Jumping Issue or Handling Issue?

Before you read this post, watch the following 2nd One Mind Dog challenge video:


Seems like a lot of people here in the USA are intrigued by  OMD handling.  I am particularly fascinated by Jaako’s ultra-smooth handling style and a total lack of superfluous motion.  His arms are always showing his dog the path ahead without a single flick, flap or pump in sight.   I love that USA handlers are expanding their horizons and seeing great results in terms of their dog’s responses to different ways of handling.  In general, I’d say USA handlers who are studying OMD handling theory look more energetic, athletic, intentional in their handing cues, and perhaps most important of all…they look like they are having a blast.  Oh.. and so are their dogs!  🙂

A little note about the OMD video above.  Did you notice the early take-off? I think it was a natural response to handling (the handler was very far ahead, decelerating and facing the dog) so the dog focused on the turn after the far jump (and the handler) and rushed to get there as fast as possible by leaving out a stride.   You might have missed it because it does not look as dramatic when a powerful BC takes-off early compared to a small dog. Many people would not have noticed that the BC left out a stride if seeing that run live. But most people would have noticed a small dog doing the equivalent because of the small dog’s proximity to the jump.

Here are 2 sets of screen saves to compare:

OneMindDog Screen Save

Screen saves from the video above.

Small dog comparisonSmall dog comparison.

Neither of these dogs has a “jumping issue.”  They are just demonstrating a natural response to handling.

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

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.  🙂

About Hit the Ground Running!

Hit the Ground Running Logo

In response to emails Dawn and I have been receiving from people who want to learn more about HGR, we decided to post the following information from Module 1.  A secondary motive is we hope that by sharing our thoughts about why jumping issues emerge in the first place, increased awareness could decrease the incidence of jumping issues.

About HGR

“Hit the Ground Running!” is a new approach to jump re-training, co-founded and co-developed by Devorah Sperber (USA) and Dawn Weaver (UK).

We believe jumping issues emerge for a variety of reasons and thus require a variety of solutions—solutions customized for each particular dog.  The HGR classroom includes video examples and written descriptions of the exercises that are so much fun to play that we refer to them as games.  By posting videos of your dogs playing the games, Dawn and Devorah will be able to offer feedback and help you tailor the games to suit your dog’s unique requirements.

HGR Goals:
1)     To help dogs develop efficient ways of jumping that are appropriate for their structures so they can approach the jumping challenges they face when running agility courses with full confidence and speed.
2)     To help handlers become “jumping experts” for their particular dogs so that they can continue to modify and play jumping games after completing HGR.
3)     To help handlers make the best handling choices to support their dogs in feeling confident and secure about jumping so that they can Hit the Ground Running!

HGR involves a series of fun games to play with your dog.  The purpose of some of the games is to erase old patterns of behavior your dog may have developed in relation to jumping. Other games were developed to build new patterns of behavior so your dog can experience a fresh approach to jumping so they can hit the ground running fast.  The early games are played away from actual jumps.  These games were developed to help dogs see where obstacles/props are in space, in relation to themselves, when running fast, with their handler running along side, ahead, and behind them.   By the time the games begin to include actual jumps, dogs are able to approach the challenges with more confidence and ease.

HGR encourages each dog to jump in a style that is appropriate for his/her particular structure so that they can meet jumping challenges with confidence and ease.  In addition, the games teach handlers to SEE what is really going on when their dogs are running and jumping so they can maintain their dogs’ confidence about jumping throughout their agility career.

Here are a few observations we have made about factors that can contribute to jumping issues. Dogs may fall under one or more of the categories.

1)  Some dogs appear to have developed “preferred landing spots” that are too close to jumps.  These dogs tend to land at the same approximate distance from jumps regardless of their take-off spots.  As a result, when jumping in extension, their jumping arcs tend to peak before the jump bar.  These dogs may begin to tightly tuck their rear legs or flip their rear ends up dramatically when jumping.  HGR helps these dogs learn to extend further over jumps when jumping in extension.  As a result, their jumping arcs become more centered over jumps, resulting in dogs who no longer appear to be taking-off too early.   And once these dogs realize how liberating it feels to land further away from jumps, most will modify their take-off spots to be closer to jumps without human or mechanical interventions.

