Camped out at an agility trial last weekend. What fun!

jake_and_lil_ribbons from last weekend's trialI just returned from a weekend of camping at an agility trial in my -75 VW Bus.
Jake had his best weekend ever: 100% Q rate for 4 runs on Friday and 100% Q rate for 4 runs on Saturday. Plus he earned 2 new titles (Chances and Weavers). He ran with incredible pizazz and speed all weekend long. Every run was between 4.4+ and 4.7+ YPS.  GO JAKE!

A few of Lil’s highlights: She had her fastest time ever on an Elite Standard course @ 4.65 YPS and 4.4 YPS on the other 3 Elite Standard courses.  Her running contacts were 100% all weekend and she had her fastest time to date on a Touch N Go course @ 5.16, which was also the fastest time of any dog (all sizes).  Plus 4.0 YPS and 4.2 on Elite Weavers (3 sets of 12 poles). Lil also earned 2 titles (Elite Touch N Go and her Elite Regular Superior title). GO LIL!

Other highlights: My 38 year old VW Bus started up every time and ran super well…just like Jake and Lil (HA HA). It was so fun and relaxing to camp at Sugarbush farm vs. commuting back and forth.

"Home Sweet Home" 1975 VW camper at a NADAC TrialPhoto above is not from this trial but this is a typical camping set up.

Besides all the run we had in the agility ring, I also had a great time hanging out with friends. I am starting my week feeling relaxed, then entirely ready to tackle the big project of packing the art work shipping to Luxembourg for my solo exhibition in June.

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.

Jake and Lil’s NADAC trial last weekend at Sugarbush Farm

Jake is back! 🙂  after taking a few months off due to a soft tissue injury.  He ran incredibly well and his focus was unwavering the entire weekend.  I could not be more proud of him.   His jumping style started off looking a bit YAHOO 🙂  but by the time his Standard run rolled around on day 2 (the 3rd run on the video) he had settled into a nice rhythm  and was jumping efficiently (like he does at home).

A few of Jake’s runs:

Lil had another spectacular weekend.   She is in Elite in most classes now and her YPS are continuing to increase so its more fun than ever to run with her.   Her Elite Standard run on Saturday was 4.46 YPS (with 2 A-Frames) and on Sunday it was a whopping 4.78 YPS.  Too bad I didn’t walk the closing on Sunday and thus did not support the last hoop.  I don’t think I’ll make that mistake again!

A few of Lil’s runs:

Yet another reason to love Silvia Trkman….like anyone needs one!

My recent post for Silvia’s Agility Foundations class:  Here is a short video of Lil’s current serpentines plus a few reps jumping over angled jumps. We have not practiced serps for a long time due to focusing on straight jumping and cip&cap.

Lil will normally seek out and take serpentine jumps with very little support from me. I wonder if the reason she ran past some jumps was because I was not in my usual position (which is typically further ahead).  It felt good to feel rushed by Lil’s increased speed and drive over the jumps.  I definitely felt more comfortable when I took more of a head start and was a bit further ahead of Lil.  I’m not sure any of this is visible due to the camera angle though.

Lil’s speed has picked up considerably since starting this course and as a result I am having so much fun running with her….not that it wasn’t fun before! It’s just more fun now!

Now I just need to be disciplined enough to do very little jump training between now and next weekend since we have another trial. Jumping has become so much fun its like eating ice cream… hard to stop until the bowl is empty! But I want Lil’s “jumping bowl” to be over-flowing for the trial!

LoLaBu’s avatarLoLaBu

That sure was fast! Great job! She is really flying, so… – who cares about a couple of missed jumps :) You do want to be ahead for a serpentine yes and you can help some with the arm too, you just don’t want to do any extreme turning as you want to keep running.

Jake and Lil’s First Agility Trial since January 1, 2012

The Mid-Hudson Kennel Association (MHKA) hosted an AKC trial 20 minutes away from my house last weekend.  I usually have to drive 2 hours for “local” trials so this was a real treat.

