Sunday, August 29, 2010

Agility training: Tracy Sklenar

I’ve now had two episodes of having my mind blown about dog training. The first was the first time I saw free-shaping demonstrated. (We’ve talked about free-shaping here several times.) The second was last weekend. I audited one day of a weekend course given by Tracy Sklenar on handling skills for agility. Tracy is a nationally-known expert who has competed with her own dogs at world championship levels.

Before I describe what I learned, though, you need a little background. Before I started agility training, the only agility competition I’d seen was the very high level competition that gets television coverage. I was amazed at two things: that a dog can be trained to weave in and out of poles and that a dog can be trained to run across a teeter totter. While these are the most challenging obstacles to master, teaching a dog these maneuvers is a piece of cake compared to what the core of the training is about. The real challenge is “handling” which is communicating to your dog where they’re supposed to go as they run the course and for this communication to be timed right and clear made clear so that the dog can run the course as fast as possible without making mistakes.

What I’ve been taught to do and what I’ve been doing to date has been pointing at obstacles and calling its name as I run the course (“Jump!” “Tunnel!” “Teeter!”). Tracy Sklenar teaches that you should instead only point and call out the names of obstacles in specific circumstances, and never point or name obstacles when the obstacles are on a line that you’re already running or a gentle arc. So that seems impossible, right? How will the dog know where to go if you don’t point at things or call out obstacles?

She teaches that your dog should have two modes when running a course: extension (running all out) and collection (wherein your dog slows, gathers its feet and gets its balance to be able to turn or jump). She teaches that you cue extension entirely through the way you move your own body. It needs to look to the dog like you are running all out. You should be in a leaning-forward posture and should pump your arms and take big steps. If you don’t have room to run all out, then fake it, taking high steps, rather than long ones. Your dog, partly as a result of practicing this but largely as a result of what he/she has observed about how humans run, will understand that this means “run as fast as possible along a generally straight or gently-curved line, taking any obstacles in this line. If I need you to turn, I will let you know.” By not using your arm when you’re running on straight lines your dog doesn’t have to turn his head to focus on your arm and can confidently run straight ahead.

To cue the dog to collect, you use a deceleration cue. The “decel” cue is to stand straight up and put out an arm or finger. At all times when running agility, you should be watching your dog, but you may need to be especially intense about it (i.e. turn your shoulders toward the dog, lower your chin to your shoulder or chest so that your face is square to them) during a decel cue.

I tried this with Karma at practice this week. Even though we’d never practiced running without pointing/naming, we didn’t have a single miscue when running in extension mode. This was completely amazing to me.

Lots more for another day.

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