2)  Some dogs don’t know HOW to run fast and adjust their stride lengths in order to find good take-off spots, so they slow down, stutter-step, shorten their strides, take-off early, or over-jump to compensate.   Often, these dogs appear to lack confidence about jumping, which can cause jumping issues to become more exaggerated over time as the lack of confidence can reduce forward momentum which makes jumping more difficult. HGR helps build confidence by teaching these dogs HOW to run fast and adjust their strides efficiently when approaching jumps so they can jump with ease.

3)  Some dogs become overly focused on NOT HITTING BARS in response to past mishaps, negative punishment for knocked bars (something as simple as the handler stopping to reset  knocked bars), or simply sensing disappointment from their human teammate.  These dogs may begin to hesitate or crouch before jumping, tuck their rear legs tightly under their bodies, flip their rear ends up dramatically, look tense, over-jump, or launch over bars.   Like category #2, their lack of confidence and/or loss of forward momentum can make it more difficult for them to clear bars and can cause more knocked bars, which in turn makes these dogs try even harder not to hit bars. They may also begin to take-off earlier and earlier over time in the misapprehension that this will ensure they will clear the jump and avoid hurting themselves or disappointing their partner. HGR brings the fun back into running and jumping so confidence levels can soar, even if a bar is knocked occasionally.

NOTE: Although this is not true in all cases, categories 1, 2, and 3 can sometimes be attributed to handlers who are overly concerned about accuracy/ Q-ing/ running clean, or tend to use loud or harsh verbal cues, or call their dogs off wrong-course obstacles often which over time can cause dogs to worry and cause them to shorten their running stride and/or develop jumping issues.

4)  Some dogs are so high-drive and physically powerful that they CAN take-off early, launch, jump long and flat, or over-jump without knocking bars most of the time.   These dogs appear to be  in such a hurry to get to the next obstacle, that they may not adjust their stride lengths appropriately when approaching jumps and either take-off too early OR take-off too late, both of which can result in knocked bars. These dogs are often extremely sensitive to movement and thus handler motion can interfere with their ability to focus on non-moving objects such as jumps.  Their inability to focus enough attention on adjusting their strides in preparation for jumping results in occasional knocked bars, which can cause these dogs to begin taking-off too early or over-jumping to compensate.  HGR helps these dogs learn to focus on their job vs. being distracted by handler movement so they can get to where they want to go as fast as possible.

5)  In addition to the categories listed above, structure appears to play a significant role in how different breeds of dogs jump, as well as how individual dogs within each breed jump.  This is why HGR offers only working spots (no auditors) so that games can be modified to suit each and every dog.

6)  Minor injuries can also play a significant role in how dogs jump.   In HGR, it is recommended that dogs take a break from jumping while progressing through the games in the Modules 1 and 2.   The main purpose is to offer dogs a fresh start but perhaps a side benefit is that taking time off from jumping allows any  minor injuries or strains time to heal.

7)  Vision can also play a significant role in a dog’s ability to jump with confidence and ease.  Obviously if a dog cannot determine where objects are in space, they will not be able to jump efficiently.  Several of the dogs that participated in the HGR test study group over the summer of 2012 had rather extreme jumping issues–consistently taking-off early, over-jumping, and launching.  These dogs showed significant improvement in their ability to run fast and jump with confidence and ease as they progressed through HGR.  They were not miraculously “cured” by HGR and they are by no means “perfect” jumpers, but we believe their dramatic improvement indicates their jumping issues were caused by various combinations of structure, undiagnosed injuries, a lack of confidence, over-arousal, or feeling stressed vs. having significant vision deficits.

8)  Obstacle specifications, such as jump heights, can play a significant role in how a dog’s jumping style evolves.  It’s unfortunate that in some agility organizations, many dogs are expected to jump at heights that are higher than what is appropriate for their size or  structure.   As dogs progress through HGR, it becomes apparent if a dog has a “jumping issue” or an “obstacle specification” issue — meaning the specified jump height is just too high for a particular dog.

9) Handling can play a significant role in how dogs jump.  In  Modules 3 and 4, the games transition into typical sequences found on courses so participants are able to see first hand how various handling choices affect their dog’s ability to run fast and jump with ease.

NOTE ABOUT HANDLING: If you watch 2 dogs chasing each other while playing, you can see how strong the language of motion is to dogs, how well they read pre-cues for turns by each other, and how they will even use pre-cues to fake each other out (like RFPs/ false turns.)  So while we can try to train and proof dogs to ignore our motion, when it comes to jumping, some dogs will do just fine with it, but other dogs will feel a bit confused and their confidence about jumping will drop as their focus shifts primarily to watching the handler to try to figure out when to ignore her motion/ physical cues and when not to. This can lead to dropped bars, which can further erode confidence… and can lead to a “jumping issue.”

