In the Zone. Part II. Training the A-frame and Dogwalk
Originally appeared in the December 1998 ESAA Newsletter
The time has come to introduce Spot to his first piece of contact equipment, the A-frame. If you are going to be doing your training in a class, it is important that you choose one with an instructor who starts dogs on an A-frame set at a low training height. This is necessary so that your dog can stop successfully in the contact zone. I start with the frame's apex about 4.5' from the ground. As the dog gains experience, we increase the steepness until the apex is at full competition height ( 5'6" in AKC, 5'6" in NADAC, and 6'3" in USDAA).
Before describing the procedure for teaching the performance of the A-frame, I am going to talk about a general dog training technique. This technique, chaining, is useful for training the contact obstacles in agility and is also useful in obedience training. Chaining involves teaching a series of behaviors in which each behavior's performance serves as a signal for the next behavior. Only the last behavior in the chain is reinforced.
In backward chaining, the last behavior in the chain is established first. This behavior is reinforced because its performance leads directly to a reward. Once the dog has mastered this behavior (and associates it with a reward), the next-to-the-last behavior can be added. This new behavior does not require reinforcement because its performance gives the dog the opportunity to do the end behavior that does lead to a reward. You continue to work backwards until the dog can perform the entire chain. Each behavior in the chain becomes reinforcing because its performance puts the dog closer to the reward. Although forward chaining a complex series of behaviors can be done, its results are usually less successful. This is because you must start by rewarding the first behavior in the chain. You, then, must switch to rewarding the second behavior as it is introduced and so on. The reward never follows a specific behavior. Backward chaining can be used to build confidence when preparing to compete in obedience. I'll use the novice class as an example. You start by doing only the recall and no other exercises for a day or two. Spot gets a really desirable treat at the end of the recall. Next, you add off lead heeling to your chain. Each time the heeling is finished you go directly to the recall and perform it so the dog can get the special reward. After a day or two, the stand is added. The backward chaining continues until all of the exercises have been added. Sometimes, it is useful to mix backward chaining with forward chaining. Forward chains followed by a backward chain usually have increased success.
Equipment Needed: An A-frame set at low height, a flat buckle collar, a leash, a target or food tube.
If you have played the "Force Be With You" game described in last month's column, Spot should have little difficulty in learning how to negotiate the A-frame. This game taught him to resist gravity and stop with two feet on the obstacle (the stairs) and two feet on the floor. You will now transfer this behavior to the down ramp of the A-frame and use this as the last behavior in a chain. Take Spot to the bottom of the A-frame. Lift his back feet onto the bottom of the ramp while keeping his front feet on the ground. Tell him that he is doing a good "touch" (substitute the word you used on the stairs) and feed him a special treat while he holds this position. Do not let Spot leave the A-frame until you give a release word. Repeat this exercise until Spot associates the 2 feet on/2 feet off position with his "touch" word. Now pick Spot up and place all four of his feet on the A-frame. Allow him to walk to the 2 on/2 off position and reward. Your handling position is at the side of the frame. Although you may need to lure the dog into position with the treat the first couple of times, you need to stop luring as soon as possible. To wean from the lure, stand at the side of the A-frame with the treat out of sight in the hand farthest from the dog. Encourage Spot to move to the correct contact position. Be patient if he just stands there. Continue to encourage him to move to the correct position. If he will not move at all, gently guide him to the position with his collar. Do not lure with the treat. If Spot should leave the frame without stopping with two feet on it, place his rear feet back on the frame. Once Spot realizes that assuming the 2 feet on/ 2 feet off position is what gets a reward, you are ready to move to the next step.
It's finally time to teach Spot to climb the A-frame. If the frame has been set so the angle of ascent is not very great, Spot should have no difficulty in running up and over. For the first attempt, attach the lead to Spot's flat buckle collar. Line up so that you are making a straight approach the obstacle. Start far enough away that Spot will have a bit of momentum to help with the climb. You will hold the leash and walk alongside. Make sure your lead is long enough will allow the dog to have his head at the apex! When Spot steps over the apex onto the down ramp, you will need to help him reduce his speed so that he can stop in the contact. This will be done with a food lure. If the A-frame is on your left side, you should hold the leash in your left hand and have the food lure in your right hand. As Spot clears the apex, turn your body to face the frame. Do not show the lure until the dog has taken a step down the descending ramp. Do not stop the dog on top. This can lead to those unwanted Kodak moments you sometimes see in competition where the dog stands at the top checking out everything in the arena! Use the food lure to reduce the dog's momentum and lure him into the correct contact position. Just before reaching the position, use your contact command. Give your reward and allow the dog to leave the frame with a release command. Repeat this exercise until Spot shows that he is going to adjust his pace on the down ramp. After Spot is going onto the frame without reservation, put a command to the obstacle. I use the obstacle's name - "frame." Others use commands such as "climb," "scramble," "up," etc.
