Contact Obstacles: More Than the End Zone

This spring I’m working with a number of agility teams specifically on contact obstacles.  Some of the teams are with young dogs that the handlers want to set a solid foundation for contacts on, some are dogs who are nervous, insecure or otherwise uncomfortable on contact obstacles, and some are dogs with inconsistent or non-existent behavior in the contact zone.  These dogs are all learning how to move and keep their body safely on the obstacle

Over the years I’ve found, dogs who have been taught how to move their bodies and save themselves on the contact obstacles, rather than simply how to go across the boards from start to end, have increased confidence and in the long run more reliable consistent performance of the obstacle.

Zora flying over the dog walk at a competition


So, we start with a board.  For these early exercises I like to use a 10″ wide 8′-10′ long board.

I do these below stages 1-5 with the board in various positions.  Part 1 we work through these stages with the board flat on the ground.  Part 2 with the board elevated on both sides so it is a flat elevated plank up on cinder blocks.  Part 3 with the board as a tippy board with a moving fulcrum (piece of 1.5-2″ diameter PVC) under it.  Part 4 with the board elevated on 1 end so it is a descending or ascending ramp (then vary the height starting with cinder block, working way up to various pause box heights and finally if available propping 1 end up on an a-frame ramp).  Depending on the dog we may spend ample time at each part, or so a few simultaneously.  Most dogs we do these exercises for a couple of weeks before moving on to competition style equipment, but we move forward at the pace of the dog.  The dogs comfort, confidence and attitude tell me when we are ready to move forward.

Yes, I do the tippy board work before I do the ramp work.  Why?  because I want a dog confident in understanding how to control movement.   When we start to eventually teach actual contact obstacles, I teach the teeter before the dog walk.  I do NADAC agility, we have no teeter in competition, yet still I teach my dogs and students dog’s how to safely understand and operate a teeter totter, as I feel it’s important in a dog’s understanding of how obstacles work and how to control their bodies.  Dog walks can flex, and shift, and make noise, teeters help a dog learn all about those variables.

Once the dog is comfortable with the exercise of each stage and each part, I then add in various speeds and obstacles into the board.  Practicing each piece coming into the board at speed, and from other obstacles such as tunnels, hoops, jumps, allowing the dog to further learn how to control and manage their bodies on a narrow board.

Stage 1: Mark and reinforce any contact dog’s feet make with the board as you move up and down the board.  Reinforcement is delivered while the dog is still on the board, and handler works to center the reinforcement over the board (either food reward or tugging is ideal in this situation over throwing a toy).  Build value for feet interacting with the board.

Stage 2:  Mark and reinforce when dog has contact with board with 2 or more feet, progressing criteria as dog is comfortable to all 4 on the board, as you move up and down the board.  Reinforcement still delivered while dog on the board and handler works to center the reinforcement over the board.  Build value for coordinating all 4 feet interacting with the board and maintaining interaction with the board (as opposed to tap and move off)

Stage 3:  dog is now comfortable and has built value for getting all 4 feet on the board.  Dog gets on board, and is cued to do a position change, sit, down, stand.  Criteria is dog to keep all 4 feet on the board during the position change, once in position and able to hold the position.  Handler adds in release cue (verbal) or another position change after reinforcement is delivered.  Vary where on the board the dog is cued to do various position changes.  At this stage also vary where the handler is in relation to the dog when they cue the position changes ie: ahead, behind, beside, a few feet away, etc

Stage 4:  Dog is all 4 feet on the board and learns to turn around 180′ to start then building up to a full 360′ on the board while keeping all 4 feet on the board.  Working on the dog being able to move their body in even more ways on the board.  This is an especially important exercise for larger dogs.

Stage 5: Dog learns to back up keeping all 4 feet on the board.

By learning progressively how to move their bodies, move forward, move back wards, change position, turn around with moving, stationary, level and angled boards once we finally move to actual agility contact obstacles the dogs have an understanding and confidence that makes teaching the full height equipment so much easier.

Regal liver flat coated retriever on an agility teeter totter, photo from around 1999


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