This was our first trial since January 1, 2012.  And after four months away from trialing, I noticed that my priorities have shifted.   While I still enjoy having clean runs, I realized that I don’t have big goals in terms of agility and I don’t care about titles, which puts me in perfect alignment with my dogs, who could care less about Qs, ribbons, or titles.  🙂 My only goal at this point is to have the fastest and funnest runs possible with each of my dogs and that is what we did this past weekend!

Everything I’ve been doing as part of Silvia Trkman’s on-line class appears to be paying off with Lil.  She was the fastest dog in her class (all size dogs) in Open JWW and took home 4 First Place Ribbons and earned her Open JWW Title.

I felt that Lil powered over jumps well and handled spread jumps with ease.   She had great obstacle focus all weekend and aced her two Open FAST runs, one of which included a tunnel to a WRAP at a distance, then back to the tunnel.  Her line and speed were unwavering (no video unfortunately).

Wind is like a giant tug toy to Jake in that it really revs him up and it was very windy most of the weekend.  In addition, it takes Jake a while to get used to being in a new environment with a lot of dogs around, especially when we have not been trialing for months.   On Day 1 we had some start line issues related to over stimulation and stress.  So on Day 2, I decided not to ask for a Sit Stay.  Instead I started Jake’s runs by restraining him, then releasing to the first obstacle.   I think this method is perfect for him at this point and time because it directs his high-on-life energy towards the course vs. me trying to suppress his excitement by asking for a Sit Stay.

This decision is in keeping with Silvia’s thoughts about honoring the dog/s we have vs. trying to make every dog fit into the same mold.  I am certain that her approach is the right one for my dogs and me.  There were a lot of people at the trial whom I have known for years and talking to them made me reflect on the journey I have taken with Jake and Lil so far.

Jake has always been high on life, ever since he joined our family at the age of 2.  It is who he is and my husband and I love him for it.  He is sweet, affectionate, funny, smart, and I believe he always brings forth his best effort.  Lil has always been a real worker bee and rather serious about her “job” and she does it well.  She has been this way since puppy hood and my husband and I love that about her.  I feel so fortunate to have such great dogs!

Lil takes a ride on her new “magic carpet”

This is Lil’s second day running on her new “magic carpet.”  It is different from a typical magic carpet in that the “magic” of this carpet is that it encourages Lil to run more and fly less!  ps–Silvia recommended I switch from a board to a carpet to get rid of the bounce Lil was taking onto the board sometimes.   This detail is important to me because Lil currently leaps onto the A-Frame sometimes and hits it harder than she would if she just strides onto it.

The carpet seems to be working beautifully!  I am also finding it easier to see what Lil is doing on a 12′ carpet vs. an 8′ board.  It’s also easier to “see” when I focus on just one aspect of Lil’ performance: running vs. bouncing.

I am surprised that Lil  only takes 3 strides across a 12′ carpet.   I would have expected 4 strides but I’ve seen several Australian Terrier do lure coursing and they all seem to run this way when running full-out.

My questions to Silvia were: Do you think I am “calling” the leaps accurately? After watching the playback, I wonder if some of the reps that I called “perfect” had slightly elongated strides on or off the carpet. Or is it OK when Lil takes a longer stride on or off the carpet?  And when should I be throwing the ball? I sometimes threw it after she was already running and sometimes before…

LoLaBu’s avatar

LoLaBu

Not so easy to decide with this style of running yes… But I pretty much agree with your comments, just that last one doesn’t look all that good to me. My favorite try was 1:34. Ideally, she runs with equal strides the whole time. You need to throw a toy early enough that she sees it well in front when nearing the carpet.

Weave pole entries, sends to tunnels, and a lot of fast running

Below is a video of Lil’s 4th session working on Silvia’s weave pole challenges and I am amazed at how much she has improved!  Using channel weaves makes so much sense.  Lil did more reps in this one session than she normally does over a 6 month period with no strain on her body whatsoever.

