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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what does this mean in terms of agility dogs?

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

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

unaltered_photo_7_10_13Above is an unaltered photograph of the same scene

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

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

vision

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

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

jumps_straight_rowAbove is the same image but unaltered

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and

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

 mona

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll end with two questions:

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

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

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

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

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).

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!

ABOUT HGR: additional note about handling

New NOTE ABOUT HANDLING added to HGR Description, in response to a new student’s statement: “I suppose I would like her to have the confidence jumping regardless of what I am doing.”

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.”

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.

http://www.dawnweaveragility.com/catalog/agility-classroom-line

Bringing out your dog’s inner-Maserati through backyard training

Most agility competitors have heard the training analogy about learning to drive slowly in a parking lot, then a little faster on side roads, and then eventually driving faster yet on highways.  That analogy seemed so logical that I never questioned it… until recently. What made me question it was an observation I had made about my 3-year-old Australian Terrier, Lil.

Keeping with the driving analogy, Lil has always run agility like a Volvo XC.  She is solid, reliable, powerful, and comfortable on both winding mountain roads and highways.  But between the ages of 2 and 3, Lil’s inner Maserati started to kick in and she began to falter.  It looked to me like she did not know HOW to drive her new race car.

volvo_xc70_maseratiLil’s foundation training included a lot of backyard (and living room) training. We did a ton of shaping and trick training to teach her how to learn while also developing body awareness.  We played impulse control and recall games, did flat-work, banged on boards, ran over flat and slightly raised planks, did jump grids, and began developing distance skills.  Everything appeared to be going very well and by the time Lil was 2.5 years old, she was running Masters level courses in USDAA with good consistency and speed.  Getting back to the driving analogy, Lil was like a turbo charged Volvo XC– able to negotiate over a variety of terrains/ obstacles at speeds reasonably faster than the speed limit/ SCT.

This would have been perfectly fine if my goal was to have a consistent dog with good speed, since that is what I had (and appreciated). But when I watched videos of Lil’s runs, I could see that she did not look 100% confident and thus was not running nearly as fast as she did when we played fetch or when she chased chipmunks or ran in the woods.  I thought agility would be even more fun for her (and me) if she learned HOW to run agility courses as fast as she was able to run and jump over logs and branches in the woods.

Back to the driving analogy–I cannot imagine suddenly swapping out my Volvo XC for a Maserati and feeling confident driving 100+ MPH, even on a wide-open highway, without having to first learn how to drive this very different machine.  I can only imagine that I would take my foot off the gas, and perhaps even hit the brakes, and drive slower in general if I felt insecure about my driving abilities.   And that is exactly what I thought was going on with Lil.


(above) examples of Lil jumping from age 2 to age 3

In early 2011, I signed up for Silvia Trkman’s on-line Agility Foundations class (http://silvia.trkman.net) and began the process of retraining both of my dogs from the ground up.  I have continued to follow Silvia’s training methods for nearly a year now and both my dogs are running better and better as time goes by, with YPS often hovering around 5 YPS and sometimes even breaking 5 YPS.

A few days ago I was thinking about how well Silvia’s “Speed First” method worked for my dogs and a very different driving analogy came to mind that makes as much sense to me as the  “learning to drive in a parking lot” analogy.  Here it is:

Silvia’s training method is like sliding into the driver’s seat of a Maserati and pressing the pedal to the metal but doing so in a wide open and thus totally safe environment and then gradually adding various driving challenges within that open space.  That fun thought inspired me to write this post about backyard training because I did 90% of Silvia’s course work in my backyard with just 5 jumps and a tunnel!

One particular comment by Silvia made a lasting impression on me.  She said that she does not see many dogs trained using her methods with jumping issues. That really surprised me, because at any given trial, I tend to see at least a few dogs struggling with jumping, including my own at times!  On a side note, I can’t express how upsetting it was when I was watching a video playback of one of Lil’s runs, and heard a random bystander declare “That dog has ETS” after Lil crashed into a jump after flying off the A-Frame due to being startled by the judge’s sudden burst of energy close-by (not one of my favorite agility moments).   I wish I knew who it was so I could explain that misjudging an occasional jump does not constitute ETS.

