When “the Emperor with no clothes” happens to be an agility fanatic

The post I published yesterday generated more hits than what is typical for my blog  so I decided to publish this complimentary post which pretty much covers everything I have been thinking about in terms of agility and jumping.  Please excuse any typos, funky grammar, and the length of this post.  This is as short as I could make it.  ps– There are photos that break up the text,  just not at the very beginning.

For those of you unfamiliar with “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” it is a Danish fairy tale written by Hans Christian Andersen in 1837.  Here is a quick overview:

Many years ago there lived an emperor who cared only about his clothes and about showing them off.  One day he heard from two swindlers that they could make the finest suit of clothes from the most beautiful cloth.  This cloth, they said, also had the special capability that it was invisible to anyone who was either stupid or not fit for his position.  Being a bit nervous about whether he himself would be able to see the cloth, the emperor first sent two of his trusted men to see it.  Of course, neither would admit that they could not see the cloth and so praised it.  All the townspeople had also heard of the cloth and were interested to learn how stupid their neighbors were.  The emperor then allowed himself to be dressed in the clothes for a procession through town, never admitting that he was too unfit and stupid to see what he was wearing. For he was afraid that the other people would think that he was stupid.

Of course, all the townspeople wildly praised the magnificent clothes of the emperor, afraid to admit that they could not see them, until a small child said: “But he has nothing on”!  This was whispered from person to person until everyone in the crowd was shouting that the emperor had nothing on.  The emperor heard it and felt that they were correct, but held his head high and finished the procession.

The “Emperor” metaphor  is commonly used in medical literature when a scientist challenges a widely accepted “fact” that turns out to be based on a hunch rather than a scientific study.  If you go to the web site for NCBI (The National Center for Biotechnology Information) @  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/  and search for the words: “emperor + clothes” you will find 119 medical articles in which this metaphor was used.

The “Emperor” metaphor is also commonly used in a non-medical situations when an overwhelming majority of observers willingly share in a collective ignorance of an obvious fact, despite individually recognizing the absurdity.

So how does “The Emperor” metaphor apply to canine agility?   Here is a list of past and present examples of possible Emperor-style “facts” that a friend and I rattled off a few weeks ago just for fun.  I suspect there are a lot more:

  1. Blind crosses will teach your dog it is OK to cross behind you.
  2. Your dog should never cross the plane of your body.
  3. You must maintain eye contact with your dog at all times or you will break the “connection.”
  4. Verbal cues just distract your dog. Don’t use them.
  5. You should verbally cue every obstacle and directional.
  6. Never repeat a cue. Never repeat a cue. Never never repeat a cue. 🙂
  7. Never use your outside arm.
  8. Using false turns (reverse flow pivots) will make your dog less responsive to front cross cues.
  9. Never cue with both arms at once.
  10. Never flick your dog away.
  11. Never layer.
  12. You should be able to run your dog with your arms at your sides and your dog should know where to go.
  13. You should pump your arms wildly to make your dog think you are running faster than you are in order to get maximum amount of speed out of your dog.
  14. Take lots of fast, small steps to make your dog think you are running faster than you are (related to #13).
  15. If you want small dogs to run fast, you have to race them (related to 13 and 14).
  16. Long lead outs diminish speed and drive.
  17. USA handlers need look no further than USA instructors for handling and training advice.  A song comes to mind:  “You can get anything you want.. at X,Y, Zs restaurant.” 🙂
  18. Another way of saying #17 is the reason Europeans win so many world championships is because they are younger and faster.
  19. If your dog does not like to tug, it says something  about your relationship.
  20. A dog’s jumping arc should be centered over jump bars.  I’d like to add my 2 cents to this one.  Conceptually that statement makes sense but if you watch dogs jumping the type of repetitive jumping found on agility courses, you will see that ALL dogs have jumping arcs that peak before OR after jumps sometimes, even the top ranked dogs in the world.   So while I like the “idea” that a dog’s jumping arc should be centered over bars,  I’m not convinced it is attainable for every dog or even desirable based differences in structure and also differences in handling/ timing since dogs are reliant on handler information to know where they are supposed to go next…which affects their jumping arcs.
  21. If your dog’s jumping arc sometimes peaks before jump bars, your dog might have a “jumping issue” but if your dog’s jumping arc sometimes peaks after jump bars, your dog does not have a “jumping issue.”  See yesterday’s post for more on this topic.

