Wednesday, April 2, 2014

2014 AKC National Agility Championships Finals Round

Reflection, Connection, Redirection

Innovative Running Contact Protocols

The arena in which the final round of the AKC National Agility Championship was run afforded the opportunity to watch from high above the course, a view which was informative on many levels.  We do not often get a chance to see agility from this perspective, it really allowed for a great analysis of handling choices and results.  Quite noticeable and of major importance was the connection or lack thereof between handler and dog as the dog exited tunnel #18.  When handler and dog were not connected, it caused a wide turn at best, a refusal or off course at worst.  

Staying connected to the dog during an agility run is my number 1 priority.  And by the term ‘connected’, I do not mean staring at my dog until they make eye contact with me.  Connection is achieved when I am SURE that my dog and I know where each other are on course.  Sounds simple, doesn't it?  Well… it’s not.  We see it every weekend,  the handler scoping the course for the next obstacle and the dog following the handler’s sight line, resulting in a wide turn, an off course, a refusal, a bar down.  Errors on course happen more often than not due to a break in connection.  You can be locking eyes with your dog and still not have connection if the dog AND you are not purposefully intent on going to the next obstacle.  If you are the only one who knows what’s next, that is a problem.  If your dog figures out what is next or guesses correctly… he/she is a genius! Unfortunately the dog does not always make the correct choice.

We have all had it happen, we send our dog out to a jump and when the dog is taking off, we lift our gaze up and turn our heads to see where the next obstacle is, and we hear the jump bar get knocked out of the cups.  URGH! It’s frustrating and hard to replicate in practice.  Why does this happen?  The quick and easy answer is that when you SEND your dog to something, you are cueing a turn, because you would not be sending to the obstacle if you weren’t turning and/or could go with the dog, so the cue ‘out’ usually means ‘out and turn’, which translates to the dog as ‘jump this jump in collection and turn in the direction I am indicating’, BUT if you lift your head/eyes to look around the course, you are effectively telling your dog to extend.  Why?  Because your sight line is a big indicator to the dog of where you are going.  This is a natural cue, meaning it does not have to be trained because it is the dog’s natural response to this motion.

Here at Speedoggie, we train our handlers to use their head/eyes as turning cues for their dogs.  Look at the dog’s take off point and that cues collection.  Look at the dog’s landing point and it cues relative collection (relative to the degree of turn), look down a long line of jumps and it cues extension.  So, although we are not exactly locking eyes with our dog, we are indeed connected to the dog through our head/eye cues.  There are six other cues we have, but that will wait for another blog post :-)

Another thing that was interesting to watch from our aerial perspective during the final round was the handler’s choice of path for their dog.  The sequence from obstacle #13 through obstacle #18 was an integral part of the run and it was a make or break section for many teams.  Agility is a timed event.  That is to say, it is not a measured event.  The length of your dog’s running path is not being judged.  How fast your dog gets from here to there is what determines success or failure.  That being said, the dog’s PATH is a big factor on course.

Coming from an auto racing background, I have been teaching for years how to achieve the fastest lines on course and how to navigate the appropriate path to ensure the least amount of strides and the quickest path through a turn.  The tightest line through a turn is also the slowest line.  A super-wide turn can cost valuable seconds.  Somewhere in-between lies the perfect line.  How do we determine what that path is?  Well, in auto racing it is defined as: “The fastest line through a turn is achieved by following the largest radius arc through the constraints of the turn.”  The largest radius arc is determined by dissecting the turn, finding the largest radius arc, and marking the apexes.  The next step is to aim for those apexes while calculating the most speed that can be held through the turn.  Does that sound complicated?  It’s really not.  Think of a ramp off the interstate.  Ever take that off ramp a bit too fast?  Yep, that’s what I’m talking about.  You go too fast and all your crates shift and your leashes and training bags relocated themselves in your vehicle.  Take the turn too slow and that guy behind you is riding your bumper, but if you take the turn just right, it feels as smooth as glass.  THAT is what I’m talking about.  You probably drive down that off ramp a few miles above the posted speed limit, but the car holds the pavement and your coffee doesn’t spill :-)

Here are a few examples from auto racing and competitive driving sites:

Example A: Shows the largest radius arc that can fit within the constraints of the turn. This would be the line that had only one apex and that could be navigated with the most speed.

Example B: The difference here is that the "Fast" example has 3 apexes: one at #1, one at #2 and one in-between #3 and #4. The "Slow" example has 4 apexes: one at #1, one at #2 and one at #3 and one at #4. More turns = more breaking = slower times. 

What does all this have to do with this year’s National Agility Championship and running contacts?  Well, that section off the dog walk really proved to be problematic for dogs with running contacts.  The handlers with dogs who had perfectly trained running contacts where the dog maintains speed and stride throughout the entire length of the board (no trotting, no collecting) ended up wasting their advantage by bleeding off too much speed prior to the turn or setting a non-competitive (ie. slow) turn apex to negotiate the turn to obstacle #14.  The handlers were not connected to the dogs while they were on the plank, otherwise the dog would of known they were turning to #14. In my opinion, if you are going to spend months/years training the perfect running contact, why, oh why, would you not train yourself to set a competitive line off said contact? Why not train for communication and connection while the dog is on the plank? Why not consider path alteration on the flat off of non-turning obstacles (ie dog walk, aframe, etc). 

