Shifting attitudes about jumping

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.”

jumps_object_overlap1Many 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?

lil_last_jump3) 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.

jumping_early_landing_long3_7_8_13(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.

13 thoughts on “Shifting attitudes about jumping

  1. I struggled with early take off for years before I received the advice to get my dog’s eyes checked. He has Progressive Retinal Atrophy and cannot see well enough to jump. He will eventually go blind, but for now we still do “agility” with the jump bars on the ground. Before you agonize over a jumping issue, go to an ophthalmologist and get a proper eye test. My regular vet kept telling me his eyes were fine and I spent a fortune on jumping books, dvds, and classes.

    • Sue, Its a good thing you had your dog’s eyes checked by an ophthalmologist. I had my “funny jumping” dog’s eyes tested by ophthalmologist as well and luckily for him, they were fine. So sorry that was not the case with your dog. Do you still compete with your dog in non-jumping classes?

  2. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. I have a dog who is struggling a lot with jumping. His eyes were tested very mildly near sighted -.5. I’m planning to use your program to help him. This sentence describes me and I think that my feelings are being sent to my dog who then makes more adjustments. “sucking the joy out of agility for so many people who have become self-conscious about their dog’s jumping 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.”

    • Laurie, I used to feel the same way so I know how bad it feels and also how feeling self conscious is picked up by our dogs. When I finally realized what was happening and released all my worries and concern about how centered my dog’s jumping arc was, a weight was lifted off of both of our shoulders and she is feeling the joy of jumping like never before and so am I. This is what motivated me to share my thoughts!

  3. Devorah, I love your post, all of what you said above. In your temperament category, along with drive, I would also add confidence. My BC, Epic, has high, but controlled, drive for agility, and she is one whose default for awkward spacing has, from the beginning, been to occasionally jump early, which worked well for her until she was temporarily blinded by a light and crashed a jump and came up screaming. She was hurt, but not injured, but this dog hates being hurt and her confidence was shot. That is when her jumping issues started. And for those who think every jumping issue must be due to vision problems because it can’t be cured by training, I would love to hear their foolproof method to train confidence in an Inconfident dog. I have a BC and two Papillons with confidence issues (the Papillons don’t have jumping issues) that I would love to send them, not to be improved, but to be cured. And with the attention given to this issue, I am astounded at the two groups of people who seem to stand out. First, I see people who say they believe that there are several different causes for jumping “problems” in different dogs, including vision issues. This is what I believe. And then there are those that seem to be positive that every single jumping issue that is not caused by injury or structural issues is caused by poor vision. How one could possibly make that assumption, I have no idea.

    • Thank you! Good point re: how quickly a dog can lose confidence about jumping from a single bad experience like you described, or also IMO by simply sensing their handler’s disappointment, worry, concern about jumping or the occasional knocked bar.

      I see in your signature that you are a DVM. I’ve heard ETS folks accuse Veterinarians of “dropping the ball” RE: finding a cure for ETS. My impression is that the veterinarians/ medical professionals never “caught the ETS ball” to begin with. There is a saying in medicine “When you hear hoof beats, don’t look for zebras.” Based on what I’ve learned about canine vision and structure so far, IMO there appear to be more than enough potential causes for jumping issues based on known facts and thus there is no need to look for zebras.

  4. I found this article very interesting. There is so much negative impact to “labeling” a dog, weather it be for ETS or some other attribute. I have been somewhat concerned that agility has evolved to the point where dogs are being asked to do very unnatural tasks, to the point of the development of “syndromes”. And the push on breeders and the vet. community to address these syndromes. ETS is not something that impacts a border collie’s ability to do its intended purpose, which is herding stock. There has been some chatter amongst some border collie agility enthusiasts to divert resource funds (intended for serious research, eg., canine cancer, epilepsy, etc.) to investigating ETS, which I think reflects flawed priorities.

    • Thank you! Its shocking to me that any dog lover would consider diverting resource funds intended for serious research, eg., canine cancer, epilepsy, etc. to investigating ETS. Whose “bright” idea was that? I hope that never happens.

      This morning I was thinking about the overwhelmingly positive response to my recent posts on jumping and canine vision…and all the positive feedback I’ve been getting which far outweighs the bashing I knew I’d receive from a small group of ETS devotees. It made me question how many agility enthusiasts truly “believe” in ETS. So far, I am only aware of that small group of people beating the ETS drum…. granted they are beating it loudly and relentlessly. I think the reason ETS may have made such a huge footprint on agility is because Clean Run has only printed one person’s opinion about ETS..and those opinions were by the person who invented ETS.

