Thursday, February 10, 2011

Hmmmm... on running contacts...

Just an fyi... if you are wondering why you see 'hmmmm...' in so many of my posts and titles, it is because I think... about agility... way too much... Just ask my husband.

I have mentioned a million times before and I probably will mention another million times, I come from a country with a very small agility following.  Unfortunately I also come from a country where contact training in general is attrocious.  I can probably count the dogs in South Africa that has good, consistent and more importantly WELL TRAINED contacts on two hands...  Yes, that is through the whole country.  And now since running contacts are the in thing, all of a sudden most of the uneducated handlers want to run before they can walk.  People who have never trained successful contacts just want to jump on the bandwagon.  Scary but true... oh there are many methods that would amuse most of the agility world...

1.  Give dog command for dogwalk/A-frame.  As soon as dogs first paw hits the up ramp, start screaming WAAAAAIT (please note this has to be a drawn out, loud scream with a high pitch).  Handler runs towards dog (nearly climbing on dogwalk/Aframe themselves) as soon as dog hits down ramp.  Dog stops dead half way down, then starts creeping.  Right before contact, dog gets frustrated (probably because its little brain is going 'WTF do you want dude?'), dog leaps off and finds next obstacle while handler tries to disengage themselves from said contact obstacle.

2.  This group of handlers claims they have trained a 2o2o.  Give dog command for dogwalk/A-Frame.  Let dog run full speed until dog puts first paw on down ramp.  Handler screams at top of lungs 'touch it' or 'wait' or 'you will not jump off' (yes I promise, people actually say that last one).  Dog starts creeping, throwing worried looks between the down ramp, the handler and the next obstacle.  Dog miraculously reaches 2o2o position.  Handler stops as soon as dog has reached position.  Handler moves and dog shoots off toward next obstacle, with handler lagging 7m behind.

3.  The ones that claimed they have a running contact.  This involves the handler sprinting at full speed with the dog, their shoulder brushing the dogwalk/A-frame (you recognise these people by the bruises on their arms and shoulders).  Handler gets to down contact and points at it, finger in dogs face (dog has to be able to feel finger up their nostril, otherwise method does note work), commands normally involve 'watch it', 'hit it', 'get it' or 'touch it'.  Dog jumps over handler's finger (and the contact).

One thing that a lot of handlers don't get is criteria.  What is your criteria for the dog and have you trained it?  This brings me to my actual point by the way... sorry lots of rambling again.  The new 'in thing' is running contacts.  Every Joe Soap and his mate wants to have a running contact, because apparently you can't win or be the best without a running contact...  Erm, beep, wrong, you're out!!!  But I will get back to that later...  Now you all know the nerd in me reads... a lot.  So yes, I have read all about (insert famous running contact trainer/handler here, which I will not name in fear of agility wrath), the different methods.  I have also watched their dogs run absolutely spectacular rounds with brilliant contacts.  However I have, in this country and all over the world watched many a dog 'run a contact' then put it on a frame by frame just to see the dog happily stride over that bit of different coloured paint. 

The reason I am writing all of this, is because a million and a half people have asked me if I am going to do running contacts with my Sheltie...  Now in all theory it would be easier with a Sheltie, smaller stride and all... but the answer is no.  And befor even start... let me answer all your questions about why not.

As I said, criteria is very super uber fundamentally important to me.  For every behaviour and command I teach in agility, there are very definable criteria.  Doggy you take jump, oh look, bar on floor, sorry no reward, lets try again.  I say 'come', that means you come toward me stat, don't pass go, don't collect your R200, straight to me (that means avoiding all obstacles), until I give you a further command.  I say 'go round', you go towards the back of which ever obstacle I am indicating.  Those are just a few examples, but they are simple and easy to define.  My dog is NOT thinking... erm wtf, I have no clue.  Now to teach a dog to run at full speed and hit those magic odd 90cm, please tell me what your criteria is???  I mean take Chaos, at full tilt that dog has a stride WELL over 90cm.  Wait before you start, yes I know, I know.... it is all supposed to be about acceleration and deceleration, but now I challenge you, yes YOU (imagine finger pointing out of computer screen) to run full speed, then decelerate to hit the same spot 50 times in a row.  That is you, as a human being, that actually knows and understands the whole concept.  Have you as a handler not run into agility obstacles a million times before???  How do you explain deceleration AS WELL AS performing that deceleration at the ideal point?  Oh wait and for those of you that use any form of targeting at a full speed run, please go and ask any professional long jumper, exactly how many times he has missed his mark because it is bloody hard to hit a target at full speed.  And this from professional athletes that get to mark their ideal distance with a very accurate tape measure... not dogs that will be coming onto the contact from a different spot every time. 