Most handlers let their dogs carry out a few feet past the contact and then slammed them into a 180 degree hair pin turn on the flat before directing to jump #14.  This was not only the LONGEST path, but also the slowest, keeping in mind the physics lesson a few paragraphs ago about the tightest turn being the slowest etc.

How could this be improved upon?  We first need to find the largest radius arc that fits within the constraints of the turn.  Wait, perhaps we can CREATE that arc by using a V-set.  V-sets are a handling maneuver used when changing your dog’s direction on the ground before an obstacle.  Lining the dog up for weave poles for example, or straightening a dog’s line to the dog walk.  

In the diagram below, I show an option off the dog walk with a Reverse V-set (meaning that the handler is on the inside of the V using a PUSH cue).  By pushing the dog OUT off the dog walk, the dog can carry more speed through the turn and still navigate the line competitively.  This option would allow the dog to maintain a competitive speed all the way through the turn.

My second option is radical and I am aware that many handlers would not opt to train it, HOWEVER, I am willing to experiment :-)  Most running dog walk contacts are training with a turn back to the tunnel option.  What if, and I know it’s a big if… but what IF we trained our dogs to turn back and go under the dog walk, just like there was a tunnel there?  But there isn’t a tunnel, the dog just travels under the plank.  Obviously safety concerns would be addressed and trained, and you could not do this maneuver with all dog walks due to the way they are manufactured.  Some manufacturers, for example J&J, use tension wire supports.  The dog walk used in the final course at the National Agility Championship had Max 200 ramp supports and would have been entirely safe for a dog to turn back under.  Also, considering we can train our dogs to lower their heads while entering a chute so they do not make contact with the top of the chute, this maneuver would be utilized the same way in the turning back under the dog walk plank. The dog would turn back 270 degrees and lower his head while navigating a safe path under the plank. That path could be trained and dogs could use the ramp support leg and the bottom of the plank as distance markers for where they pass under the plank. Basically the exact same path that they would take if a tunnel were under the plank. 

All normal training concerns need to be taken into consideration, I’m just throwing the idea out, tweak as you please.  Train out the bugs and ensure safety as you would when training anything.  BUT, it IS doable isn’t it?  If I trained my running contact dog to be able to turn back under the dog walk for a tunnel proficiently, why couldn’t I train the maneuver without a tunnel?  As long as the dog does not physically touch the dog walk with any part of his body while traversing under the plank, there would be no fault as far as I can tell from reading the rules.  Running this path would create a very nice line from #13 - #15, and would enable the handler to be ahead enough to show deceleration for the turn after #15.

Keep in mind that what I am suggesting is designed for dogs who have completely competent, well trained and proofed, independent running contacts (ie the dog can perform the behavior in almost all situations). I understand everyone has some holes in their training programs, but we are not here to discuss how to fix the holes. We are here to discuss the options we have to keep our running contacts AND navigate sequences like the one presented to us at NAC finals, both competently and competitively without resorting to a stopped contact performance and/or without slamming the dog into a screeching halt on the ground in order to facilitate a turn. Not only are those screeching halts slow and non competitive but they are also dangerous physically to the dogs.

Below is the line that MOST handlers with running dog walks took.  This line, and the resulting turn off the dog walk, seemed intentional and/or planned for.  The performance of these turns were less than competitive due to being wider than they were quick as the handlers were unable to cue them in a timely fashion as they generally ended up falling behind after the turn due to the micromanagement of the path off the dog walk. This path also opened up the teeter as an off course option after #17.  

What I like most about either the push out after the dog walk (blue path) or the radical turn back under the plank (green path) is that they are both significantly shorter paths than the path taken by most handlers with running dog walks.

Here is an overview of all the paths for comparison:

Here is the same map with path measurements.

Editor’s Notes:

  • These ideas are geared towards teams with running dog walks and are not applicable to any style of stopping contact as a dog who has stopped at the end of the dog walk is perfectly capable of making a competitive turn off the plank in any direction.
  • These ideas are for handlers who planned on performing a front cross at the end of the dog walk as these maneuvers are not very applicable for teams planning no side change at the end of the dog walk plank.
  • These ideas are for teams who do not have significant training issues with their dogs obstacle performances so they would not be restricted in the way they handle the obstacle.
  • These ideas are for the elite competitor at the top of their game looking to be more competitive.
  • These ideas are for all handlers capable of getting to the end of a dog walk.
  • These ideas are for handlers who are interested in NOT bleeding off excessive speed.
  • These ideas are for teams who have not been successful in training a competitive turn off the dog walk from a running contact and would need to resort to a more creative method of handling options. 
*Before responding to this post please consider if you have read this with the intent to LISTEN with an open mind, or did you read this just with the intent to RESPOND without adding anything to the conversation. I am extremely interested in an open minded discussion about all of the options and concerns for those of us who fall into the category that I described in my Editor's Notes. If your agility team does not fall into this specific category and/or you have nothing to add to the conversation, please just don’t respond then. Your cooperation is greatly appreciated.