It is important that you work with the frame on your right side as often as on your left. If you have a dog that has done much conformation or obedience, the dog may have more difficulty working off your right than off your left. If this is the case, you will need to work with the A-frame on your right more frequently. Get rid of the leash as soon as you can control Spot with the food lure alone.
When Spot has learned that he must reduce his speed on the decent, you should fade the food lure. Do this by letting Spot proceed further down the ramp before you present the lure. When Spot can go all the way to the bottom without the lure, you are ready to go to the next step.
Once Spot knows how to negotiate the A-frame, it is time to increase the distance between you and the obstacle. Since control decreases with increasing distance, you need to teach Spot that he must do his job even when you are not close to him. To start this process, you will be parallel to the dog but at a distance of two or three feet from the frame. Be prepared to correct Spot if he does not stop with two feet on/ two feet off. The correction is to take him back to the down ramp and place his rear feet on the frame. Remember, corrections in agility should be done unemotionally. Spot isn't trying to defy you or be bad. He is just trying to find out what his boundaries are. Your job is to remain in control and show Spot that the rules do not change even though your handling position changes. Slowly increase your distance vertically from the frame. Spot should hold the contact position until you move in with the reward and release him with a command. As you increase the distance, Spot will probably begin to stop with his front feet off the side instead of off the front. He will do this because he wants to look directly at you. You do not want this. Spot should remain facing forward no matter where you are. Targeting is useful in fixing this problem. Place your target directly in front of the frame but several feet away. After you give a reward, release Spot with permission to get the treat on the target. For cheaters, use a food tube or food in a closed jar instead of food on the target to prevent self-rewarding. As Spot gets more comfortable with the exercise, fade stepping in to give a reward each time and use the target alone as the reward. As the dog gains experience, fade the target. Even after you have fully trained the contact obstacle, it is good training to periodically step in and reward the correct position. Remember, dogs will work hard hoping to hit the jackpot as long as they win occasionally.
When you have consistent performance with you parallel to but vertically removed from the frame, you can start varying your distance horizontally, being either ahead or behind the dog. Each time you change a variable, you will probably get errors in performance as Spot tests the boundaries. Collect him and do the correction unemotionally.
As in obedience, proofing is necessary in agility. You will want to show Spot that he must stop on the contact until you release him. In competition, the release can occur instantaneously with the two front feet touching the ground. It also may occur only after you have caught up or moved beyond the end of the frame to change Spot's path and avoid a trap on the course. You will need to use both types of release at some point in Spot's agility career. One proofing exercise requires you to run passed Spot while he holds the position. If he holds, go back and give him a reward. If he breaks, just put him back, tell him to stay and run away again. Return and reward. A second proofing exercise involves throwing a toy or food tube while Spot is on the contact. Reward him with a treat if he holds the position. After he has gotten used to this distraction, you can reward him by letting him get the toy with a release command.
Up to this point, you have been positioning Spot directly in front of the A-frame. Once you can get consistently correct performances with you handling from different positions, it is time to ask Spot to go do the A-frame from other starting points. Ideally, Spot should seek out the frame and negotiate it even if he is not directly in front of it. I'll leave it to your ingenuity to train this. Just remember to start simply and slowly increase the difficulty.
The Dog Walk
You can introduce the dogwalk when Spot is comfortably doing the A-frame and stopping on the contact without your help. You can start the dogwalk while you are working on Step 3 above. If you have played "Walk the Plank," the dogwalk should be easy for Spot to master. In our beginning classes, we introduce the dogwalk at a low height. Since I wait until my dog has quite a bit of experience on the A-frame, I usually do not drop the height for my own dogs. If you think the height will intimidate your dog, start low. Let your knowledge of your dog's personality be your guide. You can build your own inexpensive, low dogwalk using three 12" wide boards and either 3-rung step ladders or saw horses (see web link below.)
Start by backward chaining the contact zone as you did with the A-frame. This will show Spot that the same rules apply on the descent ramp of this obstacle. At first, some dogs have trouble keeping the two rear feet on the ramp because of its narrow width. Spot will need to think about what his feet are doing. Be patient and replace rear feet that come off the ramp. If you are using a low dogwalk, you can backward chain all the way up the descent ramp and across the horizontal board. Otherwise, you can have the dog walk the whole obstacle as you did with the A-frame. I have done both procedures choosing my method based on the dog's personality. It is important that you regulate the dog's speed as he traverses the walk. It is much easier for him to slip off this narrower ramp if he is moving excessively fast. Follow the same steps described for the A-frame to train the dogwalk.
I am not going to discuss how to train the teeter totter at this point. Until Spot is performing the dogwalk consistently and confidently, you should not consider introducing him to the teeter. The teeter has some unique training issues. A dog who develops a fear of the teeter is difficult to "fix".
The time you spend in increasing your ability to handle the dogwalk and A-frame at a distance will be time well spent. It is quite common to see tunnels positioned under both of these obstacles on agility courses. This arrangement prevents you from being close to your dog. Dogs who have been trained to complete these obstacles by themselves are able to handle such situations.