Abbie Tamber was a 2004 World Agility Team member with her canine partner, a Jack Russell Terrier named Microburst (aka "Mikey"). She owns and operates Dogs on the Run, a training program for all aspects of dog training from agility to behavioral guidance. Glitterbug and I have attended numerous agility seminars with Abbie. I love her approach which includes a variety of tools and a dog's eye view. Abbie is a skilled clicker trainer and has experience with a wide variety of breeds.
On Sunday, April 25, I took Thor to Sugar Bush Farm for a private lesson with Abbie. She was enthusiastic about Thor and gave many specific and helpful suggestions. As a result, I have added the following skills to our training list.
1) Harness Unclip... Abbie suggested that I practice unclipping Thor's harness followed immediately with a treat. This will teach Thor to attend to me when he is unclipped rather than viewing it as an opportunity for freedom and exploration.
2) Back Off... This is an impulse control exercise. I had introduced the game to Thor in his previous home but forgot about it as we struggled with housetraining. Basically, you present the dog with a handful of food. Most dogs will try to get with, some with more persistence than others. Thor was quite persistent initially. Then you wait. As soon as the dog "backs off" (maybe just glances away at first), click treat! With a little reminder, Thor was able to back off into a sit pretty quickly.
3) Collar Tugs... Since I hope to have Thor doing some assistance tasks, Abbie felt that it was important that he learn to love having his collar grabbed and tugged. Similar to my "Gotcha" game, this takes the game a step further. While tugging on the dog's collar, the dog is fed a steady supply of treats. As soon as the tugging stops, the treats disappear. I've used a similar game to change the attitude of dogs who are dog aggressive. Whenever a dog appears, the treatment dog gets fed a steady supply. The new dog disappears (say around a corner), and the treats disappear.
4) Food Toss... In order to discourage jumping up, Abbie suggested that I toss treats to the ground instead of hand delivering them. With his focus downward, Thor should be less inclined to jump. He is funny about this...he does not like his food to have dirt on it!
5) Retrieve... I explained how Thor liked to chase things and that, while he would return to me with the retrieved object (usually a ball) he seemed downright offended when I wanted it back. He would give it to me, but with a look that said, "I wanted that. You can play by yourself now." Abbie suggested I teach him to told and then to retrieve a spoon. She said the metal in his mouth would be something he'd be less interested in keeping. :-)
6) Come-to-Side... As I walked around the agility building, Abbie had me reward Thor when he came up beside me. She suggested I pick one side to reward consistently. Since I am right handed, I would choose my left side as the place for a service animal. However, I'm hesitant to reward one side only as I will want him working on both sides for agility.
7) Come-Go Game... I first learned this game from Abbie several years ago in an agility seminar with Glitter. The purpose of it is to minimize sniffing. The handler tosses a treat which the dog goes to get. As soon as the dog turns back to the handler, a second treat is tossed. The dog learns very quickly that sniffing the ground does not pay off but returning to the handler does.
8) Plank Play... Abbie was impressed with Thor's hind end awareness which we have been working on with plank, box, and tippy board games. She brought out a wobble (Buja) board and, although Thor had never seen one, he was happy to slam it around with his feet and perform a 2-on-2-off on it. We then brought out a PVC ladder which I started to lure Thor through. Abbie stopped me and encouraged me to shape for feet-in-the-ladder instead. Thor caught on to this game very quickly. I have a PVC ladder at home but had not tried it with Thor yet. I'm glad I hadn't because now I know to shape instead of luring. We discussed contact methods (2-on/2-off, 1RTO, 2RTO, 4-on-the-floor). I had been thinking I would teach Thor 1RTO to lessen the stress on his shoulders from a 2-on/2-off. My previous agility dogs have had 2-on/2-off stops, and Abbie and I agreed that I stop will be essential given my mobility limits. She suggested that Thor is too "upright" for a 4-on-the-floor, and I agree.
