An advantage in agility
Having a solid, reliable 2 on / 2 off contact behavior on the dogwalk is a great advantage in agility. The 2 on / 2 off is a clear, specific position that most dogs find easy to learn and perform. It also requires the dog to wait until you catch up and release him, which allows for better handling of subsequent sequences. My method for training this behavior involves early foundation skills, clicking for correct position, feeding in position, and back-chaining.
Before I get to formal contact behavior training, I introduce my dogs to the foundation skill of interacting with boards. When my dogs are young, I give them plenty of experience playing on boards on the ground, boards up on bricks, and low dogwalks. I encourage all sorts of different behaviors on the boards (such as sitting, turning around, and touching with a nose or paws) by clicking and treating for ALL interaction with boards. This builds up a strong positive emotional association with being on boards, which serves me well in future training.
I also teach my young dogs the foundation skill of the 2 on / 2 off position. They learn that this position pays off well as I reinforce it (with a click and treat) on stairs, box tops, and curbs. The foundation training for this position can be accomplished with shaping, luring, or a combination of the two. I prefer shaping, as this is my favorite training technique. If you do use a lure, be sure to wean off of it very quickly so your dog does not become dependent on the lure in order to perform the behavior.
One other foundation skill I teach my young dogs is to wait in position for the treat after the click. Many trainers feel that the click ENDS the behavior and the dog is then free to move out of position to get his treat. Over time, however, I have come to feel that while the click MARKS the behavior, it doesn't necessarily have to end it.
When working on stationary exercises, there is a great advantage to having the dog hold the position while being treated. I start to develop this behavior by clicking for a sit and then very quickly delivering the treat so that the dog doesn't have to get up to get it. If the dog continues to hold the position, I will click and treat again. Eventually, I increase the time between the click and the treat so that the dog continues to hold still and waits for the treats to be delivered. I then move on and train the dog to wait in position for downs, stands, and the 2 on / 2 off position.
Clicking and feeding in position
Once my dogs understand the foundation skills, I am then ready to train the 2 on / 2 off position at the end of the dogwalk. Because my dogs have been so highly reinforced for offering this position, they are quick to offer it on the dogwalk. I stand beside the dogwalk, facing the contact zone, and encourage my dog to jump up on the dogwalk by bringing him around my body and into position at the end of the board. My job is then to click for the exact position I want, and to feed while the dog holds the position.
There are a couple of technical issues to consider at this point.
- I hold the clicker in the hand away from the dog. Clicking right next to a dog's ear can make training quite unpleasant.
- Food is presented from the hand closest to the dog. I don't want to reach across my body to feed, as this causes me to turn into my dog.
- I orient my body forward, parallel to my dog. I don't want my body language to become part of my dog's cue to hold his position.
- Finally, I feed my dog at his head level or lower. I don't want him to have to reach up to get his cookie. Feeding low encourages him to keep his focus low and makes it less likely that he will jump over the contact zone.
It is important to work this skill equally from both sides of the dogwalk board. My dog should be jumping on the dogwalk and taking no more than a step or two to get into position. When he can do this, I work on duration in the position by delaying the click for a second or two. It is important for the dog to learn to take the position AND hold it until verbally released. I am very careful to use only a verbal release from position and not pair it with physical movement. Eventually, I want to be able to run past my dog while he is holding his contact position, so I train a verbal release on its own.
Once my dog jumps eagerly on the dogwalk board, takes his 2 on / 2 off contact position quickly, and holds the position until verbally released, I am ready to move to the next step in training, which is back-chaining. The way that I proceed will depend on the size of my dog. Small dogs can be picked up and placed on the board about one third of the way from the end. Larger dogs can usually still come around my body and jump onto the board heading down.
At this point I am back-chaining the dogwalk from the bottom up. My dog will have to take more steps down the board to get into his contact position. As I also want to reinforce speed in getting into the position, I will reinforce more heavily (I call these baby jackpots) for faster responses.
As I continue back-chaining on the down ramp of the dogwalk, I can place my small dog halfway up the board, then three quarters of the way up, and so on. For larger dogs, there are other options. One is to place the pause table next to the dogwalk and ask the dog to jump up on the table first, then onto the down ramp and into his contact position. Another option for larger dogs is to place a single dogwalk ramp against a pause table. Be sure that the board rests securely on the table and will not fall. I can ask the dog to jump up on the table first and from the table proceed down the ramp to his contact position.
At the end of this process, my dog should be able to jump on (or be placed on) the down ramp of the dogwalk and quickly proceed to the end to take his 2 on / 2 off contact position. He should hold that position until verbally released and should demonstrate a clear understanding of his job at end of the contact. This is a good beginning to training contact behavior, but there is still quite a bit of work still to do:
- I need to connect a verbal cue with the behavior.
- I need to teach my dog to take this position when going over the entire obstacle.
- I need to solidify the behavior by challenging my dog to take and hold his position in the face of increasing distractions.
Contact behaviors can break down very quickly when the excitement of showing kicks in. That is why it is so important to teach the desired behavior using a systematic, step-by-step approach. I want my dog to truly understand what he is expected to do in the contact zone. Building a strong foundation using clicker training and positive reinforcement can achieve my goal of a very reliable dogwalk contact behavior.
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