Anyway, one of the most important things I learned in Silvia’s class was how to SEE what is really going on when dogs are running and jumping.  It was great to be able to watch various breeds progress through Silvia’s class and to see how structure affects jumping styles.  Over time, I was able to pinpoint Lil’s specific jumping issues, including a huge AH HAH moment when I finally noticed that Lil appeared to have developed a “preferred landing spot” that was approximately the same distance from every jump, regardless of her take-off spot.  Prior to noticing this, I assumed all trajectories that peaked before jumps were due to early take-off.  Needless to say, I was blown away.

Since that realization, I can now also see when other dogs appear to have “preferred landing spots” that are too close  OR too far from jumps…the later including some very high-ranking Border Collies.  I have heard people refer to dogs whose jumping arcs peak after bars as late jumpers. But are they really late jumpers?  Or are they late landers? 🙂  Their take-off spots tend to look similar to other Border Collies of comparable speed.  And if it is indeed a landing  issue, how do we know if these dogs would benefit from training them to land a bit closer to jumps?   Because it was beneficial for Lil to learn how to land further from jumps?  Not necessarily.  However, I could argue that it might be beneficial, assuming it is true that longer float times add fractions of seconds, or if landing long causes dogs to knock occasional bars due to having to flip their rear legs up higher and hold them up a fraction of a second longer than they would if their jumping arcs were perfectly centered over bars.

But I could also argue that perfectly centered jumping arcs may not be attainable or desirable for every dog and instead of trying to get all dogs to jump mechanically “perfect” or what we think of as perfect, why not allow dogs to choose their own styles of jumping, based on their particular structures, and then do our best to help our dogs perfect their particular styles so they can run agility with full confidence and speed.


(above) Lil running Masters/ P3 Jumpers at 2.5 years of age before Silvia’s class


(above) Lil one year later, running Masters/ P3 Jumpers after taking Silvia’s class and doing various jumping “experiments” for several months.   Lil looks so much more confident about jumping and is able to run faster as a result.   The knocked bar was caused by my deceleration to rear cross vs. continuing with fluid motion with a blind cross.

Silvia was totally open-minded about my experiments and was impressed by the results she was seeing with Lil and recommended that a few other people in the class do with their dogs what I was doing with Lil.  One of those teams continued with my jumping experiment after Silvia’s class ended and I’m pleased to say both Lil and the other dog are both jumping remarkably better today then they were a year ago!

Lil Jumping, fall 2012

The following video is from a recent backyard training session with my two Australian Terriers, Jake and Lil.  My intention was to practice forward-moving rear crosses and jumping in extension but Jake’s reps ended up being more about sends to the tunnel, which can be a bit iffy for him at times.   Lil’s session begins at 1:05 minutes.   I think she did a great job driving her inner-Maserati.

Here’s another backyard session with Lil from June 2012, after a few months of  jumping “experiments.”   This was before her first NADAC trial in a year and a half so I wanted to reintroduce her to NADAC spacing and to practice jumping in extension through turns.

All along the way, I had been sharing Lil’s progress with Dawn Weaver from the UK (http://www.dawnweaveragility.com), because an important part of my jumping experiment emerged from her contact training method.  Dawn tested it with two dogs who had jumping issues and both dogs responded as well as Lil did.  At that point, Dawn asked me if I’d like to partner up to develop a jump training program to help dogs with jumping issues.  I said yes and over the past 6 months, Dawn and I co-developed HGR.  The name “Hit the Ground Running” highlights the fact that HGR is not about dogs learning how to jump “pretty” or “perfectly” but rather it is about helping dogs learn how to run fast and navigate efficiently enough over jumps that they can Hit the Ground Running towards the next obstacle with full confidence and speed.

In early July, we began a test study of a diverse group of dogs with a diverse range of jumping issues.   The test study was free, so we had some early drop-outs, but all the dogs who progressed through the program showed remarkable improvements in overall confidence and developed more efficient jumping styles as well, which equated to faster course times and perhaps more importantly, equated to the game of agility being more fun to play…for both the dogs and humans!

The first official HGR class launched in mid-November.  Of the teams that have already posted videos, it looks like we have a great group of dogs and trainers. We decided to keep the HGR format as an on-line classroom so we could see how dogs are progressing and make suggestions along the way like we did with the test study group.  We also decided to break HGR into 4 separate modules so people could pay as they go and wouldn’t have to make a big time or financial commitment before they could determine if HGR is right for their dogs.

Oh, and I almost forgot to mention that most HGR games can be played in a backyard with just 3 jumps.  How cool is that?  🙂

This post was written for the Dog Agility Blog Action Day.  Check out other posts here.