After spending the weekend at a NADAC trial and watching dogs navigate over 21′ spaced jumps, I have shifted my attitude about what constitutes a “jumping issue.”
Many people think widely spaced jumps are difficult for their dogs to cope with and I tend to agree unless dogs have been trained on widely space jumps from the beginning and thus have experience approaching jumps while running fast and with extended strides vs. running courses with tighter spacing and running in semi-collection most of the time. The funny thing is for small dogs, NADAC spacing (21′) translates into 5 strides between jumps vs. 2-3 strides for big dogs so if wide spacing is indeed challenging for all dogs, small dogs are being doubly challenged in NADAC. As a result, you’d think a lot of small dogs would struggle with jumping in NADAC, but that was not the case this weekend.
Here is what I saw: EVERY SINGLE dog appeared to have a coping mechanism for meeting the challenges of agility-style jumping. Some dogs, with naturally short to medium length strides, tended to take a slightly shorter stride before some jumps and other dogs would tend add a small step now and then. Either way, these dogs tended to run and jump in semi-collection. In contrast, dogs with naturally long running strides, tended to leave out a stride and jump a bit earlier at times while other dogs jumped dramatically early.. but only did so occasionally.
The fastest dogs, who tended to leave out a stride now and then, were able to jump with ease due to longer, flatter jumping arcs. I assume the average bystander would not even notice the occasional early take-offs unless they were really watching carefully since these dogs tended to land longer when they took-off earlier. In contrast, the dogs who tended to add a stride ran a little slower but a majority of them were nice running dogs with decent speed, just not over-the-top, high drive dogs. I think these dogs looked like what most people would call “pretty jumpers” due to their semi-collected jumping arcs.
My dog Lil alternates between running in semi-collection and running in full extension depending on the course and also depending on how amped-up she is. When she runs in semi-collection (under 5 YPS) her jumping looks “pretty” and she adds an occasional stride here or there. But when she is running fast (over 5 YPS) she takes much longer strides, and she occasionally leaves out a stride and takes-off early for jumps (but rarely knocks a bar). I think many dogs are like Lil in that their running style varies and thus their coping mechanisms vary as well. Yesterday’s post has a video of a few of Lil’s runs.
I find it strange that the following did not CLICK for me until now: ALL dogs appear to have a default coping mechanism to deal with the inevitable awkward spacing that happens now and then when running agility. I think the reason it took me so long to GET THIS is because I was unaware that I had developed a strong bias towards dogs who add steps before jumping and against dogs who leave out steps before jumping, even if they only do it occasionally. So how did this happen?
The simple reality is I had been “conditioned” to look for and notice “early take-off” dogs, and thus that was all I was paying attention to. Yet once I stepped back and saw my bias for what it was, I was able to start paying equal attention to the many dogs who add strides vs. just focusing on dogs who leave out strides.
I wonder how many other agility enthusiasts have the same bias? Here are a few questions that might help you answer that question for yourself:
1) Do you NOT publicly post videos of your dog’s runs on YouTube when the video shows your dog taking-off early or knocking a bar due to an early take-off?
2) Do you feel embarrassed when you see that the professional photographer has “captured” your dog with her butt flipped high in the air due to taking-off too early over a jump?
3) Do you watch videos of your dog’s runs in slo-mo and focus on the few jumps in which his jumping arc peaked before a bar or when she tucked in her rear legs to avoid hitting a bar? And then do you then make a mental note of the “problem” so you can set up that sequence and to “fix” it?
I’m not ashamed to admit that I have done all of those things. Well….maybe I am slightly ashamed. 😉
In my opinion, structure plus temperament (drive) determine which coping mechanism a dog falls back on when the spacing in front of a jump happens to be awkward. I also think that no matter how much you train (or drill your dog) you will not be able to change his default coping mechanism. It’s just going to pop up now and then since there is no escaping the occasional awkward spacing dogs encounter when running agility fast vs. casually loping along. So where does this leave agility dogs? I’d say in the realm of “perfectly imperfect jumpers.” 🙂
What about those dogs who never appear to struggle with jumping? My answer is early take-offs can be very hard to spot with super high-drive BCs and other high-drive dogs with structures that allow them to jump extremely long. Long landings can mask early take-offs because the jumping arc stays somewhat centered but it doesn’t mean that those dogs are not still taking-off early as a coping mechanism for awkward spacing. If you watch those dogs, they tend to over-shoot the line and land HARD when turning due to the massive forward momentum caused by taking off too early and landing too long.
One easy way to spot this coping mechanism is when a well-trained, high-drive dog flies right by his handler, crossing the plane of her body, even though she cued a turn/collection in a timely fashion. As a result of landing too long, the dog will need to do an S curve to get back on course. The reason dogs like these do not always respond to turning/ collection cues is not due to a lack of training but rather to their coping mechanism of landing long when taking off too early.
(above) This Border Collie took off early instead of taking a semi-collected stride before jumping. As a result of the early take-off, this naturally “long landing” dog flies past the handler even though she is clearly cuing collection and a turn.
The same coping mechanism is harder to spot over straight rows of jumps with dogs who “naturally” land extremely long when they take-off too early. But if you watch closely, you can see that landing too long can cause dogs to take-off too close to the next bar (if their forward momentum carried them too far forward) or cause them to take-off from even farther away from the next bar to deal with awkward spacing that was exacerbated by landing too long. The end result can be wasted time due to long float times, or wasted time if the long landing causes the dog to take off too close to the next jump, and thus forces inappropriate collection over that jump. And depending on where the course heads after the straight row of jumps, long landings can cause inefficient wide turns down the line or a knocked bar if the dog’s jumping arc peaks so far after the bar and she cannot flip-up and then hold her back legs high enough as her arc continues to rise after the bar vs. fall off. However, the upside of this particular coping mechanism is the dogs are not faulted for landing too long or turning too wide (for the most part). Plus I think they look very athletic when doing it which might be another reason most people do not think of these dogs as having a jumping issue… and neither do I.
My purpose in writing this post is to offer a different way of thinking about what constitutes a ‘jumping issue.” My hope is that people will begin to see how labeling some coping mechanisms as “jumping issues” while ignoring others is sucking the joy out of agility for so many people who have become self-conscious about their dog’s jumping (which our dogs pick up on/ sense) based on so much attention being placed on dogs who take-off early while ignoring other coping mechanisms, which can also cause knocked bars or slower course times.
In the USA I believe there is currently a strong bias against dogs who take-off early and land in the same spot they would land had they not taken off early, which causes their jumping arc to peak before jumps. And yet this very same agility culture glorifies dogs who take off early and land super long due to their structures. Both types of dogs are using the same coping mechanism for awkward spacing (taking off early) but the structure of the long landing dogs just makes them look different from the dogs who land closer to the bars.
My intention is writing this post it to help people recognize how structure and temperament play a role in how dogs cope with awkward spacing and while one breed’s coping mechanism may look “prettier” or more “athletic,” it is not necessarily superior to another breeds’ coping mechanisms when it comes to jumping.
Please feel free to share a link to this post with your friends if you like what you read. I’m hoping to present people with a new perspective re: what constitutes a jumping issue.