Thursday, June 29, 2006

Agility: getting the weave pole entry

I'm between agility class sessions right now, and normally this would mean I'd be getting in extra practice sessions because the training fields are free every evening. I've been a bit lax, though, because it's been either thunderstorming or oppressively hot and humid. But I went out last night with both dogs because I have some summer training goals that I need to work on. The first is to get Mr. Gomez proficient at the weave poles, and the second is to work on Lucy's weave-pole entries.

Weaves are often the most time-consuming aspect of basic agility training, because it's the only obstacle that's not based on any "natural" dog behavior. I taught both of my dogs using the channel method, in which the dog is first taught to run a straight "chute" between the poles, which are moved closer together over time, introducing a gradual "weave" action as the dog tries to navigate a straight course (For a complete how-to on this, see Val Olszyk's Guide to Training the Weave Poles Using the Channel Method.) The advantage of this method is that the dog learns to do the weaving behavior independently of the handler (i.e., the handler should not have to "babysit" the dog and cue him to move in and out of the poles.) The disadvantage is that it requires a specially designed set of weave poles.

Mr Gomez still isn't quite able to do a "closed" channel yet, so I did drills with him last night with the poles about 2-1/2 inches apart, moving them about 1/4 inch closer for a second set. Lucy has been doing closed weaves for a a long time now, but we have some problems making the "entry" (i.e., she doesn't always start to the right of the first pole unless I "babysit" her, instead she often chooses to go in at the second pole), so I decided to start trying a weave-entry drill that Val Olszyk suggested.
Val's suggestion was to practice the entry using just three poles. She has several sets of weaves at PBH, some of which can be broken down into smaller units of six or three. The advantage of breaking down the behavior to just three poles is that it allows me to repeatedly mark and reward the correct entry without having to worry about properly marking and rewarding the whole obstacle. I used a target at the end of the three weaves so Lucy had something to drive toward (Lucy's target is a plastic easter egg with a treat inside. She knows there is a treat in there, but I have to open the egg and give it to her, so there's no incentive to cheat by running around the obstacle to get to the target more quickly). Here's a little diagram of the three-pole setup, with the dashed line representing Lucy's path:

For the first step of this training, I just got Lucy accustomed to the idea of only three weave poles. The first two times she hesistated and looked up at me, as if she was thinking "Really? Weave? Three poles?" After a few more repetitions she she got more confident about it, so I started angling the entry a little, and handling her from the right and left. I plan to go back over the weekend and add the next step, which will be to add a jump before the three-pole set, varying the position of the jump to the weave entry in a rough arc, somewhat like the rather bizarre-looking diagram below:

As we get more reliable entries from all angles, I will also start trying to keep more distance between myself and the weave poles, so that Lucy gets accustomed to finding the correct entry on her own without relying on the visual cues of my trajectory. This will come in very handy when we move up to Master's level (which could be soon if I manage to get that third qualifying score in Advanced Standard). I'll publish an update on our progress with this method, and whether I run into any pitfalls along the way. Meanwhile, I'll be interspersing some three-pole entry practice into Mr. Gomez's weave training now, because it's better to start off with solid entries that to have to go back and retrain later.

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