On a somewhat related note, here is the current definition of ETS: a dog who takes-off early or stutter-steps before jumping, does not significantly improve with training, and has a normal CERF and Retinoscopy–meaning the dog’s eyes were checked by a canine ophthalmologist and no vision issues were found.  Contrary to what some ETS folks might  think that I think, 🙂 I actually think there could very well be “undiagnosable vision issues/ ETS” which cause dogs to consistently take-off early or stutter step dramatically before jumping.  However, based on what I have learned about canine vision so far, it appears that “normal”canine vision is not particularly well suited for the human-designed sport of agility to begin with so that is where I am choosing to focus my attention.   Of particular interest to me are dogs who appear to have developed effective ways of coping with the limitations of canine vision and are thus able to compete with reasonable to high levels of success in the sport of canine agility.  I personally think there is a great deal to be learned by focusing attention on this large and diverse group of dogs.

Here are some scientific facts that support my current thinking that “normal” canine vision is not particularly well suited for the sport of agility.  Please note my thoughts are, as always, subject to change based on new information :):

  • The average dog’s ability to see detail, their visual acuity, is far poorer than an average human. If it were possible to test a dog using an eye chart, an average dog would have between 20/50 and 20/100, making them nearsighted. Acuity is estimated by using retinoscope which measures the refractive ability of the eye.
  • Acuity is affected by the size of the pupil, the size of lens and cornea, and the arrangement of rods and cones on the retina. The pupil expands and contracts to let in different amounts of light.  Canine vision developed for the purpose of hunting in dim light, and thus dogs tend to have a larger pupil than humans.  A larger pupil decreases field depth.  Many dogs become highly aroused when running agility which can cause their pupils to become more dilated which can further decrease field depth, and thus could make it more difficult for a dog to accurately detect the locations of agility obstacles.
  • In humans, the location of highest acuity in the retina is a circular area called the fovea or area centralis. In contrast, most dogs have a “visual streak,” which means that the area of greatest acuity in their retina is not a single point (like the fovea), but rather an elongated “streak” running across the retina. This allows for better detection of movement in the periphery.
  • In Wolves “visual streak” is fairly constant and may have resulted from environmental pressures. In domesticated dogs “visual streak” is variable and may be the result of breeding programs that placed little “selective” pressure on maximizing visual performance.
  • In humans, the fovea is made up entirely of cones and therefore is an area that provides very detailed vision. Since most dogs do not have fovea (areas of concentrated cones), it makes sense that they have less visual acuity than humans.

So while humans have the ability to perceive a more colorful and detailed world than  dogs, it does not mean that the dogs are disadvantaged in a general sense. Evolutionarily, dogs developed the ability to see in dimmer light and to detect motion which aided them in their survival.

So what does this mean in terms of agility dogs?

canine_vision_composite2The image above is roughly based on a Border Collie’s field of view (based on head shape and nose length),  “normal” 20/75 visual acuity, canine color vision, and visual streak (the horizontal band of higher acuity– the area which has 20/75 acuity), and a dog’s larger pupil which lets in more light. The black lump at the bottom in the center is where a dog’s longer nose blocks its field of vision.  The handler is presented with more detail to represent how well dogs see motion.

It’s important to note that still images, like the one seen above, do not accurately reflect what dogs (or humans) really see because unless you are staring a blank wall, SEEING involves the processing of moving images (vs. a single static image) and moving images provide many depth perception clues which static images do not.

unaltered_photo_7_10_13Above is an unaltered photograph of the same scene

Given how poor acuity is in “normal” dogs, I think it is safe to say that agility dogs are employing other mechanisms to help them SEE agility obstacles well enough to interact with them while running fast.   Here are a few mechanisms dogs can use to increase their  depth perception:

Binocular Overlap: Depth perception is enhanced by how much both eyes overlap (binocular vision).  The average dog has a much wider visual field of vision than a human, but the degree of binocular overlap is much lower for dogs.  The area seen by a single eye (visual field) and binocular overlap vary between breeds due to different placement of the eyes in the skull as well as the length of the nose.