Definitions for non-agility folks:
Contact Obstacle: There are three contact obstacles in agility, the A-frame, the dogwalk, and the seesaw. Each is painted two colors...the lower parts of the up and down ramps are painted yellow while the "body" is painted a contrasting color. These yellow areas are known as "contact zones." The rules specify that a dog must touch the descending (and in some organizations, the ascending) contact zone with one toe nail (or more) as he passes through. This is a safety rule so that the dog does not leap from high up and risk injury. There are many ways to teach these. Crossing your fingers and hoping is NOT training!
Running Contact: The dog is trained to run smoothly through the yellow contact zone. The training is complex and often involves such tools as hoops and stride regulators. I never considered this method for my dogs as I need the advantage of having a dog who stops at the end of the zone until released.
Two-on/Two off: In this method, the dog stops at the bottom of the plank with his hind feet in contact with the plank and his front feet on the ground (hence the name). The advantage is a dog who follows through in his descent and is unlikely to miss the yellow zone. Another adavantage is that the dog is stopped which allows the handler to get into position for upcoming obstacles. Disadvantages include stress to the dog's shoulders if he has not been taught to rock his weight back during the descent; and lost time (the clock is ticking during that stop)! I taught Glitter to rock back by teaching a lie-down 2-on/2off initially and dropping the lie-down when she was shifting her weight back effectively.
1RTO: This stands for one-rear-toe-on. The dog stops at the bottom of the plank with just one rear foot touching the wood. Because the dog has come a little further than in a 2-on/2-off, his body is parallel to the ground and the stress to the shoulders is lessened. There seemed to be a lot of excitement about this method several years ago, but I have not seen it in use in competition. Not sure why. I asked Abbie if something negative had appeared with it but she didn't think so. She did say that she prefers a 2RTO (two-rear-toes-on). I'm not clear on the difference between this and a 2on-2-off. The 1RTO risks some off-courses as some dogs will, some of the time, come off the ramp and then reach back to make contact. Since they have come off the obstacle, and then back on (with 1 toe!), it gets faulted as an off course. It's a risk I'm willing to take to have a safe performance of the obstacles. It is 1RTO than Thor has been introduced to at home.
Sit-on-the-Board: Some handlers teach their dogs to sit near the end of the yellow contact zone. While this accomplishes a rock back, I think it is nebulous to the dog. It is unclear, in the dog's mind, just where the sit should be placed. As a result, a dog may be likely to creep down the obstacle (or even perch at the top) because he is unsure of himself. This may, in fact, happen with incomplete training of any method if the dog is unsure of the exact criteria for performance.
4-on-the-Floor: The dog runs throught the yellow contact zone and lies down immediately after coming off the obstacle. Because the dog is looking down and thinking down, he is not likely to leap off prematurely. Abbie and I agree that with an upright dog like Thor, this behavior may be too time consuming. Some judges will call this training in the ring and give an elimination. I've seen that happen. Again, it may be a risk some handlers are willing to take.
In addition to the contact position, I need to teach Thor to run quickly up and across a plank. I know that, at his tender age, Thor isn't ready for contact obstacles. Abbie suggested starting with a plank flat on the ground. When that was mastered, I could raise one end by placing it on a low agility table and/or a milk crate. Next would come a dogwalk set on milk crates. Then a higher table. I need to buy or build a big table. My dogs, to date, have used a 16" table. Thor would likely need a 26" one.
9) Tunnels... I had introduced Thor to my chute barrel (no fabric chute attached) and he had been happily chasing a ball through it. When I had tried a squished (shortened) tunnel, however, I failed to secure it well and it wobbled when Thor stepped in it. He quickly decided he could not go all the way through. I told Abbie about my mistake and how he had decided he had to go partway in and back out. I'd given up trying until I could secure the tunnel better and have a helper. Abbie was the perfect helper, of course. Within three minutes, Thor was running back and forth through a 12-foot tunnel! Abbie suggested that in our work at home my goal should be to stand in the center and facing the tunnel while Thor ran back and forth through it. She also explained that to introduce a curved tunnel, I should bend one end, not the middle, just a wee bit. All set to take our show home!