Eye Gaze used as the only cue

The video below is of maybe the 10th session of Lil playing a new “eye gaze” game. The only cue I am giving her re: which toy to target is shifting my eye gaze towards one of two toys.  She picked up on this game so quickly (like in the first session) it is likely she has already been using the gaze of my eyes as a “cue” beyond this game. The inspiration to set up this game was to determine how much dogs pay attention to where their “people” are looking since this has been a big topic amongst agility folks lately.


Fascinating discussion taking place about jumping issues on Canine Jumping Forum

The Canine Jumping Forum is a Facebook Group created for people interested in exploring how structure, temperament, injuries, or vision issues can influence how well dogs are able to meet the challenges of agility-style jumping, with the goal being to help dogs learn to jump with as much ease as possible.
“Scientific discovery is the process of working to disprove one’s own theories.” -Lynn Smitley  
The value of this forum comes from people’s willingness to share different points of view, to ask clarifying questions, and to challenge statements made by other group members. 
All points of view are welcome!
To join: Go to Facebook and search for “Canine Jumping Forum.”   Ask to be added, and I’ll accept your request.  
Happy jumping!

Facebook Discussion Group about Jumping Issues

I was recently asked if I would start a Facebook Group for people interested in exploring how structure, temperament, minor injuries, and/ or vision defects can influence how well dogs are able to meet the challenges of agility-style jumping.  Based on the overwhelming response to my recent post on canine vision (10,000+ hits when I last checked) and thousands of hits on another recent post “Shifting Attitudes about Jumping,” I anticipate a lively and informative discussion will take place.

The purpose of the “Canine Jumping Forum” will be to inspire open discussions about all types of jumping issues; possible causes and signs; why different breeds (and individual dogs within each breed) may have different jumping styles, take-off and landing spots, and how specific handling techniques and jump training can help (or hinder) a dog’s ability to jump with ease.   All points of view will be welcome.

If you are interested in joining this Facebook group, friend DEVORAH SPERBER on Facebook, then ask to join “Canine Jumping Forum” and I will approve your request.

Feel free to forward a link to this post to anyone you know who might be interested in this topic.


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.


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:





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

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.

A few of Lil’s runs from last weekend’s trial

Its been 2 months since our last trial.  I missed two local trials in June due to my exhibition in Luxembourg and a schedule conflict with a family event.  Its funny,  in 2 months time I had sort of forgotten how much fun trials are in terms of the “whole” trial experience: hanging out with friends, watching other teams run, and of course running my own dog.

Jake is currently “on the bench” due to a slight limp earlier in the week after a particularly exciting hunting expedition in our backyard.   😦 So his “turns” consisted of Freestyle and Flatwork done at a run, which is similar to agility in terms of energy and teamwork so I think he was content “earning” his treats by doing this vs. running over agility obstacles.

Lil didn’t seem to mind the 90 degree temps plus soaring humidity.  She ran well all weekend long.   The trial was held at a campground in Dummerston, VT, which has huge pine trees to park under.  Between the shade and Ryobi fans, Jake and Lil were comfortable and cool all weekend long.  As for me, I must have eaten an entire watermelon and drank a gallon of water to stay cool… which worked very well.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M7m0tIAOsJA”  Link to video (since for some reason WordPress does not include video links in emailed posts).

Fastastic article about the anatomical and biomechanical consequences of jump heights in dog agility.

I believe this article fully supports what can been SEEN when watching dogs jump and more importantly LAND while running agility.  It also explains why Dawn Weaver and I named our jump retraining program “Hit the Ground Running!” vs “Hit the Ground… with a Thunk.”  🙂

The article also supports something that seems rather obvious.. that repetitive jumping takes its toll on ALL dogs over time, regardless of how well they are built for the task and how important it is to help our dogs learn to jump with as much ease as possible and in a style that are appropriate for each dog’s structure so they land with the minimal amount of impact as possible.

Jake has something in common with world-class platform divers

Check out the dives beginning at 4:35 and 6:36 and notice how very deliberate, yet unusual each diver’s “pre-striding” looks.  I think it is reasonable to assume these world-class divers were trained to stride towards the end of the platform in very specific ways to help them launch with consistency and power.

Now watch the following slo-mo video and  notice how very deliberate, yet unusual my dog Jake’s “pre-striding” looks.   I can’t be sure if jump training played a role or if Jake figured this out on his own but it looks to me like his pre-jump head bobs may be a way of physically preparing to jump– a canine version of what those two divers did before launching off the platform.  The video also shows a couple of early take-offs  due to him leaving out that final stride after the head bob (a break in his pre-striding pattern).

I think this might shed light on the mystery of why some dogs drop their heads the stride before taking-off when jumping?  ps–I’m not referring to dogs who crouch low and then jump from that position but rather to dogs who do a little pre-jump head bob like my dog Jake.

