When you first begin training your dog to walk over something high above the ground, he can become fearful. It does not make sense to your dog that you are asking him to cross a board extended in mid-air. If your dog becomes fearful it can make training difficult for you and stressful for your dog. Because of this we suggest you do not pull your dog by the collar or leash to make him cross the contact equipment, but rather place a treat across the entire board about every foot or so. This will keep your dog’s head down and forward so his balance is good and he will not fall off of the board.
If he still becomes fearful and wants to jump off the board, let him. Your dog will conquer his fears much quicker if he is allowed to temporarily avoid what frightens him. If he comes off of the board, just begin again and take it slow with a lot of yummy treats placed on the board. Strategically place the treats to keep your dog’s head down and thinking about the next treat rather then the height of the board. The distance of treat placement will vary depending on your dog’s size and level of fear. You will gradually spread the treats further apart as your dog becomes more confident.
Placing treats on the board will also help your dog make an association that being on the contact equipment is valuable because it delivers one of his favorite things: food. Eventually that association transfers to the contact and your dog will derive pleasure just from running the board. Please remember that transferring value does not happen overnight and it won’t happen at all if you rush this stage. To give you an idea, I typically feed my dogs on the contact equipment for months before I go to rewarding only at the end. Even with my experienced dogs I will bring back value-building every so often to make sure my dogs continue to love running their contacts. If you stop rewarding entirely all trained behavior breaks down over time.
All dogs in class will begin with lowered contacts and we will raise the contacts gradually as the dogs display eagerness to cross the boards. Young dogs, under one year of age, should stay with lowered contacts until their growth plates are closed. Typically that occurs between 12 and 15 months of age.
Dogs who are allowed to conquer their fears at their own rate of comfort will end up having the best final performance. Once your dog is confidently crossing the board, you can begin adding some speed and rewarding at the completion of the entire contact. Eventually we will train the contact zone, which is the yellow part of the board. However, I do not recommend raising training criteria to include the contact zone behavior until you have the speed your dog is capable of across the entire piece of equipment. If you add too much criteria early on, you will ultimately end up with a slower performance.
You can help your progress in class by practicing at home. To do this, get a one-foot wide plank and place it on the ground. Feed your dog on the board every time he puts a paw on it. Once your dog will walk across the plank without coming off, put it up on one brick at each end and begin the process again. If the board wobbles too much you can add a third brick in the center and zip tie the plank to the bricks for stability.
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