Contacts: Slippery Slopes

(Original post on January 9, 2016)
As a follow-up to the History Lesson on Contacts, I would like to discuss the slippery slopes of contact performance. In particular, I want to address some typical challenges associated with the different forms of contact performance and what common mistakes handlers should avoid.
First, let me reiterate the issue of Instinctual Drift. Instinctual drift is that every behavior that an animal learns will erode into the more natural state of behavior (it “drifts” to the more instinctual performance) (e.g., Bob Bailey). This means that if your dog’s natural way to run down a slope or set of stairs is to shave off the angle where the slope/stairs meet the ground by leaping off, then this is the behavior that will be the end result of instinctual drift. Your training and maintenance of criteria will be resisting this natural and constant force (e.g., Susan Garrett).
One safety factor for this instinctual drift is to train several layers between desired performance and end-point of instinctual drift (e.g., Susan Garrett). This gives the handler plenty of warning time to reinforce criteria before the big “leap” off the contacts. This is a benefit of the 2o2o. Not only are the criteria extremely clear for the dog, its behavior criteria are antithesis to the “natural leap-off” for the dog. The nose-touch behavior which many add on is yet another layer separating the desired behavior from the natural leap, and it adds an easy duration builder.
If a dog has solid understanding and very high value for the 2o2o behavior, then they will drive into that position with speed, and fight to hold that position until released verbally. I have witnessed at top-level competition in UK and Canada, winning runs where the handlers held a dog in a solid 2o2o position for what seemed like forever in the intense competition and still win!!! Thus the argument that a running is needed to win in the big rings doesn’t hold true. A dog who solidly understands and drives to the position can still provide a competitive advantage, especially if the sequence afterwards requires tricky handling.

So why are running contacts so popular?

First, they can be fun to train. Second, a well-trained running contact is a thing of beauty to watch. Third, for some dogs, the running contact may be easier on their body than the 2o2o; however, there isn’t sufficient research on that yet for that claim to be made definitively.
A problem I see a lot, however, is that people inadvertently undermine their dog’s understanding and value for the 2o2o contacts, and result in either leaping and out of control contacts, or slow, creeping contacts. So they drop criteria and assume a “running contact.” However, these new “running contacts” are actually Non-Stop Contacts. They are not running contacts in that there has been no systematic training of either foot targeting and/or striding away from the equipment, nor on planks away from the equipment, and the criteria of running contacts (head carriage, striding, foot placement, directionals) have not been learned by the dog. Rather the handler assumes the minimal criteria of “at least a part of one paw makes contact with the contact zone.” The problem of the Non-Stop Contacts is that there is no buffer between behavior and the instinctual drift leap-off. The Non-Stop Contacts is what we did in agility in the 90’s when we only needed one (1) clean run to move up (which is because everyone missed contacts A LOT).

So what do people do that undermines their 2o2o contacts and motivates them to abandon them for the Non-Stop Contacts?

1) Making the handler part of the behavior – Too often handlers inadvertently make their body, positioning, motions part of the 2o2o cue, so when the course necessitates them to be elsewhere or if in the trial situation they don’t think to do the same reward sequence they do every single time in training, the result is poor 2o2o contacts.
2) Too much food and not enough play – Toys, especially when valued by the dog, can increase drive and speed on contacts nicely. They can also be used to test their understanding of the 2o2o position (e.g., Dave Munnings).
3) Rewarding the release only – If you want a behavior to have value, it needs to be rewarded. While a release does add value to the previous behavior (value transfer principles), for the impatient soul, they may seek to break sooner and sooner and sooner. Put money into the position account!
4) Quick releases – these are horrible for 2o2o criteria. Most people don’t get the full behavior criteria of a stopped 2o2o before releasing when they start using quick releases. I have seen two outcomes of this: (1) dogs take a mile with their newly given inch (hello leap-off); or (2) creepy-creepy-slow-and-worried contacts. Both are due to the dog being confused about the criteria and both lead to handler frustration and desire to drop 2o2o, when they simply need to create clear and consistent understanding of what the criteria is 100% of the time. For the top competitors, if they use quick releases in competition, then they end up paying for it, and spend a huge amount of time of undoing the fall-out.
5) The dog’s lack of understanding or awareness of its rear end – A lot of people train 2o2o from a perspective of the front two feet touching the floor, yet the dog must also understand that it is sticking the back two feet onto the contact. If you hold your dog with its rear end near (but not on) the contact and if the contact has sufficient value and they understand the role of their rear feet, then they should be targeting it and fighting to get their back feet onto it. If they don’t, and simply stare at you, then that indicates there isn’t the required value for the position.
6) Behavioural Chain / Sequencing – once a dog learns what the 2o2o is, sometimes they may still miss it (especially in the beginning). When handlers turn the dog back up the down plank, have the dog turn around on the plank and retry the contact and then rewards the second-try-success with food or toys the handlers are actually actively training a complex behavioral chain of “blow the contact, turn around, go back up, hit the 2o2o position, reward, then release.” This results in dog’s understanding that 2o2o is for second try, not the first try.
If your dog is experiencing challenges with their contacts (e.g., creeping or blowing off them), then you should examine the above and see if you are creating confusion.
It is so much better for the dog and handler to fix the understanding and value of the 2o2o in a fun and consistent way than scrapping it and switching to a Non-Stop Contact (please do not confuse letting a dog do a contact without asking for the 2o2o as suddenly constituting a Running Contact).
Running contacts take more time and effort to train than fixing a 2o2o issue, and Non-Stop Contacts have no buffer from instinctual drift and you are going to learn the inevitable lesson that agility folks did back in the 90’s – they don’t work and aren’t safe for your dog in the long-run.
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