A note about the two crashes.  While they are difficult to watch,  I think both crashes were caused by the same underlying issue… that Jake needs time to perform his “pre-striding” pattern in order to jump 8″ bars with relative ease.  RE: the first crash, he was going to run around that jump but at the last-minute decided to jump it and as a result of this “change of plans,” he could not perform his usual pre-striding pattern, which may have caused his “failure to launch.”  A couple of people who saw the first crash from a different angle thought it looked like Jake’s rear legs slipped out from under him when he tried to take-off for that jump which could be another explanation for that crash.

In the second crash, it looks to me like it was caused by a combination of a difficult set up spot and the “sling shot start.”  If you pause the video during that crash, you can see that he took-off early and then realized mid-air that the jump was too far away, so he aborted that initial jump but he was unable to regroup fast enough to jump that first bar so he sort of just barreled through it.

Based on my personal observations of Jake’s jumping style and his response to jump training (this trial took place after months of playing HGR jumping games which helped Jake learn HOW to run fast and jump in extension), my personal conclusion is that Jake’s unorthodox jumping style is likely caused by a structural issue, an orthopedic issue, or a combination of both which make jumping more challenging for him.  I also think his unusual pre-striding pattern helps him prepare for jumping like the two divers’ pre-striding” patterns helps them prepare for jumping off the platform.

Because of those two crashes at that trial, I took Jake for an orthopedic evaluation by a specialist who sees a lot of agility dogs.  X-rays and a physical examination of his joints while under anesthesia showed that his knees and hips were fine but that he had minor arthritis in his lower back, which the vet said is typical to find in agility dogs at 7 years old.  I don’t know what, if anything caused Jake’s rear legs to slip out from under him.  Regardless, after that trial I dropped Jake’s jump height to 4″.

Here are a few connections I see between platform diving and agility-style jumping:

1) They both involve intentional striding in order to hit a specific take-off spot.  In this regard, platform diving is easier than agility jumping because the diver always starts at the same stationary set point.  Whereas agility dogs need to jump 18-20 times in a row with many variables like spacing, angles, and types of jumps.

2)  They both involve unnatural activities.   Granted, most humans are capable of running and then jumping off the end of a platform into water and most dogs are capable of running and then jumping over random logs in the woods.  I think most people would agree that not every human being could learn how to do what those divers did, even with advanced training.  Yet I find it so strange that many agility people think every dog should be able to jump 18-20 jumps (set up in random configurations and at heights determined by human beings) as well as every other dog, and if a dog struggles with jumping, then there must be something must be wrong with the dog.

3)  Structure plays a role.   I think it is safe to say regardless of training, not every person will become a gifted diver and not every dog will become a gifted jumper.  If you take into consideration the wide range of canine structures, I don’t understand why anyone would think all dogs should be able to jump agility-style jumps with the same level of ease.

I believe some people and some dogs are built particularly well for particular sports.  My sister Nancy is a perfect example of a person built well for a particular sport.  She started running competitively at the age of 50.  She quickly rose through the ranks and at the age of 53, she is competing at a world-class level and winning BIG races!


Nancy_running_the_dipseaHer most recent accomplishment was winning a coveted black shirt in the grueling Dipsea race.

Nancy_black_shirtI can say with 100% certainty that I am not built to be a world-class runner.   Even if I trained as hard as my sister trains, which is highly unlikely  🙂  I would never be able to compete at that level.  That doesn’t mean I can’t run, but rather that I’m just not built to be a great runner like my sister Nancy is.

Lil Jumping at USDAA Trial in Florida, February 25, 2011

Lil Jumping at USDAA Trial in Florida, February 25, 2011

Moving on to the topic of dogs and agility-style jumping…. I think most people would agree that Australian Terriers’  longer backs are not ideal for the type of repetitive jumping found on agility courses.  But that doesn’t mean they can’t be great agility dogs.  Both of my Australian Terriers appear to have a total blast running agility and at the end of day, isn’t that what truly matters?  Well… coming home with a bunch of ribbons is also kind of fun! 🙂

jake_and_lil_ribbons from last weekend's trial So why does Jake jump the way he does?  Maybe because it is the easiest way for him to jump for reasons known only to him!

Jake_agility_tire_barry_rosen_photographer…and the same goes for Lil!

Lil Jumping, fall 2012

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

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.  🙂

New “before” video of HGR dog

Helen Swan was kind enough to upload a “before” video of her lovely dog Jaz before they began HGR. It’s the 4th video down on my previous post (May 1, 2013). The before video I uploaded (3rd down) was after a month or so of playing HGR games.

Helen and Jaz have a great relationship and they have been so fun to work with in the HGR classroom. I could not be happier for them!