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Teaching contacts

Kay Westgate, the 'Silver Surfer' from Harlow, uses clicker training techniques to train her dogs for filmwork and fun. Her JRT Ozzie (the Nat West dog) loves to work and does agility with great enthusiasm. A bat out of hell best describes his performance. At the moment, however, his touchpoints could be described as atrocious so Kay is using this method to correct this problem. So far he is responding well, but then he is already clicker aware!

For those of you whose dogs are not trained to the clicker, the first step is to get them used to it. The method I use for touchpoints is a follows:-

  1. First acquire a carpet square roughly 18" in diameter.
  2. Place the square on a hard floor and with your dog on the lead walk him over the square. When his front feet are actually on the carpet, immediately Click and Treat.
  3. Continue until Fido realises that when his feet hit the carpet he will get a Click and a Treat.  They soon catch on! Now add your cue word, such as mark, point or whatever word you want to use when he is actually on the carpet.
  4. The next step is to try this exercise off lead. Say the cue word and when Fido steps onto the carpet Click and Treat.
  5. Do not hurry any of these exercises, if he does not understand when off the lead go back a step and do it on lead again until he gets the idea! When your dog really understands this method you can transfer it to training.

What to do
Start with the dogwalk first.

  1. Put your carpet on the bottom of the touchpoint, 2/3 on the equipment and 1/3 on the ground.
  2. With the dog on lead, walk him over the equipment and when his feet are on the carpet in the position you want, say your cue word and Click and Treat.
  3. Continue this until you feel confident that Fido knows what he has to do.
  4. Now try off lead.
  5. At this stage he will probably be some way ahead of you so when he is three quarters down the descending plank say your cue word. If your dog fully understands this exercise, he will stand on the carpet and wait for you to Click and Treat him.
  6. When you are getting consistent results cut the piece of carpet in half and continue training. Gradually make the carpet piece smaller and smaller and eventually dispense with it completely. At this stage still continue to Click and Treat every time.

Other contact equipment
You can do the same with the A -frame.

For the seesaw, you will have to use a smaller piece of carpet with some double sided tape to keep it in place on the end of the equipment but the training is the same for all three pieces of equipment.

After a long period you can then phase out the clicker and just use a reward for the correct behaviour. To do this, start randomly Clicking and Treating as set out on my website.

I do not pretend that Clicker Training is the answer for everyone, but it gives another method for agility folk to try if they are experiencing problems. Where it differs from conventional training is that the dog has to work it out for themselves instead of being physically shown - this is what Clicker Training is all about!

To use Clicker Training to teach jumping and weaving dogs are trained with the use of a touchstick. If anyone is interested I would be happy to give further details later. However, I do not know as yet how to apply it to tunnels!

For an explanation of this in full, please visit my website on http://www.k9clickers.com  where it is set out in easy steps.

About the author
Kay Westgate took early medical retirement from her career as Civilian Personnel Officer for the City of London Police in l989. Having the dogs certainly helped her back on the road to recovery!

She got the 'agility bug' at Trent Park DAC where she started learning agility with Toby, a Cairn Terrier who was built more for stamina than speed. Toby was two years old then. She then acquired Sam in l990. He was a ten months old rescue dog from the local pound. Despite his bad start, he was such a gentle little lad and so keen to learn anything so she took him to agility and we never looked back.

She competed at Crufts 1994 and 1995 when they took part in all three Eukanuba Mini events plus the flyball which is probably a record for a mini dog! She was at Crufts again in 1996 when she won the Hills Mini Agility Dog of the Year with Sam. They qualified for four Dogs in Need Finals. In 1992, he started his film career and, although dark dogs are not supposed to get much work, he certainly did. Nothing phased him on set, and he is now a veteran of many parts in film and television. The highlight of his career has been his role as Crabb in the Oscar winning Shakespeare in Love.

Ozzie, also a rescue dog, came to Kay as a pup of eight weeks old in 1996. Enthusiastic is an understatement when describing him. He lives to work! She started to train him about 1997 at Axstane Agility Club, but now trains at Nick Barnes' club in Hertford. It was natural he followed Sam into show business! Now much in demand for all sorts of parts which he performs brilliantly!

Kay started using the clicker method in 1999 when training her dogs for film work. It really works so well! She studied this system by using the Internet and obtaining various publications in particular by Karen Pryor and Gary Wilkes, and then began helping other people train their dogs using this method. She was so successful that she starter her own pet obedience classes in Harlow in 2000.

The results speak for themselves! Once you know this method it is common sense applying it to almost anything you wish in dog training. Whilst I do not suggest it is the answer to everything is certainly produces a keen and willing dog. I think that it has a future for agility for those willing to try. I am using this to retrain Ozzie on his touchpoints and although FMD has limited the amount of training I have been able to do so far this year have high hopes for better results in the ring this year!

I have just returned from my first show at Supadogs and had the chance to try out the clicker training on the contacts. I have been concentrating on the dogwalk first and to this end got a result. Ozzie got every single contact he did on the dogwalk.

I have not started the same thing on the A-frame and he did not get many contacts, only one or two. This strengthens my belief in using the clicker for training touchpoints. I am now going to use the method for the A-frame and hope to get the same positive results. Last of all will be the see-saw. He jumped off the middle quite a few times but got a couple towards the end.

From Penny Garner-Carpenter...
It was interesting to read the article on clicker training and its uses in agility. I'm a great one for 'horses for courses' and am therefore appalled at the thought of teaching all agility with a clicker! When other training works better. However there are bits of agility which work really well with a clicker. Whilst I didn't train Jed the weaves using a clicker I did use it to train the contacts and to 'wait'.

The wait was impossible to train without it - he would run off to jump as soon as he could get my hand off his collar. Yet within five minutes of clicker training he would wait whilst I went the two jumps ahead! Amazingly quick and easy for him to learn. Whilst he will need reminding of what a 'wait' is! He really got the hang of it very quickly.

Contacts? We didn't train the 'traditional' clicker training way of backchaining, but instead clicked and treated on the contacts, once he got the idea I introduced the command to go to the contact and then his release command. I must say it's an improvement on what I did before.

The other aspect of clicker training I used (without a clicker) was that of getting the action before introducing a command - so he learnt how to 'jump' or 'tyre' or 'weaves' etc before he heard what they were called. This is an excellent technique which means the dog quickly learns what to do then what the command to do it is! Dogs who are unaware of what a command means can find commands confusing and take longer to understand what is required of them.

I would certainly use a clicker and the action first command second techniques in agility again. (02/04/01)