We also did SENDs and GO ONs with a tunnel and mixed in some weave poles.  My matting is too slippery to work on tight turns to FCs or post turns but that is OK because GO ONs are just what both of my dogs need right now to find a better balance between handler and obstacle focus.

Throwing a ball as a reward has increased Lil’s speed and drive considerably.   Lil has always loved to chase balls and fetch.  I can’t believe I had this “speed tool” in my tool bag all along and wasn’t using it!

LoLaBu on March 8, 2012 at 13:08

Silvia’s response to my video: That’s sure really great progress already! Looks like she figured out what this game is about! And yes, I also think go is more important as come at this point. And she sure seems to like it! Really great distance skills with tunnel sends and some really cool entries!

ps–I am only uploading videos of Lil right now because I am posting them as part of Silvia’s Foundations class.   But I am also video taping and reviewing Jake’s performances.  He is not being neglected and is doing very well too!

An another note, I am I am taking a few days off from training “Loop and Wrap” since my yard is now thawing out and very wet.  Plus I think taking a few days off from working on any skill is good especially if a snag occurs.

A couple of days ago, I had a brilliant idea….or so I thought at the time.  I would do a short “Loop and Wrap” session in the bedroom to provide a new environment and I would rig up an impromptu jump with a tiny base so Lil wouldn’t have to hop over long support bars.  The new jump consisted of a 2′ tall PVC pipe that Lil would wrap around, a partially deconstructed wing on the far side, and a 2′ long PVC bar set at 4 inches.  I think the combination of a new environment and the strange mini-jump opened up a can of worms.  Lil started hitting the bar with her back legs so often that I wondered if she thought we were playing “touch that object with your back feet” game which she likes to play.  She even tried stopping while straddling the bar once and looked at me with an expression of “Is this what you want?”

OMG.  How did this happen?  Well, I have been saying YES when Lil approaches the wrap, thinking I was marking the commitment point and the set-up step.  But I think my timing contributed to Lil’s confusion because I was saying YES before she cleared the bar, so I was marking both clearing the bar and hitting the bar.  I play a lot of shaping games with my dogs and so when Lil happened to hit the bar a couple of times in a row and I had already said YES, I think that she thought she was supposed to touch this strange apparatus with her back feet and proceeded to do so consistently for a few more reps.

Bob Bailey is so right when he said: “What you click (or mark) is what you get!”  Of course, at the time I didn’t fully recognize what was going on so I ended the session and brought Jake in for his turn.  Jake had no trouble generalizing that this was a jump and that he was supposed to jump it.  Whew!  Anyway, I finished by taking Lil out to a dry spot in the yard and did a short “Loop and Wrap” session around a pole to end on a positive note.  I think  taking a few days off from “Loop and Wrap” will erase Lil’s memory of that strange little “shaping” session!

Powering out of tight turns, running fast and jumping in extension

We are now a few days into Silvia Trkman’s Cik & Cap method for training tight turns and powering out of turns.  But since Lil has been having trouble jumping well when running fast on straight aways, I wanted to add that element early on, thinking it will be good for her to practice running fast over a bar on the ground before gradually raising all the bars back to full height. The other element I am adding early on is me running with Lil, since my movement can be distracting and cause her to jump inefficiently.

So yesterday I set up a pair of wings and a pair of cones (since that is all I have at my house right now), with a Manners Minder about 15 feet beyond the 2nd jump.  My focus was on Lil powering out of 180 degree turns, running fast and jumping in extension over the second bar.  Adding that 2nd jump on the straight-away created the exact jumping scenario Lil has been having trouble with lately.

After watching the first few reps (unfortunately I didn’t have my video camera out yet), it became clear that Lil was bouncing over the bars vs. driving or just striding over them.

