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Last week Noa got injured and we are at this moment waiting for an operation.
On Thursday morning we were at my mums place and went on a morning walk with all the dogs (our three and my mums five), like we always do when we are at my mums place. Walking back towards the house the dogs all ran loose, like they always do. All of a sudden one of my mums dogs stops and lays down, Noa that isn’t paying to much attention runs straight into him. He just screams.
First, right there outside, we thought that the right leg might be broken. My mother is a dog physiotherapist so as soon as we got in she started to check his leg. Already there my tears were flowing down my cheeks. What need to be mentioned is that Noa is the biggest coward ever. He is not got with pain at all and normally limps if his paws are a bit dry. So just seeing him not screaming when she touched him was a very good sign! She was allowed to bend and touch him a lot so we thought that “thank god, nothing seems to be broken!”. But, when she started to feel on the ligaments on the backside of his wrist and he reacted, still a very small reaction in Noa-measurements. We iced and cooled it down to make the swelling go down but then we let him rest.
The whole week at Gåsahoppet I was a big mess. Every other hour I broke down and cried like crazy. When something is wrong with your best friend its hard to put on a pokerface. On Tuesday we finally got an appointment and Noa got x-rayed and they saw that two ligaments were off. So what they need to do now is to nail these two back and then they will arthrodesis his wrist which means that the movement in his wrist will be limited. Agility team Isabelle & Noa will now step down from the agility scene...
I’m extremely protective with my dogs, some might even say overprotective. I do not want to train too much, I focus a lot on their muscles, I’m really hard on heating them on and off and I try to protect them in any way that I can. To see my 9,5 year old dog that never has been injured in pain broke my heart. He is 9,5 and was still (in my eyes) on of the best agility dogs in Sweden. We were going to the World Agility Open in a few weeks and I think that we would have had a really good shot there to win. We were going to the national team tryouts and also there I think that we would have had a great chance of making the team. We have so many fun agility competitions planed for the summer and now he is not able to participate in the agility part of that. The most important thing now is that Noa’s life goes on being great and filled of fun things. He will still be able to live a great dog life, just without agility. But still, it just breaks my heart – because I did not think the “Isabelle & Noa Agility Saga” was over jet. It feels like it’s too soon…
We will still be Team Isabelle & Noa, just minus the agility part - Best black beauty…
FINN´s RC JOURNEY
There seems to be huge hype for running contacts at the moment. More and more people are training running instead of 2on2off and even more people are considering to take that step. Even we started to train running with our border collie Finn. Finn is almost 22 months old now and has gone through an OCD-operation at the age of one year. The recovery from the operation took its time and has for sure slowed his development. On the other hand I am glad that Finn is fully recovered now and that we didn´t start his training too early which happens more and more today. But that´s another story. This one is about Finn´s ongoing RC training, how we got where we are today, which downfalls we had on the way here and how we plan to proceed to get where we want to be.
Why Running Contacts and not 2on2off?
In the beginning it was not that self-evident that we would train running especially not on the dog walk. We thought that it would be good to have running on the A-frame but Isabelle was not sure if she would be fast enough to have running on the dog walk as well. After Finn was diagnosed with OCD we didn´t want to expose his body to the pressure caused by the stop on the contact zones which made the decision easier. It is also a fact that dogs with running contacts can win several seconds on an agility course especially with straight forward exits after DW and A-frame and you really can not afford to give others such advantage when you want to compete on the highest level. So in the end the decision was based on 2 factors; will to keep up with the widespread development of having fast contacts and more importantly will to not expose Finn to the pressure of stopping from full speed after his recovery from the operation.
The beginning of the training
In a way the running training started early already before Finn´s operation. It started on a field where all our dogs got to run loose and every time they sprinted away we would shout ”GO GO GO GO” so that Finn would learn to associate the command with high speed running. Originally we got the inspiration as well as tools for the training from Silvia Trkman´s method which we used as such to begin with. This method worked very well from the carpet and board to the actual dog walk until certain height where we faced the first and biggest obstacle on our RC journey. But we´ll get to that later on in more detail.
From the carpet and board to the actual dogwalk
After running loose on a field the first step was to teach Finn to run on a carpet. In the beginning the requirement was to stay on the approximately one-meter wide carpet while running full speed and we used the ball for motivation. Motivation has never been an issue for Finn, in fact from time to time it would have been quite all right with a little less. After some time chasing the ball on the carpet Finn seemed to have nice stride length with good separation and reach and it was time to move on to the board. This was when Jouni got to make use of his nonexistent carpenter skills as well. The board was about 3 centimeters high, 60 centimeters wide and as long as the down part of the dog walk. We stapled and glued the carpet on the board and even painted the other end of the carpet white to mark the contact zone. After running on the carpet it was quite easy for Finn to stay on the board and we used upright bars to mark the end of the board for cleaner exits.
At this point the hits were everything from 4 to 1 paws but little by little we started to reward more and more for rear feet hits. The problem was that we were and always had been throwing the ball so he was rewarded every time even when he was not hitting. We had started to jackpot reward the best hits to separate them from other hits and when he was not hitting at all but still he got to run after the ball every time which would cause us problems later on. Then we started to raise the board to make it look more like the actual down part of a dog walk. We raised it little by little until it no more was natural for him to jump on it from high speed after which we placed the board over the down part of a lowered dog walk. At this point everything was looking good and Finns was hitting jackpots for 70-80 % of the time. Now we started to consider taking away the board and let him run on the actual down part instead. The dog walk was now somewhat 60 centimeters high and Finn was only doing the down part, a drill that is called ”get that contact” in Silvia`s method. We took out the board and he was still hitting good for a while but then he started jumping and getting less hits. So we took back the board again for a reminder and then tried again without it. After repeating this for a few times he started hitting better and better.