vision

Based on “binocular overlap,” depth perception is greatest when a dog is looking straight ahead vs. using peripheral vision.  This does not include the area blocked by the nose, in most breeds, when dogs look below horizontal.   I think this could explain why some dogs drop their heads when approaching a jump, especially if the bar is lower than horizontal.. to get their noses out-of-the-way.  🙂

binocular_overlap_FINALThe image above shows binocular overlap for a Border Collie type of dog as indicated by the center oval.  This image does not take into account “visual streak” or how a larger pupil takes in more light.

jumps_straight_rowAbove is the same image but unaltered

Binocular depth perception results when both eyes view the world from slightly different vantage points and the images are blended into a single image by the brain.   Since the area of binocular overlap is small in dogs to begin with, when you add the  fact that most dogs have “visual streak” (a horizontal band of higher acuity) vs. “fovea” (a central area of high acuity vision like humans do), dogs are likely also employing monocular vision depth perception “clues.”

Here are a few monocular depth perception “clues” a dog may use when running agility:

·      Relative Brightness: Closer objects appear brighter than distant objects.  Dogs may have an easier time judging the distances of objects in the middle values due to their ability to differentiate different shades of grey that are indistinguishable to the human eye.  Dogs may also have a harder time judging the distance of white objects, especially in bright sunlight, because their large pupils allow more light to enter the eye which could cause white objects to appear over-exposed / too bright for dogs to be able to detect how close or how far objects are (if they all appear to be the same brightness).lil_jumping_over-exposed_7_10_13The image above shows close and distant white jumps seen with 20/75 visual acuity and canine color vision

·       Contour: Although there have been only a few controlled studies regarding the abilities of dogs to perceive shapes, form perception in dogs is thought to be good.  One study found that dogs “learned” to discriminate between horizontal and vertical lines and were then able to generalize the distinctions independent of the size of the object.  Since the contours or shapes of jumps change based on the angle from which the dogs sees them, if the jumps are all identical, the shape of the jump and its relative size (projected onto the lens of the eye), offers good “monocular clues” to help dogs determining where  jumps are located “in space.

jumps_relative_size_over-exposeureTop image is unaltered, the 2nd image is roughly 20/75, and the 3rd and 4th images represent 20/75 with progressively greater refraction errors.  These images show how jumps that are identical in size and shape still offer monocular depth perception clues, even if what is seen is very blurry.

The fact that dogs “learn” to recognize horizontal and vertical lines (as well as other shapes) may explain why a dog with less than 20/75 acuity can “learn” to see jumps better.  In my opinion, as long as a dog can see something (within reason of course), he can “learn” to make better sense of it through a process called  “neurological priming” which I’ll explain in further detail later in this post since that is a topic I have researched extensively for my artwork.

·      Object Overlay and Parallax:  Closer objects which overlap distant objects offer good monocular depth perception clues. In addition to object overlay, Parallax offers additional clues re: the distance of objects.  Parallax is a term used to describe how objects appear to be moving at different speeds, depending on their distances.  For example, when you are driving a car, distant objects appear to be moving very slowly.  As a result, you can easily read street signs, see other cars, buildings, mountains, etc.  But the closer those objects become, the faster they appear to be moving (across the lens of your eye) so by the time you pass a road sign, it appears to be flying by.

Dogs can use object overlay and parallax to help determine the distances of obstacles when running agility but only if they know where they are going ahead of time so they focus their attention on the relevant obstacles.  However, I suspect there are some scenarios in agility where a dog’s ability to use object overlay and parallax as means to detect distances might be more difficult:

  • The first jump on a course if a dog does not have the opportunity to “scope out” the course while walking towards the start line and thus only sees the opening sequence from a static start line position, or if the handler takes a long lead out and the dog’s gaze follows her motion. Since dogs (and humans) can only focus on one thing at a time, when the dog is released after a long lead out by the handler, she may not be focusing on the jump directly in front of her and thus may knock the first bar.

binocular_visual_streakFIANLAbove is an example of what a straight row of jumps might look like from a static position like a start line stay along with a representation of “visual streak” (the horizontal band of higher acuity).    As I stated earlier, its important to remember that a single still image cannot represent SEEING accurately because in “real life,” dogs’ (and humans’) eyes are constantly in motion, so the area of the eyes with the highest acuity is shifting around the scene, taking in a constant stream of “raw data,” which is sent up to the brain for processing.  This results in a higher quality “composite” image… as long as the dog is focusing on the jumps vs. focusing on the handler in this particular scenario.

