Some of the “thinking” behind HGR games.

Read the following text out loud.


Did you say “I love Paris in the Springtime”?  If you did, you are not alone.  That is what most people see when reading that text but look closer and you will see something surprising.  It’s a perfect example of how we see what we “think” is there vs. what is really there.

Dawn Weaver and I have been participating in a stimulating group discussion about ETS (Early Take-off Syndrome).  The topic of “vision” got me thinking about some of the “thinking” that went into the development of early HGR games.  🙂   It became too long to post as a comment, so I decided to post it here and just put a link to this page on the group discussion site.

For those of you who do not know me personally, my Australian Terrier Jake has always had an unorthodox style of jumping which at times looks like ETS but at other times his jumping looks OK. My other Australian Terrier Lil is a good jumper most of the time but occasionally launches when super aroused or running super fast with elongated strides.

Another thing some of you may not know is for the past 13 years, my artwork has illustrated processes related to the biology of vision such as: how the human eyes and brain process sensory data. Although there are differences between humans and canines in terms of what our eyes “see” and focus on, I believe we share the same basic biological processes in terms of how sensory data is received by the eyes and sent up to the brain for processing… and then sent back down to the eyes so we can interact with the physical world.  So when I think of potential “vision issues,” I don’t just think about possible defects of the eyes but rather about the entire visual system, which can be affected by stress, arousal, or fear.

Here is a link to a traveling exhibition that includes text that explains the ways in which my artwork illustrates experiences related to the biology of vision:

A year ago, Dawn Weaver and I co-developed “Hit the Ground Running.” HGR is a jump re-training program for dogs who have developed jumping issues.   While it makes sense to assume dogs with severe ETS symptoms likely have some sort of significant vision defect and that moderate defects in vision could play a role in dogs who have more moderate jumping issues, based on what Dawn and I have seen with dogs in HGR, there appear to be other contributing factors which do not appear to be related to vision defects:

* a dog’s structure not being ideal for a particular style of course–especially for courses that necessitate a lot of tight turns and jumping in collection

* standard jump heights may just be too high for some dogs, in particular for dogs who measure just over a cut off point

* dogs with motion sensitivity may find it difficult to focus their attention on static obstacles and can be easily distracted by handler motion

* dogs who become over-aroused or stressed at trials may experience temporary changes in their vision as a result of arousal level–like dilated or glazed over/ watery looking eyes

* physical injuries or strains caused by repetitive activities like jumping, weaving, or over-training in general.

I think it is great that Linda M. is committed to finding a physical / genetic cause for ETS and if one is found, it will be fantastic for people looking to adopt or purchase an “Agility Dog” so they can pre-screen for ETS.  But in the meantime I think it is worthwhile to continue to explore ways to help the dogs we already have (and love) enjoy the game of agility as much as possible.   Through my personal experience with my own dogs plus working with a variety of dogs with a variety of issues in HGR, there appears to be some things we can do to help dogs learn to jump with more confidence, ease, and in a style that best suits their structure and temperament.

Here is some of the “thinking” behind a few of the early HGR games:

One early game is designed to show us if dogs are SEEING what is in front of them or PROJECTING images of what they THINK is in front of them based on past experiences.

Above is good example of a dog who is likely PROJECTING what she thinks is there vs. SEEING what is really there.   This dog stutter stepped and jumped phantom bars a bunch of times in early sessions but eventually stopped doing it as old pictures were replaced by new pictures.  My dogs also jumped phantom bars a few times and then ran through wings with caution a handful of times when first presented with this new picture of wings without jump bars.  So while this might look like a serious “vision issue,” I don’t think it is necessarily the result of a defect in the eyes but rather a result of an expectation by the brain…. like Paris in the the springtime. 🙂

In HGR, once dogs look 100% comfortable running through wings and stanchions (many dogs do not have any issues with this to begin with) and also running over stabilized ground bars that are spaced according to each dog’s natural stride lengths, we begin to put all the pieces back together again by bringing wings or jump stanchions back into the picture.  If at any time, a dog begins to look stressed or hesitant, we go back to the last step of the game that the dog looked comfortable with and then try adding the challenge again in a later session or present the challenge in a slightly different way.

