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Training Your Contacts using Positive Reinforcement,
and the Agility Addicts 4-Off Contact Training Method

Advantages of Clicker Targets for Contacts

Whichever contact training method is used, the handler's aims will normally be similar. The dog should negotiate the contact zones accurately, at speed and independently of the handler. You don't want a dog that is glued to its human's hand!

In the mid Nineties in the United States, Susan Garrett described how a clicker trained nose touch on a target (see the Clicker Training page) could be used to teach a dog an accurate stop position on down contacts. Advantages include:

• positive reinforcement - kind to dogs;
• dog learns an accurate stop position;
• handler can choose to select for speed;
• transparent touch target is easily faded;
• focusing on target creates independence.

Accuracy and independence should be of interest to anyone who has watched a dog creep down a contact, following the handler's arm, only to jump off the instant the arm moved. Using a nose touch target can produce a dog that is focused ahead on the contact, no matter where the handler is.

The '2 On 2 Off' and '4-off' Positions

In the '2 on 2 off' position, the dog is taught to stop at the end of the contact with its forefeet on the ground and its hind feet on the contact. This has become the standard contact position across the world, and is achieved using many different training methods, clicker targets being just one. Many of our existing competing dogs have been taught this stop position.

In the '4-off' position, the dog is taught to stop just after the end of the contact, with all four feet on the ground. At Agility Addicts we now teach 4-off running contacts, pioneered by Fiona and Bliss, to most of our new dogs. There are several advantages over the usual '2 on 2 off' position, including:

• the dog learning to run the contact each time;
• avoiding the typical 'hop' into the 2o2o position;
• reduced impact to forelegs descending contact.

With classes won and lost on fractions of a second, accurate running contacts are every handler's aim. Using a clicker nose touch target combined with a 4-off position is a way of achieving this goal using purely reward-based methods.

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Above is Fiona's Bliss demonstrating the 4-off dogwalk contact. If the video won't play, you can also view it on the AgilityAddicts Youtube Channel.

Using Clicker and Target for Contacts

The same approach is used whether you are training a new dog, or retraining an existing competing dog, and whether you are going to teach a 2 on 2 off or a 4-off stop position.

Before you start, you need to have clicker trained your dog to nose touch a transparent target, to have put that behaviour on cue so that the dog reliably performs the nose touch when asked, and to have generalised the target behaviour to a range of environments with varying levels of distraction.

Start with the A-frame, set or supported at a very low height - apex about 30 cm off the ground. Place the target just past the end of the contact if you're training a 2o2o position, or about a body length past the end if you're training a 4-off position.

As this is a new situation, help the dog to generalise by going back to an easier stage with the target behaviour. Click and treat (CT) the dog for going to the target, and if need be use a food lure the first time. Then send the dog to the target using your "Touch!" command, until you're happy with the results.

Next, lift or walk the dog onto a position about a yard from the bottom of the A-frame. Ask the dog to "Touch!", and CT a reasonably accurate version of the behaviour you want. For the next few repetitions, you can start to gently raise your criteria in terms of accuracy, and then speed. You should aim for several rapid, successful repetitions, preferably off lead. Be prepared to work at a pace your dog is comfortable with.

Why use a nose touch rather than a paw touch on the target? Dogs that use a paw touch may develop the habit of jumping off the contact and landing on the target with their feet. If you have allowed this behaviour to develop, you need to retrain a consistent nose touch away from the agility equipment.

Also, because a dog performing a nose touch needs to lower its head to touch the target, the nose touch helps shape that lower head position. The dog is less likely to jump off early.

The nose touch, combined with the 4-off position, combined with selecting for accuracy and speed, will result in a dog that learns to run the complete down contact every time.

Dogs taught a nose touch target in conjunction with a 4-off position may well naturally go into a down to perform the nose touch. Great - this is the ideal position! In competition, you can tell the dog to "Go!" the moment it hits the ground, rather than giving it time to go into the down. But use this option carefully so as not to erode the correct contact behaviour!

Accuracy, Speed and Independence

You can start to introduce independence from an early stage. Work your dog with you on both sides of the A-frame. Send the dog to the target, run with the dog, recall the dog. Be close to the A-frame, be some distance away to one side. However, the moment your dog shows any uncertainty, go back to an earlier stage and lavishly reward to regain confidence.

Remember that you are using positive reinforcement, not positive punishment. There is no point telling the dog off for not doing the behaviour correctly. Who has taught the dog, after all? Go back to an earlier stage where the dog can be successful, and increase the level of difficulty more gradually.

Once you are happy with this stage of your dog's contact behaviour, you can start the dog further up on the down plank, then near the top of the up plank, until the dog is performing the entire piece of equipment, finishing with a target touch.

This process is known as 'backchaining', starting with the end behaviour in the sequence and moving in stages back towards the start. The main advantage is that the dog is always moving towards the most familiar part of the behaviour - the target.

The next stage is to start raising the height of the A-frame, so that the dog now has to cope with increased steepness. The Dogwalk is trained in the same way, starting at a low height, backchaining the stop, and gradually raising the obstacle.

Whenever you raise your criteria in one aspect of the contact behaviour, you need initially to be prepared to relax on some other part of the behaviour. For instance, when the steepness of the contact is raised slightly, the dog may overshoot the touch target slightly on the first couple of attempts. As the dog becomes familiar with the steeper angle, you can start selecting again for nose touches that are both accurate and fast.

At all stages of training, remember that your goal is to achieve contacts that are accurate, performed at speed, and are independent of handler position. You are responsible for your dog's learning. Always be keen to select for accuracy, speed and independence, but be quick to recognise when you have raised the criteria too quickly and your dog is struggling.

If, at any point, the dog's contact behaviour seems to be deteriorating, it is likely that you are not being consistent in your reinforcement. You may need to go back and review an earlier stage, so that your dog understands more fully what the desired behaviour is. In the long run, the result will be more accurate contacts and a better relationship with your dog.

Note: 2 on 2 off and 4-off contacts are suitable stop positions for the A-frame and Dogwalk. For the Seesaw, it is advisable to teach a 4 on position, with or without a pause at the pivot.

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