Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Notes on running A-frame training

I wanted to add my thoughts on what I have learned in teaching Zazzy to run the A-frame, as I think the technique can certainly work. But regular access to an AF for short training sessions would be necessary. The method I used was to teach Zazzy to target a mat with her paws, then transfer that to between the first two slats of the contact zone (as the dog runs down). I think we did thorough foundation work, she had high drive to target the mat with her paws, and could target the mat coming out of tunnels, going to tunnels, with distractions either side, after a jump or circuit of jumps with variable stride lengths so that she could regulate her stride length (from the sofa, from around the corner etc as well!!). However, without much access to a lowered A-frame (only at her 'puppy' agility class), I think the transition to a full height A-frame may have been too fast. There were also some Zazzy-specific circumstances that affected her performance; she lost 12 weeks of training last winter (a relatively large chunk of time in between her starting agility and starting to compete in the spring) due to cut feet followed by hurting her back by slipping over, when she returned to training she immediately came into season and this was followed by terrible depression for 10 weeks due to a phantom pregnancy. She also had a couple of incidents with other dogs which led to her completely shutting down at one venue, and I stopped training there as it was likely that similar incidents would keep happening. From that point, until quite recently, Zazzy could only go for a very short time before going completely flat, this meant that she only did half a class a week (no more than 3 or 4 exercises). I think during this time Zazzy learned to do agility slowly, but with hindsight, would I have not done agility with her for six months? Hmmm. So possibly she started competing too soon. I have seen people claim they train their dogs up to world class agility standard in 15 minutes a week, but sorry I just don't believe that's true! Specific to running A-frames, I think (again with Zazzy particularly), trying to teach two 'opposite' behaviors on contacts (that is, a stop on the dog walk, and to run the A-frame) requires more dedicated time, and could possibly lead to a bit less certainty, when compared to stopping on (or running) all the contacts, so that the dog continually gets rewarded for the same behavior. Maybe a higher drive dog would be fine, I don't know. Since her phantom pregnancy, Zazzy shuts down if she feels she got something wrong, this makes correcting her AF quite difficult. Toni Dawkings suggested always having a toy after a following jump and always running to it, but only play with her if I am happy with her AF performance. This is the best method of reward (thanks Toni!), although Zazzy won't actually even pick up the toy without me telling her 'yes' (again, this only started afer her phantom). Another problem is that the foot placement on a running A-frame is more of a grey area than teaching a 2o2o stop. (A diagram would help here!) A foot below the strut is a yes, no feet below the strut is a no, sounds simple doesn't it? But there was a time when three of us were watching and none of us knew if it was a yes or no, and if it's that grey to us, how clear is it to the dog? Althoug my eye did get better 'trained' the more I did it. Back to specific running A-frame training, my opinion now is that a split-stride run is better than a pounce (unfortunately I initially taught Z to pounce on the mat); I think pouncing behavior may encourage leaping rather than striding fluidly down the ramp. I think the Trkman method has a lot of value, but because the AF is so steep the dog cannot run all the way to the bottom, so it cannot be used if you are only training a running AF. You also need to get your method of reward right, and that will vary depending on your dog. The dog needs to be looking forward, not at the handler. I have found this hard, training on my own, and can see the value of the various gadgets available that can overcome this (wish I had chosen a better paid career now!) Again, a problem that I was never able to overcome is that I always have to see the contact so that I know whether to reward it... this means that I am always looking at her (= some degree of intimidation and not cueing the next obstacle) and also resulting in never being able to train a fully independent running AF.
Well I hope these bits of information are helpful to someone!
I have opted to re-train Z to stop on the AF (2o2o), I have done a couple of sessions with her in my living room so far, rewarding her stop position on wide plank (another useful thing - if all contacts are stopped you can teach the dog to generalise the position on bits of wood at home! So lots of opportunities to reward) If the weather would only improve! (there has been no agility training for weeks now).

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