The first video clip shows how Lil often takes an extra step before jumps on straight aways, which diminishes her speed.  But you can also see at the November trial that she sometimes over-jumps, which can diminish speed by transferring forward momentum to upward momentum, not that I felt her slowing down at that trial.  But I could definitely feel something wasn’t quite right at the December trial.  I just couldn’t put my finger on what it was.  The final video clip is of a CPE trial from one year ago.  You can see that Lil’s striding is not even on straight jumps and that she often takes off a bit early.  I wouldn’t go so far to call it ETS (early jumping syndrome) but it is not the most efficient way to jump.  ps–I am open to the possibility that Lil (and Jake) will always have a tendency to take-off a bit early when jumping.  And I am OK with that as long as it doesn’t involve dramatic studder stepping or crouching before jumping.

I can think of two reasons I don’t want Lil to over jump.  The first is because it slows her down and it is much more fun to run agility at maximum speed.  The second, and more important reason, is that what goes up must come down.  Bouncing vs. driving makes for harder landings. The other thing that causes a dog to land hard is when the dog doesn’t know a tight turn is coming well before it approaches a jump.   I believe this is the most important aspect of training Cik & Cap.

Over the past few days, I have been thinking about how I have been using the verbal cues Left and Right in a general way, adding specificity to them through movement, body language or following the words Left or Right with “Lil, Lil, Lil” which means wrap tight and come back towards me.  But I am now thinking it would be better to have different words for wrapping left and right so that my dogs know well in advance how tight a turn they will need to take.  My practice partner came up with two good verbal cues: Loop and Wrap, which I just might be able to remember since Loop starts with an L and Wrap phonetically starts with an R.

Today I am looking forward to doing a short session focusing on speed, tight turns and powering out of 360 degrees and multiple turns around cones and wings with the bar at 2″ using a ball vs. the Manner’s Minder.

These sessions are so much fun!

A Fresh Start

I love fresh starts! There is nothing more exhilarating than letting go of the past and starting with a clean slate.  I’ve been feeling that way in my studio about my new series of work.  And I can now say I’m feeling that way about Lil and jumping too.

I  bought Silvia Trkman’s “Cik & Cap” DVD over the weekend and watched it uninterrupted from beginning to end.  The objective appears to be training tight turns and maximum speed coming out of the turns.

When I trained Lil to run around various objects when she was a puppy, I did not focus at all on speed coming out of turns.  Recently, I have noticed that Lil sometimes stalls out when jumping and wrapping tightly back towards me.  I thought I needed to train her to NOT turn so tightly, but after watching Silvia’s DVD, I now think the hole in Lil’s training is that I have never trained her to power-out of tight turns.  This insight alone was worth the $60 I paid for that video.

Over the past few days, I’ve been doing a couple of short sessions a day with my dogs turning tightly around a cone and powering out of the turns.  Since both dogs already know how to spin fast in both directions, they had no problem staying tight when turning.  But I felt my mechanics weren’t quite right in terms of how, when, and where I tossed the ball, so I watched parts of the DVD again, this time focusing on Silvia’s movement vs. her dogs’ movement.

My goal is not to try to replicate Silvia’s movements, but rather to modify my own movements in a way that gives the clearest message to my dogs.  While watching the DVD the second time, I noticed that Silvia often, but not always, uses an “early arm” to cue her dogs to turn in a certain direction (“early arm” is a term used to describe when a handler changing arms before they actually change sides, so the dog knows a turn and side change are coming).  I’ve gone back and forth about which arm to use for various cues and for the past couple of years, I have not been using an early arm to pre-cue turns or a change of side.  Of course, after watching Silvia’s video, I feel compelled to re-think that again (SIGH) along with the thought that if I start using an early arm to pre-cue turns, then to be consistent, I’ll also need to switch the arm I am currently using to indicate a change of lead is coming (which some people call “switch”).  Darn.  I thought I had this all figured out.  I am going to think a lot more about it before I change what I’m doing to make sure I really think it is worth while, since my dogs would need to relearn my “arm language.”

