Teaching independent performance from the beginning
When Raelene Koerber, a professional dog trainer, returned to Australia from Japan in 2002, she was enthusiastic about the use of a harness and long-line in the introduction of dogs to agility
training and in retraining 'velcro' dogs and handlers to work further away from each other. Maisie Griffiths and Jennifer Hendriks took a series of lessons with her and share their experiences and techniques.
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Agility training using a harness and long-line enables a task to be clearly communicated to a beginner dog or a 'Velcro' dog. This builds the dog's confidence and speed by ensuring that he always succeeds.
In our own training and instructing, we had noted that many handlers had trained their dogs initially to work close, then wished to change as their training progressed, but found that the performance of their dogs had become heavily dependent on their position in relation to, and their movement alongside, the dog. Some handlers we spoke to felt that 'Velcro' behaviour was a factor in the temperament of their dog, but most felt that distance skills would be developed when the dog had progressed to a more advanced level of agility training. We thought it more likely that the handlers had trained Velcro behaviour (i.e., the handler’s proximity to the dog and the obstacle became part of the dog’s cue to perform an obstacle) and that if independent obstacle performance were trained from the beginning there would not be a 'Velcro' issue.
With Nash, our aim was to use the puppy’s enthusiasm and speed to train in a manner which maintained this drive and motivation and to ensure that 'play' and 'training' were indistinguishable from each other. In the case of Bao Bao we wanted to break the 'velcro' bond to enable her handler to develop a better range of course handling strategies.
Before training started, the dogs needed to be happy with wearing a close-fitting, light-weight harness and to have been exposed to fun, motivating situations while wearing the harness — e.g. feeding, playing, going out in the car. They were also familiarised with trailing a long-line (a horse lunging rein is good) in safe situations.
Agility harness training (or retraining) began in the common way with the handler calling the dog over or through obstacles which are lowered (jumps) or short (tunnels). (Video clip 1: Initial luring with Nash on harness/line) The training partner would restrain the dog from behind with the long-line, but would not interact with the dog in any other way. The handler recalled the dog over or through the simplified obstacle. Luring was OK in the early stages. The training partner let the long-line run free through her hands when, and only when, the dog was doing what the handler asked. (The partner may need to wear gloves to prevent friction burns.) She did not allow the dog to move forward if the dog was heading in the wrong direction, but waited and gave the dog time to think about what he needed to do to get to his handler and his reward. (Video clip 2: Increasing lateral distance / sending to target)
When the dog was going the right way, the partner released the long-line. The long-line did several things: It promoted speed (through restraint) and prevented the dog from ever making a mistake so that the reward ratio (play or food) was 100%. This, we observed, rapidly fostered confidence and enthusiasm in our dogs since they were always right and we as handlers were always very happy with them. We are sure the dogs thought 'What a wonderful game this agility is!'. The speed of learning was sometimes staggering and the obvious engagement of the dog’s brain was exciting to see. (Video clip 3: Starting to work angled weave entries) We have also found that ‘velcro dogs’, such as Bao Bao, who are already familiar with the obstacles, progress particularly fast. (Video clip 4: Bao Bao making a good choice off harness)
We progressed - still on harness and line - by changing the angle or distance of the dog, then of the handler. We imagined a clock face around the obstacle and trained from every ‘hour’. We trained standing still, moving and at varied distances from the dog. We increased the height, length, curve, etc. of the obstacles as appropriate for the dog. We only made one change each run and we worked towards moving to either side of the obstacle at varying distances, then to running by the obstacle, and finally to sending over/through the obstacle, initially to a baited target. The handler ensured that she always started her dog with her signal/cue not with her forward body movement. (Video clip 5: Simple sequence on harness)
When it was clear that our dogs understood their task wherever we were, we tried a run off-harness. If our dogs made a mistake, we clipped the line back on immediately and repeated the exercise until we were sure the dogs knew their task. (Video clip 6: Simple sequence off harness)
Like all methods, this may not work with all dogs, such as those who are bothered by the harness or by the proximity of the training partner. With a young dog who is beginning agility, we would also be training the essential foundation skills of waits, targeting, working right and left, back leg awareness, contacts, etc., separately from harness work.
Our initial training with a harness was not intended specifically to train the obstacles, but to communicate to the dog that there is a task to do when his handler directs him, and to show him how to read his handler’s directions and to build his confidence and speed by ensuring that he always succeeds in this task. In starting our dog’s agility training in this manner, we believe we are clarifying the dog’s role as performer and the handler’s role as director in the team effort. In other words, we are laying down the ground rules for playing agility and providing a solid foundation for more advanced skills.
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