was able to successfully send the dog forward a few steps to the turn, I’d start adding speed and distance before the platform. In the end, I think I would want to be able to tell my dog that a turn was coming before the dog hit the down ramp, which would likely cause the dog to add an extra stride but this way, there wouldn’t be a big surprise of RIGHT or LEFT at the end.

        I guess I might vary the % of RIGHT, LEFT and GO ONs based on what my dogs were doing.. and if there was a higher failure rate with one over the other…. I like the idea of doing more GO ONs (in my head at least) with my particular dogs to encourage forward focus (vs. looking at me.. which they both tend to do a little too much of.. based on past training!!!)

  4. Okay, I’ll add a comment……which will show how weak my skill is in this area. Also, I may have missed some points you made (I will need to read your draft a few times more), but I’ll jump in now to just add to the brainstorming (hope something will be pertinent). I would add these thoughts/questions:

    Should there be a step somewhere in the training where the dog is taught to squarely mount onto the FRONT of the plank or platform (i.e., no cutting/creating angles to get on). So the dog can correctly come onto the obstacle without the need for the handler to shape-in a good angle during the run. I think that this would require front training of something llike left/right turns to the plank and at some point obstacles added in before the plank and practice/training coming from angled jump, etc.

    Also, would a pre-requisite foundation be needed, for the dog running at full speed across the ground plank (trained at some point in the training chain)? My dog is a trotter and I need to amp up her speed across the plank/DW. I need to do some training with a ground plank (but, hopefully, not as repetivie as ST’s running contacts method?).

    My comments may not be relevant if you are solely focuing on the back-chaining of a RA at this point. Again, I may have missed your or the others comments and this post may be a duplication.

    Some heavy thinking going on her, people! I’m tagging behind. 🙂

    • I don’t see any weakness in you training theory based on your comments. You bring up valid points!

      Step 8 is about training angled approaches, but now that you mention it, you could teach that earlier. I just put that near the end re: back chaining and so it happened after the dog was already able to be successful with earlier steps first.

      I agree with you that running fast on a plank would be an important skill to build! And good to do before step 8 so the dog is driving straight towards the planks (vs. having to turn before the plank). My tendency is to add angled approaches late in the process.. after the other behaviors are solid… re: back chaining again.

      RE: number of reps, if all the dog is doing is running across a board (like ST’s method) whats the harm in doing a ton of reps? No strain on the dog and it is something you could set up anywhere?

      • Yes, see no harm in it. Easy to set up anywhere. Agreed!

        Like your thoughts as to back-chaining the end behavior and also when to add in additional behaviors, so that have built a history of success.

        My dog just happens to blow her energy quickly. In less than 4-7 minutes, she’s pooped out (been that way since 4 mo). The 5 Minute Formula has been great for her. The videos I’ve watched on ST’s web…..I’ve pondered how well it would work for us (but, thinking about it, I’ve probably gotten the wrong impression…..probably the videos are edited…..collages of numerous sessions). I’m going to be stepping up her exercise routine (mine, too!) to get better conditioning with the thought in mind that it will build her stamina. Tho, she does have medical condition that states a symptom of “exercise intolerance”. Thus, I’ve been hesitant to cross-train her, etc. Tho, also, my POA could be numerous/shorter plank running sessions throughout the day. [my ACD is kinda a “Pigs Fly Dog”.

        Dev — thanks so much for the comments…..will ponder more. This article of yours is going to be a re-read, often, for quite a while! Thanks for writing it and your contributions!

      • Since I’ve started taking my dogs for long off-leash hikes most days, where they run forward and back and dash over logs etc. (vs. on-leash trotting walks), their stamina has really increased.

  5. P.S. I’m not going to bother with correcting my mispellings/typos/grammer, above; I think the mistakes shouldn’t be too bothersome.

  6. First up, I will say that my past experience is with my mini poodle. She simply ran over her contact equipment and hit the contacts just because of her running style, not because of my great training technique. It was all just luck.

    I gave this some thought last night. For Blue, I started running contact training with a hoop. With the hoop in place I had fabulous, very fast, running contacts. We had all angles of approach, and independant of where I was in relation to the obstacle, plus sending from a distance. I didn’t put much thought into it, just made it fun. With the exits, they were mostly straight ahead, but we did have left and right turns mastered. Then I took the hoops off. He started missing the down contact because he changed the way he ran.

    So, I would start with a board the length of the contact area. I might have one the width of the dog walk and one the width of the aframe with non slip surface.

    I don’t think I would be starting off stationary all four feet on the board. I want to be reinforcing a running style for Blue. He is very long strided and because of this, I think I need to teach him how to run across the obstacle. If he runs correctly, he will hit the contacts.