The other thing I noticed was that Silvia uses a great toy.  It functions as both a ball and a tug toy.  It is a “Hol-ee Roller,” which is an open-mesh rubber sphere that rolls when you throw it and stretches then you tug with it.  So it turns out that you can have it all, at least when it comes to dog toys!

I ordered a 5 inch  “JW Pet Company Hol-ee Roller Dog Toy” on Amazon.com for $6.53.  I hope it is not too big for my dogs.  The smallest sized Hol-ee Rollers looked like the rubber mesh would be too thick to stretch well enough for maximum tugging fun. I think Silvia uses a 6.5″ ball with her Border Collie.

On the topic of playing fetch vs. tugging, some agility people have strong opinions about why they think tugging is much better for motivation and relationship building than playing fetch.  Here is why I think playing fetch is great for motivation and relationship building.  As far as motivation goes, a ball that is thrown low to the ground will keep on rolling so the dog needs to run super fast to overtake the speed of the ball in order to grab it.  Compare that to a tug toy that is thrown and just plops down on the ground.  Dogs are smart enough to know it is not necessary to out-run the tug toy, since they know it will stop on its own.  Of course, some dogs naturally love to tug so much that they race ahead to get the toy in order to bring it back to play tug.  It took me a while to build enough value for tugging for my dogs to really get into playing tug, but based on my experience with my particular dogs, which happen to be terriers, they run super fast when chasing any moving object like a chipmunk, each other, or me, so getting them to run really fast in pursuit of a moving ball was effortless.  As far as relationship building and playing fetch,  I am fairly certain my dogs know that the ball is not throwing itself :).

So in keeping with Silvia’s thinking of agility as just another game, once I knew my dogs loved to chase balls, added a tight turn around a cone before throwing the ball was all I needed to do to encourage maximum speed out of the turns.

One more note about playing fetch with a ball. Jake plays fetch in a conventional way.  But with Lil, I have always used two balls so that she doesn’t stop in front of me with the ball.  She races around me, dropping the ball she has while I throw a second ball (like the way a lot of competitive disc dogs play with multiple Frisbees).  This way the fun and action never stop. The other game I mix in is to sometimes ask her to drop the ball, mid-way back to me.  And when she does, I throw the other ball, low to the ground, in her direction.  She gets very intense, crouches low, and gets very spiral eyed waiting for me to throw the second ball. I use this game to test her state of arousal and reflexes at trials, especially after she has been napping. She has to be very alert to catch a fast-moving ball that I am throwing directly at her.  This crazy game seems to reboot her brain if she is sluggish.  As fun as these games are, using two balls is not ideal for rewarding  tight turn around a cone, because it takes so long to go through the two ball routine, so I am hoping to transition Lil to chasing the Hol-ee Roller and fetching it in the traditional way, so I don’t have to change the current way we play with two balls.

So what does any of this have to do with helping Lil learn how to jump well when running fast?  In my opinion, everything!  This morning I transitioned to wrapping around two cones with a bar on the ground in between them and Lil looked great.  She had more drive with this set up than she did with a single cone.  I plan to switch back and forth between cones, wings, and jump standards in the coming weeks and to gradually increase the height of the bars when I feel Lil is ready.  I also plan to start integrating tight turns and powering out of them in sequences during agility practice (with bars on the ground to start).

I believe the main benefit for my small dogs will not be the tightness of their turns, but  rather that they are learning how to power-out of turns.  I think this will translate into better jumping in all situations because if they learn to power-out after all jumps, that should translate into a flat, extended arc over straight jumps, causing them to land further away from the jumps, which in turn will eliminate the need to over-jump, butt flip or jump early to make sure they clear the bar.

Of course, I know I could be entirely wrong about this.  But we are all having fun with these new games.  Time will tell if it ends up helping Lil learn to jump well when running fast.

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!