Running Contacts Are They For You?

Do all handlers need to train their dog’s do do a running contact? I would think not. There are some people that are just not fast enough to handle a dog with running contacts; the solution is of course to train both. Any of you signed up for my latest on line course “Say Yes to Contact Success” will get that opportunity to do just that because both options are there for you. It is also why the course is being held at . . . no one can make that decision for you . . . you need to decide which you want to train – or do both! [Note, this is a blog post from many years ago, my contact training is now in Agility Nation].

Of course the “running contacts” course was not meant to be part of this course. It really is focused on Stopped Contacts because when I did a survey a few months back that is what an overwhelming number of you wanted. I decide to add the running component in as a “free bonus” for a couple of reasons. 1). To get more people trying what I have had success with and 2) Because the initial results from the 9 dogs we have worked with on this is very encouraging. I am not charging for the running contact portion right now because with such a small sample size I just didn’t feel it would be right to do so, hence for now  it is just a “bonus” for those that are on the “Plus” membership.

Earlier this year I ran an opportunity only open to my current on-lines students to join a small group training running contacts. You might have noticed this opportunity caused a bit of a ripple in the agility world. Different is always going to be challenged I know that. But just to let everyone know that I wasn’t “cherry picking” my applicants when I selected this group to train. I had more than a dozen Border Collie handlers submit application to my group. Three of these people where members of their FCI World Team (none Canadians btw). It would have been easy for me to have taken those three people and two of the other Border Collie owners and gotten amazing, fast results. But here is the list of breeds of the five dogs I selected:

  1. A Siberian Husky
  2. A Mini Aussie
  3. A Swiss Mountain Dog
  4. A Border Collie
  5. A Golden Retriever puppy with someone that had never trained a dog for agility.

Why did I select such a group? Because I am a scientist at heart and I wanted information about the program I had laid out. Yes I could have taking the easy route and had glowing results to report to you all right now. I can tell you that all five of these dogs are doing brilliantly. I love the dog training progress each of them have made and I am confident they will have lovely running contacts. Some are progressing faster than others but this is not a race and all came in wanting to enjoy the dog training journey first and fore most.

What is different about how I train running contacts. First of all the speed. My dogs will never be as fast across a dogwalk as dogs trained in some of the other methods of running contacts. I would say on average my guys are 1.5 seconds across  a dog walk while dogs with the same approach trained differently may be 1.4 or 1.3, some I have heard have even reached 1.2!

As a matter of interest I would say all of the dogs I have seen do a running A Frame are close to the same time, although those trained to “get air” over the top would be the slowest. I am pretty sure the rest of the dogs are around the 1.25 second mark on the A Frame (btw that was also the times of many dogs trained to do a stopped A Frame using our nose tap method).

Here is a look at Swagger’s contacts early in his training;

I have no way of knowing for sure, but my guess is dogs trained with my method are slightly slower on the dog walk because of the importance I put into the end behavior, the criteria is different in our program than in others. I want controlled turns off the end so a ton of value is put into that process. At the end of the day there are some crackin’ performances trained with all different methodologies of running contacts so it may just comes down to what appeals most to you.

I do think if anyone looking for a dog training challenge should at least once in your life, attempt the training of a running contact.  What I believe is the biggest challenge for people when trying to train a running contact is their ability to see what their dog is doing. I have done a bit of research into this. Have you noticed that many of the people with great running contacts are younger people? (of course not all, but the vast majority). You may immediately think, it is because they can run fast therefore it makes sense that they are the ones with success. Although that may be the reason they can handle a running contact so well, it doesn’t make sense to me why younger people have more success training one. It prompted me to do some research.

Are You To Old To Train A Running Contact?

What I have found with my history of helping people with their running contacts is that younger people are so much better at recognizing what is correct and what is not with the dog. Many of my middle aged or older students would rewards what they thought were good efforts and withhold rewards where they thought the dog was incorrect. Bob Bailey tells us you can be wrong 10% of the time and it not effect your dog’s overall performance. But this went way beyond 10%. For some it was a more like 50% of the time they were wrong with their information.

How can you possibly train anything if you reward the wrong thing 50% of the time and you punish the right thing 50% of the time? Hello it would be a mess, at best and if the dog figured it out it would be more luck than anything.

More research showed me the answer. Did you know that our eyes start declining at aged 20? Age TWENTY! That means my eyes are NINE years into their decline!!! (Okay you can stop laughing now.) The truth is our ability to focus, especially on moving objects is in a steady state of decline? Wow, did things make sense to me when I stumbled across that tidbit! Here is the good news, we can “train” our eyes to be better than their numerical age. That is why many “professional trainers” even though they may be past  their 20’s, have successfully trained RC. Through their profession they are constantly watching and “training” their eyes, without even being aware of it!  That is why in my running contact section of my upcoming on line course I dedicate an entire module to helping students “train their eye” first.  Before I allow my students to potentially mess up their dogs I do everything I can to make sure what they are “seeing” is really what is happening.

When I recently trained a small group of 8 people on this their success percentage of “seeing” the correct thing dramatically improved across all 8 people (no surprise that the best one at the beginning and the end was also the youngest person in the group). One person in this group went from identifying the correct response only 10% of the time before we started working it to being correct 80% of the time afterwards!  Imagine if you just tried to train the dog giving that dog the correct feedback only 10% of the time!

Letting Dogs Know the Difference Between “That is it!” and “You need to try again buddy!”

Another unique part to this course is the way the student  gives feed back to their dog’s  incorrect performances. With many dogs if you have too many repeated failures where you withhold their rewards (especially if you mark those failures with a “wrong” or “try again”  type of verbal marker), the dog falls to pieces. He gets slower, maybe loses interest, some may even give up.

I believe when training running contacts the feedback for the dog of “that-was-not-correct” is just as important as “that was it!”  If the dog gets that feedback at the moment in time he performed the behaviour you are giving the dog the best chance possible to make an adjustment the next time.

Another big part of our program is to teach the dog a motivate response to a “no reward marker.”  I am pretty sure that was an integral piece of the puzzle when I taught Swagger his running contacts and a big reason we were able to have success so fast (well that and his foundation training). Check out this video to see what I mean. And yes, another section in our Running Contact program is dedicated to games to teach the dog to “Stop what you are doing– that will not be rewarded — drive back to me as fast as you can to start again.”

Once we have this kind of response to a “no reward marker” in place , we can start with the running contact training. So as you can see at Say Yes, the running contact training is really a “dog training program” that just happens to use running contacts as the model!

Today I am grateful for the amazing amount of sharing of ideas that is going on inside our SYCS community. We already have our resident carpenter “Willy” who has actually made video tutorials for the non-carpenters on how to build some of the props for our course (travel plank, stairs etc). How cool is THAT?