Contacts: A History Lesson

(Featured photo by Christine Norman of Baxter’s last AAC trial prior to his passing.)

(Original Post on March 14, 2014)

Today [March 14, 2014] I was out walking with a friend and we got talking about contacts. That and the history of agility video I shared brought the horrors of contacts of the past to mind, so I decided I would share my contacts story. You see, when I started agility in 1994, there was no such thing as “Floors” or 2-on-2-off (2o2o) contacts. We had the contact zones like we do today (and actually both the up and down were considered “live”), but we didn’t know how to train them. Those were the days of “Get-er-done” Agility. Handlers nagged and “helped” the dogs hit the contacts; it was not uncommon to hear handlers yell, “SLOW!” “EASY!!!” or “WHOAH!!!” to their dogs or get in their dog’s way physically. But none of that helped. Five-faults for missed contacts were so common that you only needed ONE (yes – that’s 1!!) clean run in Starters to get your title and move up. One.
Then around 1996, some folks got wise to this problem and started to train criteria that would guarantee that the dog would hit the contact, and “Floors” were born. Well, technically the cousin to 2o2o was born and it was first 4-on at the last slat of the dog walk, but when those got removed (to save the wee toes of our canine partners), dogs were stopping in all sorts of places on the descent, so the ingenious 2o2o was developed. This development was brilliant because regardless of the equipment, it always met the ground so the dog could always figure out the 2o2o position. Suddenly missed contacts were rare, and standards were changed to 3 Qs to get Starters title. This 2o2o also allowed handler-independent performance of the contacts for the dogs, and they got faster as a result.
Fast forward to 2010-ish. Dogs were getting so fast on the equipment that people started doing “Quick releases” of their 2o2o contacts to shave off tenths of seconds off their times. The result of the quick release, however, meant muddied criteria for the dogs and missed contacts returned. You see, when a dog and handler are in competition or excited for whatever reason, dogs start leaping off contacts. The best (worst) I’ve seen is a dog leap off the apex of the A-Frame. The most common though is the one-stride leap off the dog walk.
Some folks, however, weren’t happy with the muddy criteria and wanted to find a more ergonomically friendly way for the dogs to do the contact equipment. These folks are the ones who train HARD, and compete harder, so their dogs were getting a lot of repetitive stress on the shoulders from a LOT of hard 2o2o. Thus running contacts were developed.
Running contacts, unlike their forefathers of non-stop contacts of the 90s, have very specific criteria that are trained through a lot of repetition of foundation skills away from the equipment, then trained with same criteria with just the plank, then retrained with the full equipment. A lot of the foundation skills are similar to those taught to flyball dogs for swimmers turns; however, this one is bilateral with both front paws being targeted to being lead feet in the targets.
After 20 years of agility, I finally decided to tackle the challenge of training running contacts for Kelsey. This project started at home back in October, under the guidance of Susan Garrett and Lynda Orton-Hill. The criteria are: head carriage low, striding through with no pounce, ideally with separated hind feet, and a minimum of one front foot hitting low on the contact however with the former criteria, this last one is usually met with 3-4 paws hitting the yellow zone. The criterion is not: Did the dog hit the yellow zone with at least a part of the paw?
The challenge of the running contact is that it goes against the natural inclination of the dog to leap off the bottom of any incline to meet the flat ground. For example, watch your dog go down the stairs…. Does it leap off the second or third last stair, or does it stride through all of the steps? Does it leap off the bottom stair or stride through? Is its head high or low? It is a very slippery slope from meeting criteria in training to leaping off in trial.
The other challenge is in terms of being able to see what the dog is doing at speed and making fast decisions on whether to reward or not. I’ve had to train my eyes with videos and I’m still only 90-95% accurate on my calls [March 14, 2014 – now I might miss 1%]. Any ambiguity or poorly rewarded performance makes the training more challenging.
Anyway, after great debate with myself, I brought out our running Dog Walk contacts at the games night, and while Kelsey met the criteria, they weren’t our “AWESOME” running contacts. They were “Good” but her hits were higher than what I’d like, yet she met all the other criteria. So… if you ever see me NOT do a 2o2o contact, it’s because of the hours of foundations and new criteria I have for Kelsey. (I have her running dog walk on a different command than the 2o2o dog walk, which I am still keeping and rewarding. “GOgogogogo” is what I say to her for her foot targeting.)
If you want to consider running contacts, please let me know. I can talk some sanity into you and promote the 2o2o… or I can chat with you about benefits and challenges of running contacts. In the interim, keep working on those independent and proofed 2o2o floors!!! They are the best thing for your dog’s safety in agility and they can help overcome any confidence issues for your dog on the contacts!
[Note: running contacts training has evolved since the date of this blog, but the history hasn’t changed.]
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