    Therefore, first time, I might just put the plank down, restrain him, release and run as fast as I can past the board with him. If he runs with the correct style, he should hit the board with at least one of his feet!!! If he hits the board, then I will heavily reinforce and progress from there. If he misses the board, I am going to have to seriously think of ways to cause him to have the correct running style.

    So basically, I will try it once, just to see what I get and then evaluate how I will proceed. Once I get the running style that I want, then I will just do lots of repetitions, with distractions and all different angles. Will also use ST ideas to cause the dog to run straight onto the board and not come in from the side.

    At this stage I have not thought how I will progress from short board, but my thinking is that if he has the correct running style, he will hit each end of the plank, so I might be able to go straight from the short board to the full length equipment all laid flat on the ground and slowly just raise it.

    • Patricia, It sounds like you have a good plan… that resembles ST’s method. RE: Your poodle naturally having great contacts, I hate you (just kidding!). A friend of mine runs a bunch of mini-poodles and they all seem to have natural running contacts too.

      Recently a fellow agility enthusiast made me aware of an article written by Linda Mecklenburg in 2002 about how a dog’s natural striding affects the success rate of running contacts (regardless of the method used to teach them). I will post a link to that article (if I can find it) on my blog.

      • Dev, I have seen the article you are referring to. That was what made me decide I probably should go with 2o2o with Blue. However, since then, with all the discussion on running contacts, I keep remembering that with the correct running style, he easily got the contacts. So if I can figure out a way to get the running style across boards that I want, then I could probably transfer that to equipment. I believe it is worth a try and I know he loves running, and I’m a bit concerned that four stops on a course could just be what it takes to shut him down. I haven’t seen ST method, but I will investigate that. I need Blue to run with head and shoulders low. I know it can be done, but whether I am tallented enough to pull it off, that is the question.

  7. I.E. – plank running pracitice……maybe 3 runs across plank & done. Plenty of joy peppered in. Then a session later and one other session.

  8. When i was trying to retrain my corgi to a RDW I used ST’s method as I had with my toller. However while I think the method would have worked for him, he would often have a session where he would get stressed and slow down. Too much overthinking! So I moved to doing ST’s combined with a target based method. I got one of those rubber matting you put under carpet and cut one up the size of the yellow. I first did what was kind’ve your step 2, but less 4ft on than just a shaping exercise in interacting with it. Then I put it on the ground and clicked for him touching it with at least 2 feet as he ran past to his manners minder (food dog, no toys). I didn’t want a release cue because I didn’t want him collecting to stop. Then I put it on the plank. He always ran to his manners minder to get the main reward and then I would give him extra treats back on his little mat for jackpotting. I think having the target to focus on helped my over thinker to focus on something and since it was so thin it was super easy to fade. We ended up giving up our RDW quest because each time we got close to full height he would start to get out his calculator and over analyze the process. I’d lower the height and rebuild, repeat. No we have a managed contact, no criteria for him at all. I am thinking about playing around with running again this summer since I can’t ruin anything now!

    It’s going to be super interesting to see how future RDWs are formed!

    • Thanks for your comment Laura. It sounds like you have taken a thoughtful approach and have honored you dog!

      Are you aware of Dawn Weaver’s RDW training method? I think it is similar to what worked for you re: using a mat..but with additional training re: after dog leaves the mat/contact. I have not studied her method…yet, but I’ve heard it is all about foot targeting on a mat. It sounds great and like something I could train. You can see a few different breeds doing RDWs on her web site and it looks very clear re: criteria.

      I am currently in ST’s on-line Agility Foundations class and so I will have an opportunity for Silvia to give me feedback on Lil running across a plank. And now that I think about it, I’m sure she’d give me feedback on Lil’s running A-Frame too. I should video tape at 5′ and 5’6″ and see what she thinks. Thanks for inspiring that thought!

      Also have you read Linda Mecklenburg’s 2002 article on natural stride lengths and running contacts. I posted a link to in on the right side bar of the blog.

      ps–I trained a running A-Frame with Lil, using ST’s method and it worked great up to 5′ (AKC height) but when I raised it to 5′ 6″ (USDAA height), gravity and momentum came into play big time and Lil starting leaving the A-frame from just below the yellow line. And twice, judges ran fast and close to the A-Frame, which created enough pressure/stress to cause Lil to launch from above the yellow.

      For the past 6 months or so, I’ve been asking Lil to hop onto the bottom of an A-Frame and instantly release forward and that seemed to help her shorten her strides a bit so she takes 3 strides lower into the yellow. She vocalizes a bit when doing it, which makes me think she is grumbling about how hard that is to do on a 5’6″ A-Frame, so I’m not sure that is a good long term solution.

      A-Frames are definitely my least favorite obstacle for my particular dogs, who I think naturally would take 2.5 strides down it, which of course turns into 2 + a launch, or 3 compressed strides while fighting against gravity and momentum on 5’6″ height.

