Debbie has a saying: the louder you shout at the dog, the faster the dog goes off course. A shrieking call-off only serves to send the dog faster. Her advice is to whisper the dog’s name when you need a turn, in addition to setting the line appropriately by the way you move. I have found this advice to work very well indeed.
I have spent years training and retraining and retraining Dancer’s contacts. It’s definitely entirely my fault that her contacts are so unreliable. I really can’t blame her; the criteria have been so unclear for so many years. Five or six years ago, Susan Perry asked me at a seminar “what exactly are your contact criteria?”; it was a question I quite literally found myself unable to answer, stammering through a vague and apologetic “getting a foot in the yellow” and then going silent as Susan asked follow-up questions: Which foot? How far into the yellow? What about the next step after that?
I started by trying to train a running contact, using hoops. I switched to a stopped contact but wasn’t clear on my standards and let her jump off without marking it in competition. I tried a nose target. I tried a foot contact. I tried running contacts again.
About two years ago, I noticed that Dancer’s anxiety levels at trials were sky-high. She was nervous, unhappy, running slowly, not having fun, except in jumpers-without-weaves (the CPE and NADAC versions), where she seemingly enjoyed herself. I started running her differently in practice and in trials. I never corrected her. I rewarded heavily after every run, no matter what happened, just for coming out and playing with me. In practice, I did little tiny sequences (jump-tunnel! tunnel-jump-jump!) and then rewarded.
I started working toward building game playing, using her rules, not mine. Her rules included playing keep-away with the toy; I decided that her enjoyment meant that was just fine. I started playing chase while she had the toy, then tossing her a treat to get her to drop the toy so I could throw it again. Eventually we built to a game of tug. She always always wins at tug and then I chase her to get the toy back; she loves that game.
As part of building her enjoyment, I ignored her contacts. For a while, she just leapt over them routinely, but sometimes she’d run through them, and then we might Q. We got the occasional Q if she happened to run through all her contacts.
Meanwhile, in practice, I was throwing the toy at the end of the contacts and she was stopping to grab the toy; after a while, she started offering the stop so I would throw the toy. But she wasn’t stopping at trials reliably.
Two trials ago, I was thinking about Debbie’s advice about yelling at the dog, and I thought about the number of times I’ve yelled “wait!” at Dancer to get her to stop on the contacts–after which she’s leapt over the yellow as if it were electrified. When she was on the dogwalk in the next run, I tried something different.
I whispered her name–Dancer!–as softly as I could, just as she trotted onto the down ramp. Her ears lifted slightly, her head didn’t turn, and she trotted nicely down the ramp and through the contact zone. Next, the a-frame. She stopped briefly to look around at the top–as she has done so often–and I whispered her name again, and watched her focus shift again, with a lovely run through the yellow. At the teeter, where she often hesitates and sometimes (much less than previously) jumps sideways, she walked calmly off the end after I whispered her name again.
It seemed to me then, and it seemed to me in subsequent runs, and it seems to me now, that whispering her name refocuses Dancer; she momentarily forgets her worries and cares and is able to remember what she wants to do. Instead of scanning for more information from the top of the a-frame, she can continue on. Shouting a cue at her didn’t work; whispering her name re-connects the bond between us.
Four runs so far with contact whispering; four straight Qs.