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).

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.


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.

HGR: a new approach to jump training

Hit the Ground Running!
Click on the link above to learn about a radically new approach to jump training.

Here is the new URL to sign up for HGR:  http://www.dawnweaveragility.com/hitthegroundrunning