      IMO, ETS has become like a TV commercial that gets embedded in your brain.. not because you like or believe in the product but rather due to being bombarded with the same word/s over and over and over like “2 all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame bun.”

      Chris Ott wrote a fantastic article in 2011 that included many great quotes by Dr Chris Zink (DVM). I know CR makes a lot of money selling books and DVDS but I think they owe it to their readers to provide them with a broader perspective vs. just one person’s point of view, especially when respected Veterinarians like Chris Zink and others do not “believe” in the existence of ETS.

      One great thing about social media is that information can still be presented so that people can read different points of view and decide for themselves what they “believe.”

  5. Good points, Dev and Robann. I personally believe that in some dogs, vision issues do cause jumping problems. However, in many dogs, I do not believe that is the cause. And I think that just because many dogs’ default jumping behavior when their striding is not perfect between jumps is not what we would desire, that does not make it a “disease.” I also believe that although we may know and learn a lot about the structure of the dog’s eye, we will probably never know exactly what they “see.” And Robann, your point about the funding is well taken.

    • I totally agree think that vision issues can (and do) cause jumping issues but based on observing my dog Jake’s jumping when he is NQR (just over a few jumps as a test), if I didn’t know better I’d swear he had a serious vision defect. But since his jumping returns to his “normal” yet slightly weird style when he is feeling 100%, it makes think soft tissue injuries can look like vision issues when it comes to jumping. I also agree that no one knows exactly what dogs see.

      One aspect about canine vision that struck me as possibly impacting how different dogs may perceive agility-style jumps differently was the variability of “visual streak” from breed to breed as well as from dog to dog. I’m curious to know if you have any thoughts on that topic?

  6. this post was helpful, at least relieving a little anxiety–i have a 5 year old dobie boy who has been out of agility for 18 months due to illness (this is not to say he has been totally a slug just not really jumping and not competing)–he is finally getting better and i am trying to rebuild his skills and his confidence–but he was slow to mature anyway and we had worked hard at some of the issues addressed here like timing and spacing and not having that reversed arc when jumping-he had just started having better jump form when he began to crash–this weekend was the first time friends had seen him jump in months and both were concerned that his stride was awkward when jumping–stutter steps, odd take-offs and suggested starting jump training from the beginning-that is fine if needed but since it was present and resolved earlier with lots of practice with various distances and heights and mostly making it fun don’t know if it is just being out of practice or really a total retraining thing–and i fear if i start him again like a newbie he will find it not that motivating–mostly though just not sure how to help him regain his timing and form and his conditioning so he can push off effectively and maybe equally important his confidence that he can do it-he is clearly not quite sure he can jump but when i push a little he does it happily

    not sure this makes sense or even is in line with this discussion just trying to figure a plan for my happy though pretty mellow loping running boy (i have a baby dobie girl just turned two who is high drive and athletic so looks good no matter when she takes off or what her form is–plus she is quickly on to the next jump before you get a good look!)

    • When I took a few months off from jumping my dogs last winter, they both looked terrible the first time they jumped after that break. I thought I had made a terrible mistake by taking so much time off but after I set up a few basic jump grids, they both quickly returned to the pre-break jumping styles. Agility-style jumping is not natural for dogs. Some manage just fine without needing to practice jumping. But other dogs benefit greatly from practicing specific skills (like jumping in extension and in collection). When my dog Lil developed jumping issues at the age of 2.5 years when her speed really started to kick in, I took a break from trialing and essentially started over again and decided to train using Silvia Trkman’s approach of “speed first, then add obstacles” vs. the way I had originally trained “start slow and gradually add speed.”

      I wrote about how I retrained with Speed First in this post:

      My dogs issue was that she didn’t know HOW to run fast and jump well, so I made sure the second time around I focused on speed first and she was able to work through her jumping issues and is now running faster than ever and is able to jump well. I’m not suggesting my dogs issues are the same as your dogs issues but I do think all dogs benefit from training sessions (and agility in general) being super duper fun vs. something they need to do “correctly.”

      You may be interested in joining the FaceBook Group Canine Jumping Forum. There are many knowledgeable and experienced contributors from across the globe in the group and the discussions have been very interesting! You can post a video of your dog jumping and ask for advice re: what type of jump training people recommend. Then you can decide what makes the most sense to you.. since you know your dog better than anyone else does!

  7. Pingback: NEVER STOP LEARNING: giving more speed vs. getting more speed from your dog. | ArtAndDogBlog

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