Soon after taking away the board Finn started running the whole dog walk. First we lowered it back to about 20 centimeters but again as soon as he was hitting well enough we gradually raised the dogwalk a few centimeters at a time. As he got more confident running on the dogwalk he gained more speed and sometimes he would take the whole dogwalk with 3 strides (4 hits) taking a huge leap from the top of the dogwalk to the contact zone. We weren´t too worried about this as he was still hitting and it seemed that he had a good understanding of what he was supposed to do. We had been raising the dog walk a few centimeters at a time as soon as 80-90 % of the hits were jackpots. It had been almost too easy until we reached the height of about 1 meter.
We hadn´t really been facing any major problems during our RC journey and were thinking that all those talks about ”RC heaven & hell” were just nonsense. But now suddenly at the height of one meter Finn´s hits started to decrease dramatically. We tried again to go back to where he still was hitting well and then tried with the ”problem height” once more but without any greater success. It was almost like he had totally forgotten what he was supposed to do. Or worse that he never really had had a clue and that he was just chasing his precious ball and luckily hitting the zone until this height. Either way it was obvious that he didn´t have a clear understanding of what he was supposed to do. At this point we started questioning our rewarding: since he always got the ball we couldn´t separate between the jackpots and other hits and when he was not hitting at all. This might be because of Finn being more of a doer than a thinker and that the joy of chasing the ball was more than enough reward for him. Or it might be that we hadn´t been clear enough when establishing the conditions for the jackpot hits, who knows. Anyway we decided to change the way we reward him to reach better understanding.
Starting to train with the Manners Minder
We wanted to make the dogwalk behavior more ”black and white” and reward for the right behavior and not for the wrong as we had been doing before when throwing the ball. This was when we started to train with the Manners Minder (a candy machine with a remote control). Finn has always been more interested in toys than food when it comes to motivating him so we started out by building some value for the machine. In the beginning he got to eat his breakfast and dinner from the machine to make more interesting. Then we started to mix in ”better” candy (pan-fried meet of some kind) to make it even more interesting. To get some kind of acceleration towards the machine we took him a few meters away, cheered him on and then, when he was in a crazy state of mind - we would send him towards the machine. After about one to two weeks we went back to the dogwalk but this time a bit lower than where the problem first started. At this point we did not want to start with a full dogwalk so we started with putting him just above the down part of the dogwalk (”get that contact”). In the beginning we had the machine just a few meters away to make sure that he really understood that he was supposed to go to the machine for the reward.
After some very successful training sessions some problems started to appear. Every now and then Finn took the contact perfect but then turned back to watch Isabelle running to ask for more info. The machine was simply not fun enough. Eventually this behavior started to create a jumping behavior. We had a new problem! How could we get more focus and more speed forward?
At this point it was obvious that Finn didn´t value the manners minder as much as his precious ball so we had to think of a new approach to get back the motivation and speed. On the other hand the manners minder really made him think what to do to get the reward. It was just that the actual reward wasn´t what he wanted. So we decided to take the toys back but only after he would first take the candy reward from the manners minder. Only the fact that one of us now had the toy somewhere so that Finn could see it made him run a lot faster again. And knowing that he would eventually get the toy after the candy from the manners minder made even the manners minder much more fun.
So for some time we were using both the manners minder and the toy to get pass the problem height which we did quite soon with this new approach. And once we had overcome the problem height it wasn't that much of a struggle to reach the full height. After a while we took away the manners minder and rewarded him only with a dead toy. The toys were better motivators whereas the manners minder made him think a bit more.
How to start training the A Frame?
There is a lot of different methods to teach the dog the A-frame. Some use one, two, or even three ”bumpers” in different places, some use frames on the down part and others have carpets - there is a lot of methods indeed! How did we know where and how exactly to start training the A-frame?
Well, since we think that all agility training should be simple we didn't want to start with complicated gear (things that you at some point need to take away) and such on the A-frame. So Silvia´s method suited us perfectly: after training running on the dog walk just let the dog do the same thing first on a lowered A-frame and then on full height. And just like that it actually worked. After a few sessions on a lowered A-frame we proceeded to full height and the work we had done on the dog walk really paid off. Finn found a natural way to run over the A-frame and he was actually hitting quite deep from day one. So basically we didn´t really do anything to train the A-frame or better said we had already done the work on the dog walk. Of course there were a few times that Finn, The Flying Finn (his actual name) lived up to his name and literally flew over the A-frame landing a meter or so after the contact zone. Well Finn´s motto is speed before brains and I guess that sums it all up pretty well.
Where we are now - where do we want to be?
The goal from day one has been fast and clean contacts. Finn just did his first official agility class and YES the running dogwalk was great! Thank god the class one dw exits are often straight forward since we have only just started to train the turns. So the mission for the winter is to practice turns after the dog walk. We will probably go back to using the manners minder at least in the beginning to get better understanding. Exactly how we are going to train the turns remains to be seen. But when the time comes the path will reveal itself. Yes it will take time.
But so far the whole process has not been as time consuming as we originally had thought. It has taken more time for us to learn than for Finn and we sure have learned a lot from the mistakes we have made. That´s one of the best sides of running contacts and dog training in general - there is always more to learn, more to learn about your dog and yourself. Be open for new ideas and new approaches! That´s one of the many things that our rc journey has taught us. There is never one single approach or method that will take you where you want to be. We all have different goals, different conditions, different amount of time at our disposal and so on. Look for inspiration and make it work for you. Challenge yourself; You will have fun doing it! In the end it´s not about the goals you have but about the journey.