  • The last jump on a course can lack reliable depth perception clues if what is visible beyond the jump contains contradictory or meaningless visual clutter.
  • A jump in the middle of a course that faces “nothing” can be problematic for the same reason stated re: the last jump on a course.
  • Parallax might also play a role in why so many dogs have trouble judging the distance of the first jump after a tunnel.  Of course, pupil dilation might also play a role due to dogs being in a dark tunnel even if just for just a second or two.  But here is why I think parallax could play a role:  When a fast dog races out of a curved tunnel, he only has a split second to make sense of an entirely new scene—new to the dog, not the handler.  After all, the dog does not know the course ahead of time and must look to the handler for direction.  So if a dog does not know where he is going AFTER the tunnel, BEFORE he enters the tunnel (because his handler did not give him a pre-cue), a fast dog may not have enough time to determine the exact location of the first jump because he has to first make sense of an entirely “new” scene, which contains a slew of obstacles moving across the lens of the eye (parallax), figure out where the handler wants him to go, plus the overall “picture” might be too bright/ over-exposed due to pupil dilation.  That is a lot to take in and process in a split second  if you ask me.

Visual Perspective:  or why size matters 🙂  I think it is safe to say that the height of a dog’s eyes affects what she sees on an agility field.

So,  given the different methods dogs can employ to judge distances of objects/ obstacles,  does it really matter if a dog has 20/75 acuity or a modest refraction error, which 55% of dogs have?  Based on what I’ve learned about canine vision recently, I don’t think it matters much.   Yet I hear many people blaming their dogs’ jumping issues on refraction errors as small as 1 of -1 and talking about how they believe Veterinarians just don’t understand the “special” visual needs of agility dogs when they say their dog’s refraction error is inconsequential to the dog.

However, when I consider the many factors that come into play re: what “normal” dogs see,  I can understand why a Veterinarian would say that variations in visual acuity like 1. or -1, are not significant to dogs.   First because 20/75 is not very detailed to begin with; second because the area of highest visual acuity (binocular overlap) is very small in dogs (compared to humans), and third because most dogs have visual streak (vs. fovea)  which limits the area of highest visual acuity to a horizontal band within the already small region of binocular overlap.

In canine agility, all dogs occasionally knock bars, and many appear to struggle with jumping at times.  Some dogs take-off too early, some take-off too late, some do little stutter-steps before jumping, and others shorten their running strides or just run slower, which is not generally linked to “jumping issues”.. but I think running slower could be seen as yet another coping mechanism a dog might need to use at times when jumping 17-20 jumps per typical agility course.

A fair number of people believe undiagnosable vision issues are the sole cause of their dogs’ jumping issues and many of these people also believe that traditional jump training (which focuses solely on physical jumping skills) will not help their dogs.  I agree that traditional jump training will not “cure” every dog’s jumping issues.  I also think that if a dog has a significant vision issue then perhaps agility is not the best sport for that dog to compete in.  But for the majority of dogs, who do not have significant vision issues or injuries, I think these dogs can learn to jump with more confidence and ease if they are presented with a fresh start and new, positive experiences that teach them how to jump in ways that are appropriate for their structures and learn how to make better sense of whatever they are able to see (within reason).  I want to emphasize that the last sentence is NOT referring to dogs who clearly have severe vision defects or physical injuries.

My optimistic view is based on what Dawn Weaver and I have observed over the past year watching a handful of test study dogs (some with very significant jumping issues) progress through our on-line class “Hit the Ground Running!”

HGR games focus on two skills / abilities dogs need in order to  jump with confidence and ease. 1)  the ability to SEE where jumps are in space and 2) the ability to physically JUMP the height required of them.  Some HGR games focus on jumping skills and others focus on helping dogs “learn” to make better sense of whatever they are able to SEE, even if what they see is blurrier than what a “normal” dog sees.  In my opinion, as long as dogs are able to see something (within reason), they can learn to jump with more confidence and ease through”neurological priming” which I’ll explain in more detail later in this post.