      • I have not heard of Dawn Weaver so I will definitely look her up!!! I did ST’s method with my toller and it worked fabulous with the DW and the aframe really was for free. Some initial scarey moments with the lower aframe as he first did some superman style 1 hits but now he has no problem with NADAC’s 5ft aframe to a USDAA aframe. Silvia was VERY helpful when I posted a question and/or video on her website asking for help. this was before she started online classes, but she still gives so freely!

        I’ve also read Mecklenburg’s old article and agree that a lot of dogs would naturally have a beautiful running aframe without much, if any training. Especially if we don’t mess with it by training a stop first! But of course there are so many dogs out there that have great RCs with training on how to quickly adjust their stride before they get to that down plank on the dogwalk or where to land as they clear the apex on the aframe. I think the interesting thing that will be the key to running contacts with all dogs is going to be how to teach that little adjustment. Even Silvia’s method doesn’t specifically address except to jackpot the lower hits and still reward any hind leg separation regardless. It’s not until much later in the method that you only reward the lower hits and the dog figures it out on their own because they’re smart 🙂

        I played with Rachel Sander’s box method on the aframe but I can’t get my corgi to power over the apex and that is key in her method. He will also “stutter” coming down the aframe instead of making clean strides despite that he is capable of doing the jump grids with the box. I’d be curious to see if other dogs who stutter over jumps can do her method on the aframe or if it’s a different issue that’s hurting my corgi’s understanding.

  9. There is an updated version of the Theoretical RC Training Model based on all the great comments and feedback received. It replaced the original draft on my blog.

  10. Dev, wondering why the board has to be something so different to what they will eventually run over. The idea of the dog being released quickly from 2o2o seems to have merit. I have been thinking this way also since my last reply. Seems to me, that if the dog has enough joy for 2o2o, then they would run down the Aframe and dog walk with an attitude of wanting to get to that spot, rather than jump over it. It might be a way to get them to run down with their weight shifted back. Then again, it might cause them to try to slide down into position also. I did read ST web site with her description of how she trains it. Coming up with the equipment is a challenge. I still have not decided what I will do, so am very busy doing nothing at present.

    • Patricia, My thinking re: creating an unusual surface is so the dog really FEELS what is under its feet so it understands what behavior is being marked and rewarded. If I were to follow this model, I would fade the stopped 2o2o asap, so that we quickly moved beyond pausing in 2o2o continuous striding over the board with very compressed strides so all four feet hit the board.

      The reason I don’t like the idea of a quick release is because I think my dog would slow down as much if I trained a quick release as with a stopped 2o2o so she might as well stop to keep the criteria very clear. But if the behavior transitions to continuous striding early on in training, I think the dog’s speed would increase over time since it knows it doesn’t need to stop or pause.

  11. Looking at going back to basics with Rocky on Running AF…how has this method worked. I need to look up my notes from when I posted the Rachel Sanders stuff on our recaller group. The RS didn’t work when AF was raised to 5 ft 6 in. I am thinking of buying a Manners Minder for this. I had ordered a hit it board and haven’t used it yet. Rocky has perfect stopped contacts in practice but it is not transferring to competition. He doesn’t like to stop…I now have a great table and pretty good running DW but the AF – he is leaping off …HELP!

    • For some small dogs, I think the increased forces of gravity and momentum between a 5′ and 5’6″ A-Frame have a huge impact and that there is a tipping point for some dogs (based on structure and drive). If you gradually increase the height of the A-Frame between what looks good and what doesn’t look good, you may be able to see the subtle (or not-so-subtle) changes that entice Rocky to leap vs. run deeper by watching slo-mo video. I ended up using Dawn Weaver’s running contacts method and got great results on the A-Frame and DW. The reason I did not use RS’s method is because my dogs tend to respond to PVC bars (even if flat) like they are something to jump and I wanted my dogs to learn to keep their centers of gravity as low as possible on the A-Frame. I also did not think a 2 stride descent would be safe for my particular dog. I am 100% satisfied with Lil’s current A-Frame performance.. 3 strides up/ 3 strides down with a low and moderate length float. You can see her looking down and low center of gravity. I think it looks as safe as an A-Frame can look and it is very consistent regardless of what comes next (GO ON or turns).

      example of Lil’s running AF

      I actually like RS’s method for many dogs, just not my particular dogs. I don’t think 2 strides would be good for their bodies in the long run. One additional thing that really helped with my dog’s consistency was to ONLY train and compete over one height… 5′. I know some dogs have no issue going back and forth 5′ to 5’6″ but for dogs that have a “tipping point” re: gravity and momentum, like mine appears to have, it takes A LOT of reps to maintain both heights, which is not something I am willing to do.. for her long-term well being.

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