I developed this theoretical model as an exercise in how I might approach training a running dog walk using back-chaining. There are already proven methods for training fast and consistent running dog walks. My intention in posting this is to generate ideas and share thoughts about training RCs with other agility enthusiasts and see where it leads. I see it as an experiment in collaborative, creative thinking, and a way to use what we know about dog training and the behavioral sciences to see how good a plan we can come up with as a group.
Participants read the rough draft below and posted comments (plus I received some private emails) about what they would do differently and why, or posted their personal experiences with their dogs, or asked clarifying questions. I have made changes based on the great feedback I received. This is still a rough draft so please excuse typos, potentially unclear descriptions, and inconsistency in formatting.
The following concept is based on back-chaining. I would train this away from any “real” agility equipment to test the theory so no harm would be done to my dog’s contact performance.
STEP 1) Since this is based on back-chaining, training would start with the last behavior: Dog knows how to GO ON, turn RIGHT or LEFT over jumps or cones…
*Foundation Skills: an independent and fast GO ON, and RIGHT and LEFT directionals.
*Criteria: Handler should be able to send the dog, run with dog, run ahead of dog, peel away, hang back, do FCs, RCs, and… gasp… even blind crosses :). Handler should be able to move to every imaginable position at a distance, up-close, and mid-range. Performance should be fast and consistent in at least 2 habitats.
STEP 2) Use shaping to train the dog to step onto a small mat or board with all four feet and then jackpot when the dog steps off the mat/board with front feet into a 2o2o.
*Foundation Skills: dog has a ton of value for seeking out, walking over and standing in 2o2o on a small mat/board.
The reason using a short length mat or board is to encourage the dog to really think about the mat or board. I’d try to come up with an unusual surface that the dog can really feel when they step on it. Examples: a yoga mat wrapped around a thin, foam “pillow,” or a mat on a board that wobbles slightly, or a yoga mat crinkled up and glued onto a board so it forms ridges, or any of these items glued to the top of a “hit it” board (with volume turned off to start). If I used a foam “pillow” I would fade it over time by making the foam thinner and thinner until it was using just a plain yoga mat. If using a wobbling board, I’d fade the wobble over time and end up with just a thin board or mat.
*Criteria: The dog is clicked and rewarded first for putting front feet on the board or mat, then for standing with all four feet on board, and finally jackpotted for stepping off the board into a 2o2o. Dog is “reset” after each rep by releasing forward to a thrown toy, MM or food reward.
STEP 3) Adding motion: Dog runs to the mat/board and as soon as the dog hits the 2o2o, release forward to a toy, MM or bait bag. I might mix crate games by putting a crate 5 front of the board, then gradually increasing the distance to 30′ or more (why not add speed and distance early on?).
*Foundation Skill: Same as STEP 2.
*Criteria: Click and reward 2o2o and then release forward to a manners minder or throw a toy or bait bag about 5 ‘ straight ahead of the board. After a bunch of successful reps in a row, I’d sometimes send to the dog forward as soon as the dog hits the 2o2o position vs. rewarding the dog on the board every time.
STEP 3a) Add a jump after the mat/board on the reward line so the dog takes the jump on its way to getting the reward. NOTE: The reason adding a jump is so important is because it turns the mat/board into a directional “obstacle” so that you can send your dog ahead to the mat/board and it knows to continue focusing forward. If there is nothing in front of the mat/board, the dog would be correct if you sent her to the mat/board and she did a 2o2o facing back at you. Progress to using three jumps: one straight ahead, one ahead to the right, and one ahead to the left to practice GO ONs and directionals. Cue the dog to GO ON, RIGHT or LEFT as the dog is approaches the mat/board.
*Criteria: Dog still hits the mat/board with all four feet, briefly pausing in 2o2o.
STEP 4) Get rid of the slight pause so the dog is striding over the mat/board and continues over a jump to a toy or MM without pausing in 2o2o.
*Foundation Skills: a dog that will GO ON and go RIGHT and LEFT independently and has enough value built up for standing in 2o2o on the mat/board that the dog strides across the board with all four feet touching the board but does not stop.
*Criteria: All four feet hit the board. Due to the short length of the board, this will be a very compressed stride and should be easy to see.
STEP 5) Gradually add more extreme turns to jumps including 90 and 180 degree turns. I’d repeat all the variations from step #1.
STEP 6) Increase the distances between the starting point and the mat/board so the dog is running a full speed with long strides when approaching the board. A “hit it” board would come in very handy here (especially with my small dogs since their short, fast legs are hard to see in real time.
*Criteria: Dog approaches the mat/board running at full speed and then compresses its stride so that all four feet come in contact with the board. I’d continue to increase the distance until the approach is at least as long as the length of a dog walk.
STEP 7) Add a 8-12′ long x 12″ wide plank about 5’ in front of the mat/board and gradually move the new plank closer to the original mat/board until they are touching and finally place the mat/board on top of the plank. The reason I would not start with the mat on the end of the plank is because my dogs already run over a plank and I wouldn’t want to suddenly change the rules. But I think by gradually reducing the space between the plank and the mat, they will not be confused when they are faded together. I would paint the new plank a different color than the mat/board so I could easily see where the mat/board begins. I might even add more planks until the dog is racing across the entire length of a DW on flat planks at top speed. Handler moves to every imaginable position listed in Step 1 mixing in GO ONs and turns.
STEP 8) This step could be done before step 7 too on just a plank (no mat/board yet). Train angled approaches to the plank by setting up every possible scenario for dog and handler, using a small object placed at the front edge of the plank to encourage the dog to approach the plank straight on (like Silvia Trkman does). I would keep switching between using different small objects placed at the corner of the plank and I would also sometimes not use any object to mark the corner so the dog did not become dependent on the object being there to have a straight approach.
STEP 9) Not sure this would be necessary, but I might also run the dog over a plank on a gradually increasing angle (like Silvia Trkman does), with the mat/board at the end.
STEP 10) Transfer the behavior to a real DW by placing the mat/board at the end of a DW. I’d start every session (early on) doing a few reps with the dog starting close to the mat (on the down ramp) like Step #2 to reinforce the behavior. I might start with a lowered DW (if I had access to one) but I’d quickly increase to full height since a DW is not very steep and doesn’t affect a dog’s striding like the extreme angle of an A-Frame does.
STEP 10a) Fade the mat/board. If the dog is running fast across the dog walk and hitting the mat consistently, I’d quickly start alternating between using the mat and not using the mat so that the dog’s performance on the DW did not become overly dependent on the mat.
ENDING NOTE: I don’t think this theoretical RC training method would create as fast a running DW as Silvia Trkman’s method, since it creates a very compressed stride at the end, but perhaps training slight collection to maintain the criteria of 4 feet running through the contact zone (vs. 2) would result in a more reliable performance.
Please post ideas as comments on this blog vs. posting on a closed Facebook Group page so that everyone can read your thoughts, insights, comments. Thanks!