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.