The Vicious Circle - 2on2off Issues Revisited
As you can read in some of my previous posts on 2on2off I think many agility handlers fail to maintain or even train a good contact performance. Some flaws can even be traced all the way back to the initial training.
Whether you choose a nose or paw target isn't essential but how you teach the approach to target can be. Many handlers want to proof understanding by adding speed to the equation early on in the training. Therefore they let the dog run at full speed to a target on the ground. However this may lead to the dog hitting the target simultaneously with both front feet in a pounce like manner. When cultivating and adding this behavior to a contact obstacle you might get a dog that over strides the contact zone. Because of the previous training he will hit the ground with his front feet and then shift the weight back to get into position. This means only the hind feet will hit the contact and if you do an early release your dog will miss the contact. Furthermore the dog will have all it's weight on it's forehand and thereby adding stress to shoulders and ligaments. It is essential to teach the dog a proper weight shift in order to keep him fit and healthy for many years.
It may also be debatable whether or not a dog hitting the ground and then hitting the contact with it's rear feet should be eliminated - technically the dog has left the obstacle.
Another mistake is to leave the target on for to long in training. The target is a visual aid that should be faded early in the training to avoid a dog that's reliant on it. If you back chain the dog walk leaving the target at bottom of the down plank your dog will be reliant on the target in order to perform correctly. When the target suddenly is absent the dog is missing the visual aid that indicates when and where to stop. This leads to slow performance because the dog is trying to buy time to figure out the appropriate place to stop. This is often followed by a quick release in order to save time which, over time, may lead to missed contacts.
A third mistake, which I believe is a very critical one, is that handlers forget to maintain performance. This should be done extensively in training. I know I've mentioned it before but it really is essential for a continuously great contact performance. Maintenance is not asking for a full stop in training and then quick release in competition - that would be not staying true to your criteria. A quick release is when you release the dog before it gets in to position. Very tempting in order to save time, but it creates a grey area and is the first step toward missed contacts.
Not maintaining criteria in training and competition will lead to break down of behavior (and a very confused dog I might say). Maintenance is when you reward correct behavior and you're keeping every aspect for the behavior up to date. Proofing extensively helps the dog to understand the limits of the behavior - but it is critical that your dog knows how to recover from a failure. Handlers tend to focus on the proofing part - leaving the dog in position while they execute all different kinds of noises and body positioning which often leads to the dog failing over and over again. This doesn't really build any value for getting into position and it definitely doesn't encourage a fast performance.
You'll often see the slower the dog gets the more prompt the handler will be to release the dog was soon as he sees a paw on the contact (quick release). This again leads to the dog slowing down partly because he isn't not sure what the criteria is and partly because you are rewarding the slow behavior by releasing him to the next obstacle. This becomes a vicious circle as dog and handler act on one another in a way that reinforce the counterproductive behavior. The problem obviously gets worse when you demand a perfect 2on2off in training but you aren't rewarding the dog because it didn't get fast enough into position.
If you don't keep you criteria black and white it will produce a dog that is insecure about what you want which produces slow contacts and lame releases. The speed of which the dog performs and it's confidence are proportional.
When a dog jumps a contact in competition you'll often see handlers stop and replace the dog in 2on2off which equals an elimination. I have always wondered what they think the dog will learn from this? It is often the same dogs that are quick released by their handlers. For me competitions is the ultimate test; have I taught my dogs well enough so that their performance won't break down under pressure? If we fail at a trial I won't correct it, but merely take it into consideration why the failure occurred. I won't correct a missed contact, because I don't think my dog will learn anything useful from being replaced in 2on2off. If I want my dog to always and without hesitation run at full speed at a trail then stopping them to correct a failure, that occurred due to lack of training, won't do the trick. And that's exactly what it's all about; training. If you look at your training you'll probably find the reason why the dog failed in the first place.
The release is the ever so critical point, but if I were to address releases in this post you would have hours of reading ahead of you, so I better save that one for later.
Luckily for anyone experiencing these problems fixing them is only a question of training (so your don't have to blame the dog). You can always go back and fix the problem the question is how long it will take.
Please don't start using quick fixes - like leaving a toy out in front of the contact or only doing run byes at full speed. This will speed up the dog's performance but, like the target situation, the dog will be reliant on you or the toy. One way or the other it doesn't fix the problem.
This video of Susan Garrett is from the IFC's world championship this year. Her dogs has a 2on2off dog walk and a running A-frame. Notice the speed and accuracy on the dog walk.