The complete HGR course is divided into modules so teams can progress at their own pace and pay as they go.   Participants begin by filling out a questionnaire and uploading a video link so we can see the unique jumping challenges each dog is facing.  Modules 1 and 2 consist of simple games, most of which can be played in a backyard or garden with minimal props.  Modules 3 and 4 require a bit more space and up to 5 jumps.

Click on the link below to sign up for “Hit the Ground Running!”  HGR is currently being offered at special introductory pricing:  Module 1 at £30 (approx $48); modules 2, 3 and 4 at £37 (approx $59) each. Exact £ to $ depends on the exchange rate at the time.


Great progress with extension jumping!

For the past four months, I’ve been focusing most of my attention on Jake and Lil’s  jumping.   I have seen very good progress in the backyard so I felt it was time for the ultimate test… a NADAC trial.   NADAC is a great venue for testing jumping skills because the courses are fast and the jumps are spaced at a whopping 21′ which is five full strides between every jump for my dogs.  It has been a long time since I have gone to a NADAC trial, so I had forgotten how much fun they are for dogs and people.  We all had such a great time, I’m going to another NADAC trial this coming weekend!

Jake has always dropped his head and shoulders before jumping, but his jumping at this trial looked comfortable for him and his striding between jumps looked nice and even.  BTW, my sweetie-pie Jake has come a long ways in terms of staying in the game.  I was very proud of him!   I didn’t get a video of his Open Tunnelers run but he Q-ed it and he can get very WHOO HOO running Tunnelers, especially first thing in the morning.

OK. This was NOT my best handing on either video! 🙂  NADAC courses are so different from USDAA courses, that it took me most of the day to get my timing down and to stop calling Lil into handler focus when I didn’t need to….most apparent in Tunnelers.

Lil and Jake both felt very confident when jumping!   The person video taping zoomed in a lot for their jumpers runs, but you can get the general idea of how fast they were running and how well they were jumping!   All in all, there were just a few earlier-than-ideal take offs throughout the day and no dramatic launches by either dog! Oh and Lil got 4 of 4 Qs and 4 blue ribbons,  Jake got 2 or 4 Qs and 2 red ribbons and I wasn’t really trying to Q.

A couple of days before the trial, it occurred to me that I should run my dogs over a few 21′ spaced jumps since that is much wider than what we usually practice. This video is just of Lil, but Jake managed the spacing very easily too.

More evidence that forward momentum is a key component in Lil’s ability to jump efficiently

I videotaped Lil’s first session wrapping around a cone and striding over 3 bars spaced at 48″.  I had not anticipated how differently she would stride over the bars when she was chasing a thrown ball vs. focusing on me.

The following one minute video is in slo-mo to make it easier to see the different ways Lil strided over the three bars:

I just realized how and why inefficient jumping can lead to MORE AND MORE inefficient jumping. When Lil’s speed increased recently, she wasn’t able to adjust her strides well when approaching jumps, and so she started jumping inefficiently. This caused her to knock an occasional bar which caused her to lose confidence… which caused her to slow down when approaching jumps, which made it HARDER AND HARDER to jump well, which caused her to lose more confidence…

Increased Ground Speed and Jumping Issues

Since I’m taking a couple of months off from trialing, I’ve been looking for new games to play with my dogs that will strengthen their agility foundation skills.   And I keep finding my thoughts drifting towards Silvia Trkman, who first focuses on training young agility dogs to run super fast and then gradually adds obstacles.  Her approach is the complete opposite of another great agility trainer, who compares a young dog learning agility to a 16 year old learning to drive a car.  She believes that in both cases, speed should be added only after basic skills are well rehearsed at slow and moderate speeds.   Oddly, both approaches make perfect sense to me!

When I first started training Lil when she was a puppy, we spent months and months developing strong foundations skills away from agility obstacles and she developed good ground speed, nice tight turns and excellent distance skills.  But she didn’t start out running agility as fast as she was capable of, which helped her get to where she is today.  At the age of three, Lil is very consistent, with a 75% Q Rate (% of runs that are qualifying runs).  So given the “learning to drive” analogy, I guess Lil learned to drive on quiet side roads (vs. in a parking lot or on a highway) and it worked out well for her.