In HGR, dogs are presented with a slew of new “pictures” and “experiences” responding to those pictures.  Over time, dogs build up a large enough database of “pictures” which they can then use to make better sense of what they are seeing when approaching jumps.   This is similar to how we train young dogs to recognize a chute (or tunnel) by presenting them with 360 degree views of the chute so they are able to recognize every “picture” the chute may present when approached from various angles.  In HGR games, pictures are linked to specific actions, so muscle memory is also taking place to some extent.   The thing I like  best about neurological priming is that it works regardless of what the “pictures” look like to each individual dog.

Here is an example of “neurological priming” in action:

After the Mona Lisa 1 is a life-sized rendering (21″ x 30″)  of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. The work is constructed from only 425 spools of thread resulting in extremely low image resolution. Yet when seen through an optical device, the thread spools condense into a blurry yet recognizable image, conveying how little information the brain needs to make sense of visual imagery.  If you just look a the thread spools (and not at the sphere) you cannot make out any facial features, yet you can SEE the Mona Lisa’s face when looking at the image in the sphere.  The facial features are barely visible yet your brain is able to fill in “missing” information based on your past experiences of the Mona Lisa.

For more examples of neurological priming / how the brain makes sense of the visual world go to:

http://www.devorahsperber.com/thread_works_index_html_and_2x2s/warhol_soup_can.htm

and

http://www.devorahsperber.com/brooklyn_musuem/index.html

 mona

Here is an example of how one HGR game functions as a neurological primer:  The “Striding Game” begins with a single stabilized ground bar.  As the game progresses,  more bars are added along with wings or stanchions.  The spacing of bars is adjusted so that dogs can easily stride (and eventually jump) over them.  Here is where neurological priming comes into play:  Once a dog is comfortable and confident striding over the three ground bars, the center bar is removed for the last rep of each session, which essentially doubles the distance between the two remaining bars while leaving 2/3 of the original “jumping picture” in place.

By the time the centered bar is removed, the dog has “patterned” easy striding over all three bars and has developed some muscle memory, so it is easy for the dog to continue to do the same easy striding, but now with one stride between the two remaining bars.   The bars are gradually raised, but that falls under the category of physical jump training vs. neurological priming so I won’t get into how we recommend raising the bars in this post.

Eventually, another  jump is added in front of the first jump (same easy spacing) and once the dog is comfortable striding (or jumping) over theses three bars, the center bar is removed, which doubles the distance again.  This process of removing the center bar and  placing it in front of the first bar is repeated until jumps are VERY widely spaced.

I think the reason the striding game works so well is because it presents dogs with “pictures” of jumps and jump bars, with which they can interact with ease (due to easy spacing) so they don’t have to think too much about jumping and can focus their attention on seeing.   Plus by removing the center bar, while leaving the other bars in place, 2/3 of the original “picture” remains intact.  So not only has the dog already seen the first and last jumps in the same location, she has practiced a specific striding pattern in relation to those jumps, and thus can utilize muscle memory.  By ending early sessions with just a rep or two over double-spacing, the dog is given an opportunity to SEE a distance jump and STRIDE towards it with more confidence and ease than she might have before being exposed to these “jumping pictures.”  Over time, the dog learns to recognize the “picture” of widely spaced jumps and knows what to do based on the familiar “picture,” past experiences and muscle memory.   The final stage of the “Striding Game” is to randomize the spacing.  After months of practicing SEEING and STRIDING between widely spaced jumps, it is not as “big of a leap” as you might think (no pun intended) due to the dog having had so many positive experiences seeing jumping “pictures” and responding to them with confidence and ease.

Both of my dogs learned how to run fast and jump over widely spaced jumps in NADAC (18- 21′) by progressing though “Striding Games.”  I think the same has been true for other dogs who worked though HGR Modules 1, 2 and 3.

Other HGR  games focus on teaching dogs HOW to adjust their striding so they are able to aim for (and hit) a particular spot when running super fast, which is another necessary skill for jumping (and running contacts) but I’ll leave that topic for another post since this post is already ridiculously long.

I’ll end with two questions:

1) Given what dogs with “normal” vision are able to see and how dependent agility dogs are on their human partners providing them with timely information, is it reasonable to expect dogs who are running super fast to be able to take-off for every jump from “just the right” spot, and jump with a “perfectly “centered arc,  and with “perfect” form, and with “just the right amount” of collection or extension over every single jump?