My next objection to running contacts is this, at least everyone agrees on it though.  The time spent teaching a running contact is insane.  A running contact is muscle memory, this means it is repetition, repetition, repetition and some more repetition.  Maybe this becomes boring for me or my dogs, it does not matter.  In my eyes (and that is only in mine of course) is that this is just a repetition exercise and not one of learning or understanding... which I prefer.  Some people might differ there, but hey this is MY blog.

In modern agility a running contact is actually NOT always ideal, because some nasty judges out there actually like people with running contacts (that is not me btw, if you don't believe me go and check my courses), and often if you take splits, those with stopped contacts will GAIN time on certain sequences.  Now I know the newest most discussed subject in agility is teaching turns off a RDW (yes, this famous goal has now even got its own abbreviation), but once again, without using props like poles next  the down contact etc, exactly how are you setting your criteria?  How far past the down ramp is the dog allowed to accelerate before turning?  And just by the by, I HATE props on an agility course, I don't believe in props, I don't bring any props close when I start training on proper agility equipment.  Props are for foundation and basic training end of story.  And no, I don't even bring a target or any other prop near a full contact when training my 2o2o.  Of course, toys don't count as props.

For those that argue the health and safety factor... Well, first of all have you watched your dogs run and play, all on their own, without your interference...  Maybe you have calmer dogs than me, but mine are bloody wacked in the head!  The things they do are a lot more unhealthy than me teaching them a PROPER 2o2o.  and ask any marathon runner, downhills kill you.  

And for those of you that whine about 'not being able to win without running contacts'... let me put this to you.  At the last 5 years of the FCI World Champs, lets divide the gold medalists into running and stopped contacts.  I am counting the dogwalks btw.

Stopped:  Hoss (Large 2009+2010), Dizzy (Medium 2009+2010), Kerttu (Small 2009), Juice (Large 2008), Witch (2007+2008 Medium), Wave (Small 2008), Seven (2007 Large), Rupione-baby (Small 2007), Simic (Large 2006), Frodo (Medium 2006)

Running:  Dice (2010 Small), Pebbles (2006 Small)

Shall we not let the results speak for themselves?

Lets get one thing clear, I am all for dogs running at full speed, I loooooove speed, I am the first one on the list that is voting that up contacts should no longer be judged, since it is unnatural for our dogs to try and hit an up contact, terrible impact and completely slows them down...  But when it comes to running contacts, I am just not convinced.

Everyone that has trained with me has heard my story, I advise them against it, but for those pupils who chose to do this method, I helped to the best of my ability.  Maybe consistent running contacts is not impossible, maybe someone will still discover a method that has viable criteria in my books and convince me otherwise.  If you want to give running contacts a try, go for it, I will still be the one in the crowd that admires you and cheers you on (if your dog hits it ofc).  But by my way of doing things, it is just not for me.  I like black and white when it comes to training (haha, not referring to my BC's of... okay well them too, but you know what I mean).  So if you are getting it right (and smirking cos this stupid cow doesn't get it), I am happy for you...

But for now, for me, there is just no way.   The low consistency rate and the abstract criteria just doesn't do it for me.  I feel passionately about this, but who knows what will happen next year or the year after.  Make no mistake, my 2o2o training through the years have been far from perfect and I still don't have the perfect contacts, but I have learnt and I will hopefully improve with little Volt... each to his own though...

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