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Agility Contact Obstacle Training

Now is the time for the disclaimer, to explain how to train the two on, two off, and the four-off. Rover needs to have two things under his belt (or collar, if you will). First, Rover must know what a clicker is all about. Second, Rover knows and is proficient in the nose touch. If Rover is not up to snuff on either of the prerequisites, STOP now and go back on this site and read understand and train. There is a feature article on this site entitled “Operant Conditioning a/k/a Clicker Training.” Also under both the Dog Training Section and the Trick Dog Section of this site, you will find the “How to” of training the nose touch. 



One of the disagreeable parts of training for Agility Competitions are those testy, nasty contacts. You know, those unsightly boards of a different color at the ends of the equipment that the dog must at least touch, (albeit how slightly) before he moves off to follow your direction to the next item of business (obstacle) on the course.


Well dogs being the clever beings they are, are notorious for coming up with ways to circumvent the long way around, and use that shortest distance between two points argument. Whether that be jump (called a “flyer” on the teeter-totter) straight off the end of the ramp, (neat to look at but big time dangerous and a major fault) or hopping off a contact before reaching the safety zone, to cutting it off completely (called popping).


So since dogs can’t read the rule book, (and if they could, they would probably just blow it off anyway) it is our job to teach them to play by the rules and make sure they accurately hit those contacts every time.


There are many ways to teach contacts. Ask any four trainers which is best to train, and you will get five different training techniques, each one claiming there’s is the best. Actually, they all work. If any one technique did not do the job, obviously nobody would use that method. And since there are some wonderful dogs and equally wonderful award winning handlers who each have their favorite method, how can anyone say they any of them are wrong? Therefore, I am in no way advocating any method, but here are a few that are popular. Something for you to think about, then draw your own conclusions.


One thing that is used is a piece of equipment called a contract trainer. It is a piece of wire (actually, it looks more like flexible PVC) that is arched over the base end of the contact. Rover must go through and under the arch when exiting, making it impossible for him to miss the contact.  Using a clicker and treats for each successful pass under the wire trainer makes training this as close to a no brainer as possible. (If you don’t know what a clicker is or how it is use one, run over to the Feature Article on this site entitled “Operant Conditioning a/k/a Clicker Training.” Read it, study it, and train it.)


Finally, obviously, since you can’t put up wires on the course, the idea here is once the behavior is learned, you slowly fade out the wire.


Another is training the “two on, two off” method. What that means is just what it says. At the end of the contact board, the front two paws are on the ground and while the back two paws, (with hind end in the air) are standing on the yellow.  I think this is the default setting for most trainers (at least from what I have witnessed).


A method that is certainly in favor is the four-off position, which is again, just what is says. At the end of the board the dog has all four feet on the ground.


You can start this with any of the contact obstacles, but the only one that makes the most practical sense is to use the A-frame. You will see why in a moment.


First, lower the angle and the height of the frame so that the apex is about a foot (give or take) from the ground. With some units, you can set this height of the angle in place. With others, you will have to make use of something to keep it up and sturdy. Please do make sure it does not wobble, or you may end up with a dog that doesn’t trust the unit (then you are going to have a bigger problem.)


Pro-tip: If you don’t have access to an A frame, or yours does not adjust, it is no big deal to just make up a plank on two by fours, and work from there.


If you have decided to use the four-off position, take your nose target (usually a round disc) and place it about a dog’s length (your dog’s length) away from the end of the contact.


Or if you decide that the two on, two off is the way you want to roll, just put the disk on the ground at the end of the contact. But, this placement is important; place the disc, not so far away from the end of the contact that to Nose touch it Ace has to walk completely off the yellow to touch it, or place the disk so close to the yellow that he can stand with all four paws on the board and still reach the target.  Remember it’s two on, two off, so the ideal placement is just enough room for his front paws, to touch the ground, while the back legs are still on the yellow.


Now, warm him up a bit. Do some click and treat for basic obedience and throw in some nose touches on your carefully placed disc, letting him get comfortable and knowledgeable to the placement of the disc.


Once you can see that you have his attention, and he is working like a champ on moving to and hitting that nose target, walk him on that nearly flat A-frame, so that he is just a at the edge of the board (his front paws almost off of the board) and facing in a direct line to the target. Then tell him “touch” (or whatever word you use) and when steps off the board to the target and his nose touches the disc, click treat, praise.


For the four-off method, if you made sure the disc was out far enough from the end of the contact, he should have simply walked off the board to the disc. Don’t forget click treat, praise for the touch. If Ace did not go to the disc, put it closer and then slowly move it forward, gaining distance.


If you are training two on two and you placed the disc properly, when you said “touch,” he took a small step forward, his head dropped, his nose hit the target with his front feet off the edge of the board while his back feet are still in contact with the yellow. If Ace goes to side step with his back end, or walks off the board, then one of two things happened; the disc is too far out, or he was unsure about keeping his back end on the board.


To keep his back legs on the board and reassure him, set him up in a standing position with his front feet on the ground being just off of the edge of the board, and his two back feet remaining on the board. Now give the touch command. If he simply reaches down and touches the disc, GREAT, click treat and praise.


If he still wants to move those back legs off the board, then put your arm under his belly to keep him in place when you give the touch command. Now you should understand why the placement of that disc was important.  Keep repeating this step until Ace can do it in his sleep without any assistance from you.  Don’t forget click treat, praise for the touch


Now that we have a dog who will maintain the two on two off position while doing a nose touch, or a dog who will walk off the contact (for the four-off) and go to the disc,  we are going to work the next logical step.  Again he is on the board and still in line with the disc. In slow, incremental baby steps, take him farther and farther away from the disc until he is running the length of both sides of the nearly flat A-frame, in order to touch the disc while maintaining whichever position you chose.


Now it gets tougher. Start to increase the height and angle of the frame SLOWLY. This is where problems develop because Ace now has to maneuver the increased angle and height, but also put himself into position for the nose touch.


If Ace starts to balk or appears to be getting confused at any point in this drill, STOP and go back to where his success is guaranteed. With his success at that lower guaranteed level, once again SLOWLY up the criteria and move forward from that point toward the ultimate goal.


Now all that remains is to slowly fade out that target. Unless of course, you know some kind of magic to make it invisible.


When Ace is proficient with the nose touch on the A-frame, it’s time to get him acquainted with the dog walk. This should not be anywhere near as tough in the world of doggie generalizations.


The two on, two off and the four-off are both equally great for use on the A-frame and the dog walk. However, I would not want to even try to teach the two on, two off for the see-saw. Instead, try using the target on the four-off. It works great for the see-saw.


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