Contacts – How I choose my criteria by Paula Goss

Contacts – How I choose my criteria

Many years ago, I remember listening to Sharon Nelson talk about dogs
repeating performances that are comfortable and natural to them in
reference to contacts. After I heard that, I remember watching contacts in
a whole different light. I began seeing dogs that I felt may have been more
comfortable doing one type of performance, but for many different reasons,
their handlers insisted on another. It usually resulted in less than stellar
results for the team. I began thinking about contacts in a whole different
light – not just how “I” wanted them to perform their contacts, but instead
taking a step back and observing what my “dog” might want to do well.

I train speed and distance to every skill I do in agility and contacts are
no different. My decision when choosing a contact performance is never
based on “having to have a certain performance to be competitive.” When I
think about my contacts, four things come to mind. 1) What is the physical
structure of the dog in front of me and therefore, what am I concerned
about from a soundness standpoint? 2) What do I think can be trained
that will be in sync with how my dog thinks rather than in conflict with how
my dog thinks, 3) Can this performace be trained to be done at speed and
independently from a distance. 4) Do ‘I’ have any limitations that will have an
impact on my contact criteria.

When I think of some common contact criteria, certain things come to my

Running contacts – what comes to my mind when I picture an ideal
running contact is a dog doesn’t need to alter its stride length or speed
coming down either contact ramp to easily put them in the yellow every time.
One that is not going to “jump off” to exit the contact but will “run off”. One
that will shift its weight slightly so that as it reaches for the ground, its doing
so from the hind end and not pulling from the front end.

4 – ON contacts – what comes to my mind is a dog that maintains its speed
and stride length until it begins to shifts its weight to the hind end as it
reaches the last half of the contact and stops with all four feet *and head*
on the contact in a desired position. (sitting/standing/down)

4 – OFF contacts – what comes to my mind is a dog that maintains its
speed and stride length until it begins to shift its weight as it nears the end
of the contact. One that does not “jump off “ to exit the contact but will exit
the contact and stop in a desired position immediately upon leaving the

Stretch contacts – I do not call these 2o2o because I believe that gives

the impression that the performance ends when the dogs front feet touch
the ground. The contact performance that comes to my mind for a stretch
contact is one where a dog that maintains its speed and stride length until
it begins to shift its weight to the hind end as it nears the end of the down
ramp. They continue off the contact with its front feet and head until its back
feet are on the very edge of the contact and cannot go any further without
coming off, therefore, resulting in a “stretched out” back.

So, now I have this puppy or older dog in front me, and I watch them over a
few mths how they use their body. When they run, do they hold their head
very high and upright or do they level it out a bit or even lower it? Is it a very
up and down jumpy type dog that’s forward impulsion is up and down or is
it a more forward driving dog? Does the dog have a long back/long stride or
short back/short stride for its size? Any structural concerns such as back or
neck or pre-existing shoulder issues, ect?

How my dog thinks! I observe how my dog reacts concerning boundaries.
When working on skills such as waiting in the crate or stopping at the door
before passing through, or if I’m playing a game where I ask my dog to step
into a large box on the ground, does the dog keeps its entire body – feet and
head – INSIDE the boundary? Or do their feet stay inside the boundary but
their head may actually be across the plane of the boundary? I try not to
inadvertantly “shape” a behavior during this time but rather just let me watch
the dog while they are problem solving different boundary type challenges.

When I have spent enough time observing my dogs structure, how they use
their body, and what they feel about boundaries, I make an educated guess
what performance I think is going to be the best fit. As I said previously, I
am looking for a contact that the training of which will be working “with” my
dogs strengths, not against. Your choice might also be impacted on “your”
physical challenges as well. Keep in mind, you are making the best choice
for the TEAM.

I think many people have become more knowledgable about the physical
impact contact performances can have on dogs. People have become
aware of the impact a 2o2o as on some dogs shoulders/backs – which is
why I began teaching a stretch contact. I wish more people were aware that
a dog that “jumps” off an a-frame contact is not doing a running contact and
even though they may have been in the yellow, its my opinion, depending on
how far up they are jumping off, they are still making impact with the ground
different to what they make when they exit the dogwalk or when they land
after a jump. I’ve seen my fair share of dogs that face plant or come very
close to it upon exiting the a-frame. Safety and soundness is always my first
consideration when choosing a performance.

As far as use of body is concerned, I ask myself what contact performance
best suits my dogs natural use of their body. For example: Do I think my
very high headed running dog that is also a very upward driving dog will
naturally be able to consistantly maintain a true running contact?

Dogs tend to see the end of contacts as a boundary, so if I have a dog that
insists its entire body including head be behind the boundary, that might
take some convincing to ask that dog to stop at the bottom, but then put its
feet past the end of the contact. Do I think a dog that believes that his head
is not part of the equation of a boundary, its going to take some convincing
he must now keep his head inside the boundary. It just won’t make as much
sense to the dog naturally because its not how they think, and why fight that
battle when there is a perfectly safe and sound and consistant alternative?

Having a better understanding of what my dog may physically and mentally
offer me more naturally because it “makes sense to them” is going to result
in a more easily perfected behavior – one that is likely to be happily and
consistantly offered throughout the dogs career.

Now, of course smart dog training plays a role here as well. If I’m not
consistant with whatever performance that I would like, it is certainly
not going to be maintained completely by the dog alone…….but if I am
training something uncomfortable or unnatural to the dog, there is a highler
likelyhood that under some circumstances (stress, adrenaline rush, etc)
that contact will not be maintained. Let’s face it, most of us want to 100%
depend on our obstacle performance choices so we can concentrate on

Choose wisely and happy training.

Paula Goss~