The contact obstacles include the a-frame, dogwalk, teeter, and table. Before the use of running contacts, high level performance of these obstacles generally required a stop in the contact zone (the end parts of the contact that are painted a different color, usually yellow). The most common stopped performance requires the dog to keep the two rear feet on the contact while the two front feet are on the ground (commonly referred to as 2 on 2 off). This is more difficult on the teeter, especially for lighter medium-sized dogs, and it’s impossible for very small dogs because of the rebound of the plank when it first hits the ground.
Running contacts apply to the a-frame and dogwalk only, as the table requires a 5 second wait for the dog and the teeter requires the dog to wait until the plank hits the ground before the dog can leave the obstacle. Running contacts let the dog run up and over the obstacles without stopping, and care must be taken to teach the dog to hit the contact zone while running, which takes a lot of training and understanding for both handler and dog. Today, running contacts are mostly taught by teaching the dog to touch a mat. The mat is transitioned to a plank, which is eventually elevated to resemble a dogwalk. From there, the mat can be placed on an actual dogwalk. For more information on training running contacts, start with our podcast with Silvia Trkman, the 3-time FCI World Champion from Slovenia, who popularized running contacts: Interview with Silvia Trkman
For all the contacts, the most common problems arise for the exact same reasons as problems in the start line behavior—confusion over criteria, and stress over making mistakes.
First, when dogs are confused about criteria, they often have good stopped contacts at home or practice but not at trials. That’s because at home, the handler rarely continues running a course if the dog misses a contact, especially if their instructor is watching. Instead, they redo the contact, or at least require the dog to perform the very end behavior (getting into a 2 on 2 off position without doing the entire obstacle). In a trial, when dogs miss a contact, or the dog hits the contact but self-releases, handlers simply ignore the mistake and keep running. When that happens, the dog learns that the criteria for the stopped contact behavior has changed—there are two different sets of criteria, one for home and one for trials. Some dogs take a middle approach and slowly creep into the contact zone at trials, waiting for the release from the handler. The amount of time lost on contacts, especially the dogwalk, can be agonizing for trainers. The solution is simple: never reward a dog who fails to meet criteria, in practice or in trials.
Second, when contacts have been a point of conflict in training, dogs often become avoidant of the entire obstacle in a trial. They are reluctant to set up, they avoid eye contact, they sniff the ground, and they remain in position even after the release cue is given. For this group of dogs, you need to change the way you deal with mistakes in your training. We recommend listening to this podcast: How to Work Through Mistakes in Your Agility Training
Here are two resources for improving your contacts (an article/video and a podcast):
- A Quick Training Tip for Improving 2 On 2 Off Contact Performance
- Five Tips for Better Contact Performance
The teeter is a special obstacle because it causes many problems for fearful dogs who will do it in practice but not in trials. Dogs can fear the teeter for three reasons, and they must be addressed in teaching the teeter: the loud sound the teeter makes when it hits the ground, the actual movement of the teeter, and the height of the teeter. Teeters can also look like dogwalks to the dog as they approach them, so it’s important that the dog understand the difference between the two obstacles based on verbal cues, which have to be given very early, not when the dog is about to step onto the obstacle. Learn more about teeter training and performance here: All About the Teeter