Ann enrolled Connie and Dougie on the course and I signed up Fergus and Orson. It seemed to make sense for these four dogs to be our first running contacts dogs, for both Dougie and Fergus they were just at the start of their agility careers so were blank canvases. And although Orson and Connie were both already competing, contacts weren't their strong point - for Connie stopping on the end of the contacts gave her a chance to worry about things and for Orson it gave him a chance to lose focus (it doesn't take much!). We were hoping that for Connie and Orson running contacts would keep the flow of the course better so they'd be less chance of them shutting down or for their minds to wander :-D
The first part of the course is probably the hardest (although it sounds so easy), it's about teaching your dog to really run. You need to carefully study their strides so you can see what their stride looks like when running flat out. The dogs start off running on a length of carpet to a thrown ball. You would not believe how difficult it is to throw a ball in a straight line and low, while running yourself and trying to watch your dogs stride!!! I'm sure our dogs would have progressed slightly quickly at this stage if we could have perfected our throwing skills. Once your dog is running well, you then mark off on the carpet what would be the contact area and start rewarding for when the dog hits the contact area. Your perfect hit would be a front foot (or 2) followed by two rear feet - but for most dogs this will not be possible so 2 rear feet with good separation between the back feet is what you will be aiming for and clearly in the contact area. You set the dog up to succeed by altering their starting point, when a dog is running well their stride will be pretty consistent so it's just a case of doing slight adjustments to the dogs starting point so their feet fall within the contact area. It all sounds so simple in theory!!!
From running on carpet you then move to two dog walk planks, gradually raising the height; and then you add the third dog walk plank so you have the full dog walk only really low. With each change of set up or increase in height you'll need to again do a bit of experimenting to find a good starting spot for each dog. And then you need to start adding in obstacles (a jump or tunnel) after the dog walk; teaching the dog how to turn off the dog walk; fade the toy that they are running after; start adding the dog walk into sequences once you are nearly at full height and of course teach the dog a running A frame!!!!!!!! As you can see it's not a short process and it really is a roller coaster as you'll go from one session where you are absolutely exhilarated at running full pelt alongside your dog on the dog walk and them getting beautiful rear feet hits in the contact area to the next session the dog missing or leaping the contact. And it really does make you appreciate how individual each dog is as they have all encountered problems on the way. As Connie is very sensitive often when there has been a raise in height or something else has changed in the set up it has knocked her confidence and she has gone from running flat out to running collected and cautious which then means she is missing the contact causing a drop in Connie's success rate. You are ideally looking for the dog to be getting between 80 - 90% good hits in a session before you either increase height or add another difficulty. Fergus was doing really well until we went from raising the height of the dog walk from 75cm to 80cm, he went from having 100% success rate to 0% and no matter what we tried the success rate really wasn't drastically improving so we had to go back down to 75cm for a few sessions to build Fergus' confidence back up. I am pleased to report that we have now managed to work through the tricky 80cm height now :-D It's been invaluable having Silvia's advice along the way especially when we've hit problems.
All the dogs are far from having their running contacts ring ready yet, but hopefully next season we'll be ready to try them in the ring and I'm so excited about it. Here are where Orson,Fergus, Connie and Dougie are up to with their training.
Oh and as a bonus Sneak has been following all the training too, and this is where she is currently up to.