The fact that a dog’s demeanor changes from relaxed and confident to tense and worried when wings are added back to the picture provides valuable information and this is where patience comes into play.  There is no drilling in HGR.  Each dog progresses at his/her own pace and people are encouraged to keep sessions super short.  The reason we call them games is because we believe a playful, fun vibe works best for both dogs and humans.

A note about ground bars, although HGR incorporates ground bars with one of the early games, the bars are not used to get dogs to change their striding.  They are actually used for an entirely different purpose– to help dogs develop a new relationship with jump bars.  So instead of trying to get dogs to change what they are doing in response to ground bars, we adjust the ground bars to make the spacing as easy and natural as possible for dogs to navigate over them.  Some dogs do not have issues with ground bars, but other dogs appear stressed and tense and overreact to the ground bars at first.  But over time, these dogs  become more comfortable and once they look relaxed and confident, we gradually introduce the wings or stanchions.

I think it is hard for most people (myself included) to let go of expectations –hoping, wishing, or willing our dog to succeed.  I know it took me a long time to truly let go so that I could simply observe my dogs and let their actions show me what to do next.  I think this is particularly difficult for people (like myself) who are goal oriented and tenacious when it comes to solving problems.   But learning how to let go of expectations has freed me up in so many ways, from dog training to my work as an artist, and I highly recommend this shift in perspective to anyone who stresses out about what might or might not happen. 🙂

In HGR, another tool we use for both diagnostics and training is a yoga style mat used for foot targeting.  The mat is used in a variety of ways throughout the program, some of which are similar to the ways stride regulators have been used in the past.  But the mat differs from stride regulators in that there are no negative consequences (discomfort or pain) if a dog misjudges the distance of the mat and misses it.   This is a very different experience than what happens when a dog’s foot lands on a stride regulator, particularly if the dog is running with any speed.

An added benefit of using a mat is that it is creates a different picture and perhaps a new focal point when used in conjunction with jump bars and/or wings.  Also, throughout the HGR program (and beyond) the mat can be used to test or fine tune a dog’s ability to aim for and hit a precise location in space when running full-out.   I continue to play mat games with my dogs and they absolutely love them.  I set the mat at great distances and say GO GO GO and my dogs run full speed ahead, target the mat and keep running to a reward ahead.  I also do a recall version of this game which I think is even more challenging for dogs because they need to focus on the mat vs. look at the handler.  I think this type of foot targeting is great skill for dogs to develop since it necessitates that they learn to adjust their stride lengths on the fly while running super fast, which is a skill necessary for agility.

I think that is all I have to say about this topic… at least for today.  🙂

3 thoughts on “Some of the “thinking” behind HGR games.

  1. I love your art! I also love the thought and energy you & Dawn have put in to HGR…It has certainly helped me adjust my “expectations” about my dogs and look more carefully at what they are really doing. Plus it’s fun!

    • Thanks Cynthia! As you know, I think your ATs are fantastic! Great drive and work ethic. RE: adjusting expectations based on what our dogs are showing us is the BIGGEST LESSON I have learned about dog training so far. BTW- I don’t think dropping a dog’s jump height = “lowering expectations” but rather I see it as a way to respond to what a dog might be showing us about what is comfortable for him/her. After all, jump heights were made up by random people.. and are not based on science. Jake measures slightly over 11 inches so he is “supposed to” jump 12″ in AKC. Lil is 10.25 inches so she is “supposed to” jump 8″ in AKC. Looking at both dogs side-by-side, I think they look like they should be jumping the same height jumps, which is what I chose to do in AKC by entering Jake in Preferred where he could jump 8″.

  2. Pingback: ArtAndDogBlog

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