But lately Lil’s natural drive has really started to kick in when running agility, which it great!  She is running faster by elongating her stride when there is a lot of space between obstacles or jumps.  ps–If you think about the amount of time an agility dog spends running vs. taking obstacles, having good ground speed is important.  It might be even more important for small dogs because of the number of strides they need to take between obstacles in standard agility venues.  So I want to continue to encourage Lil to run/ drive as fast as she is able to.

But increased speed has its downside.  It is much harder for dogs to jump efficiently when running fast and over the past 4-6 months, I can see Lil is having trouble figuring out the best way to jump while running super fast.  As a result, I can feel her slowing down before jumping. See my post  “Lil and Jumping” on Feb 5, 2012 for a brief history of Lil’s foundation jump training.

The video above shows examples  of Jake, Lil and another Aussie, Ben Matlock, jumping at a recent USDAA trial. Ben Matlock is a nice little jumper and is very consistent in his style of jumping.  If you watch his striding, he stays in relative collection the entire run and he does not need to adjust his stride much, if at all, before jumping.  Jake’s jumping looked pretty good.  But this was the first time I could feel Lil slowing down before jumping.  It is also the first time Lil lowered her head and shoulders before jumping and also the first time Lil regularly added an extra short stride before jumping.

At this point, I could continue to let Lil try to figure it out on her own.  After all, she is a smart and athletic dog.  But my concern is that Aussies are such powerful little dogs that Lil could develop a pattern of inefficient jumping (without knocking any bars) that would be hard to unlearn.

There are many different ways dogs can jump inefficiently:

  • Dogs can take-off too far away from the jump.  Linda Mecklenburg has written a couple of articles for Clean Run Magazine about what she calls ETS or Early Take-Off Syndrome.  I highly recommend NOT reading about her theory if you think your dog takes off too early before jumps.  Linda thinks it is genetic and there is nothing you can do to help an ETS dog jump better.  Yet my dog Jake has shown dramatic improvement in his jumping abilities over the past year and he used to take off early most of the time.  Today, he is not what I’d call a beautiful jumper but he jumps well enough and with ease so I’m totally fine with it.  ps–I’ve seen videos on YouTube of a few very nice running Aussies who tend to jump early yet are able to jump with relative ease.
  • Dogs can jump much higher than necessary to clear the jump.  This is very easy for a Aussie to do. At a workshop, Lil cleared a 20″ jump without a problem (It was an off course jump so it was not lowered to 8″).
  • Dogs can flip up their rear ends when floating over the jump to insure their back legs clear the bar if they jumped too early.  I think this is more common with long-backed breeds.
  • Dogs can take an extra short stride or two before the jump and then lower their heads and fling themselves over the jump bar using their shoulders vs. hind legs.  Jake does this to varying degrees and Lil did it rather dramatically for the first time at our last trial in December.

There are a couple of reasons I want to do whatever I can to help Lil learn to jump efficiently when running fast.  Due to the high number of jumps in most agility courses, inefficient jumping can slow a dog’s course time down significantly but more importantly it uses up a lot energy so an inefficient jumper will get tired much faster than an efficient jumper.

So what am I going to do?  I suppose I have three choices.

  1. I could do nothing and just wait and see if Lil develops a significant jumping issue.  But this would make me crazy!
  2. I could encourage Lil to run agility at a moderate speed.  But this would also make me crazy since I love running agility as fast as possible with my dogs and I love watching them run super fast, even if just around the back yard.  It makes me feel so good, I suspect I’m getting an endorphin rush.
  3. I could continue to encourage maximum speed and have the maximum amount of fun with my dogs and also try to help Lil learn how to jump well at high speeds.   This will NOT make me crazy or at the very least not any crazier than I already am 🙂

So I am starting fresh with Lil and following Silvia Trkman’s methods to encourage fast running away from jumping (either without bars or bars on the ground for a while).  Then I will slowly increase the height of the jumps as Lil is able to run fast and jump well at the same time.  And I don’t plan to do any more jump grids at this point because Lil is still able to jump well and consistently when she is running at a moderate speed with a collected stride, which is what a lot of jump grid drills tend to focus on.

While agility is just a hobby for me, it is a hobby that I am ridiculously passionate about. I don’t have lofty goals or aspirations and my dogs already have more than enough speed to come in under SCT (standard course time) and they often win their classes.   So perhaps it comes down to the fact that there is nothing quite like the thrill of a fluid, top-speed run when I feel entirely connected to my dogs.

As Silvia Trkman would say:  GO GO GO!