2) Or might it be more reasonable to expect dogs to jump reasonably well most of the time and for us to feel grateful for all effort they put into doing the best job they can vs. focusing on the occasional early take-off, or late-take off , or an added step, or tucked rear legs, or dare I say… a knocked bar…..?

If this post resonated with you, please share it with your friends. https://artanddogblog.wordpress.com/2013/07/10/when-the-emperor-with-no-clothes-happens-to-be-an-agility-fanatic/  Thank you  for reading it! -Devorah

Frankie Joiris posted a link, in response to my article, to a fantastic article that I think is a “must read” for anyone interesting in the topic of agility-style jumping.  The article is written by Chris Ott and includes many great quotes by Dr. Chris Zink http://speedoggie.blogspot.com/2011/10/another-way-of-looking-at-early-take.html

20 thoughts on “When “the Emperor with no clothes” happens to be an agility fanatic

  1. very interesting reading even taking into account how a brain processes visual information rather than solely relying on the optical “mechanics” of the canine eye. One of my to-do items for my club is to get some Dawn Weaver training this puts it much higher on the list.

  2. What a great article! I love the detail. Thanks so much.

    My problem with ETS is in the semantics. A syndrome is a
    group of symptoms that cause a specific problem. There is not a proven group of symptoms that cause the dog to jump poorly. Do dogs jump poorly? Absolutely! Can issues like vision, or confirmation cause a dog to jump poorly? Absolutely! But until there are a group of symptoms proven to cause poor jumping, it is not a “syndrome”. And I hate putting that label on a dog.

    Thanks for a really informative article.

  3. Here’s a term that you might also want to consider. “Strawman”.

    From the wikipedia article: “is a type of argument and is an informal fallacy based on misrepresentation of an opponent’s position. To “attack a straw man” is to create the illusion of having refuted a proposition by replacing it with a superficially similar yet unequivalent proposition (the “straw man”), and to refute it, without ever having actually refuted the original position”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Straw_man

  4. Great article, Devorah. Two things I would like to add. Historically, I can think of no canine breed whose main function was to jump, so until recently they haven’t been selectively bred to jump. Border Collies, for instance, have been bred to work low to the ground, which may not make it a naturally great jumper. And secondly, human hurdlers who jump jumps set at equal distances on a track would be considered good jumpers with consistent take off spots and good speed. But if the distance between the jumps was varied randomly and they were set at differing angles from one another, and with no practice runs for the hurdler, I would bet on seeing knocked hurdles, early take offs, late take offs, stutter steps and slower speeds. And I am assuming these “jumping problems” did not occur because the hurdlers suddenly developed poor vision.

    • I could not agree more! Funny that you mention hurdlers. I happened to watch one of the final rounds of hurdlers trying to make the USA Olympic team. Only one man was going to earn a spot on the team from this round so it was “do or die.” As a result, many of these world-class competitors knocked bars/ hurdles due to pushing for maximum speed. I think the same thing can happen with dogs and jumping when handlers push them too hard for maximum speed.

  5. Thank goodness someone finally discussed monocular depth perception! Thank you.

    My argument with the heavy basis of dog’s depth perception having to be based on binocular vision is that my one-eyed dog percieved depth almost NO DIFFERENTLY after she lost the eye. And other one-eyed dog owners have noted the same thing. These dogs are the perfect test case for showing that dogs use multiple factors to perceive depth and unlike humans, do not rely primarily on binocular vision for depth perception

  6. I want to say again also that there is no way we will ever know what exactly dogs see. Some shades of blue that I see, some other people see it as more green. Are we both seeing the same color but have learned to name it differently or do we truly see a different color? I doubt there is a way to know how another’s brain processes what the eyes “see.” Great blog, Dev. I love it.

  7. Interesting. This was sent to me by the owner of a Soft Coated Wheaten who ties up her dog’s hair to jump. I own a Bouvier and I do not tie up his hair. It would be interesting to understand what my Bouvier sees with hair in front of his eyes!

  8. Pingback: ArtAndDogBlog

  9. Hi! Did you create the Peripheral Vision of Eyes illustration? If possible, I’d like to use it for educational purposes and wonder from whom I need to request permission. Thanks!

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