Contacts

I’ve never cared for the “target” method of contacts. I think this comes from training classes where people would set out baited plastic lids at the end of a contact obstacle so the dog would stop in a two-on; two-off (“2O2O”) position. I always thought of this as a crutch and now in thinking about it more, I believe it is a crutch.

I trained the so-called one-rear-toe-on (“1RTO”) contact position with Gel. This was primarily because I didn’t like how he looked in the 2O2O position. He’s too tall, long and he’s upright when working. Gel isn’t the typical, crouchy Border Collie.

I could be wrong about this, but the thing about the 1RTO contact position is that it’s hard to create the drive forward to be in that position, perhaps because the dog is thinking about its rear end during the contact performance. With the conventional “target” behavior, the dog is driving ahead to something with the focus being touching the target with the nose. Then again, I seem to have a hard time keeping the “drive” in my training with Gel.

I re-read what Susan Garrett posted on the Clean Run mailing list a while back about her method of training a nose touch contact position. Basically, she wrote:

As previously stated it keeps the dog’s spine aligned as they are focusing down therefore the impact is distributed more evenly throughout the spine compared to a dog that has got his head up (hyper extension of the spine) and his head turned (twisting of the spine) looking for his handler.

This makes a lot of sense.

There is a weight shift as the drives into position.

Having a job to do (nose tap) keeps the head forward. A dog can run faster with his head forward then he can with it twisted around looking for his handler.

I agree with the above two statements. Also, in her book, Shaping Success, Susan states that she doesn’t teach a dog to back-up by walking into the dog (which is how I taught Gel), instead she teaches it by tossing a cookie between the dog’s front legs to get it to back-up with its head down. Susan’s method of contact training is a combination of a lot of rear end awareness training as well as the targeting.

I have no way of proving this but as an observation I will put this out there that a dog trained with a proper nose touch will land with less impact on his shoulders then one trained just to dive into position reaching for the ground with his front legs.

I don’t think that any “stop” at the end of a contact obstacle is healthy for the dog, which is why I’d love to train running contacts with Fern, but I am not certain I could properly train running contacts and that they’d be difficult to maintain. If this were not so, more people would be doing running contacts. You see a lot of contacts that look like running contacts, but what they really are are early releases.

You have criteria to ‘give away’ as the dogs career moves on. As a dog moves through his career the initial nose touch may get weak as you may be doing more “quick releases” (but only after you get one nose touch). Therefore the dog’s perfect repeated nose touch response may erode or the time between touches gets longer. Buzz when asked to target today will not lower his head until after he doesn’t get an immediate release. That is where his behaviour (not trained nearly as well since he was one of the first) involved to. But at least I had criteria there that could erode over time into a 2o2o with a delayed head bob. IF you start with very little criteria (for example only if the dog only needs to get part of your body into part of the yellow) you have very little to give away and the likelihood of a dog going a career without ever missing a contact becomes lower.

The above is what pretty much sealed my decision to go ahead and train using Susan Garrett’s method of contact training. I thought about retraining Gel’s contacts, but I don’t think I’ll get his body to come down low enough so that I would be comfortable with him stopping in the 2O2O position. What I can do is try to create more drive in his contact performance.

Regarding the crutch that I mentioned above, in Shaping Success, Susan Garrett details how to fade the target (a 4″ x 4″ piece of clear plexiglass) first on stairs (which is where she starts contact training) and then backchaining on contact equipment. By the time the dog is running the full obstacle, the plexiglass is out of the picture and the dog is nose touching the ground. So the people who leave plastic lids at the end of the contact equipment never really faded the target out.

In general, I think many people rush training their dogs and as a result, leave lots of holes that only become apparent during training sessions (other than at home) or in trials. I’m certainly guilty of it.