Teaching the Serpentine

We began last night in a semi-private lesson with a couple of my regular students both discussion and practice for teaching a flat serpentine of jumps to a dog as though it were a single obstacle with multiple elements.

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The introduction is quite a simple thing. We begin with a long line of jumps arranged as though it were a jump chute. And then, progressively, we rotate the jumps in alternate directions until all of the jumps are perpendicular to their original position.

Inasmuch as it is our intention to teach this arrangement as though it were a single obstacle I’ve advised my students to adopt a verbal command to indicate the task. Rather than “Jump, Jump, Jump, Jump” the handler’s directive will be something more like “Jump, Go On”; or “Find It” or “Doo Dah”… anything to differentiate the task from a succession of discrete obstacles.

What you don’t see in the drawing is the meticulous care taken in the final rotations of the jumps. From the initial set of jumps we moved to 45° rather quickly; to 30° at a somewhat more leisurely pace; and the final 15° degrees taking as many as 7 or 8 little tweaks. It’s rather like teaching weave poles using the channel method (two lines of alternate poles gradually and incrementally coming into a single line). The greatest care and tiniest progression must be taken with the final adjustments else the dog will not learn to weave at all.

I also advised my students that they should not insinuate themselves into the performance by handling the dog. What we really want here is for the dog to demonstrate his understanding of the performance by seeking out the performance of the obstacles on his own. We want the dog to be thoughtful and smart. That cannot be accomplished if we have to constantly baby him by micromanagement.

Generalization

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We rely to a great extent on patterning the dog to the sequence of performance. This is useful for shaping and provides a foundation for rewarding the dog for correct performance. But it’s easy for the dog’s trainer to be beguiled into thinking that the dog understands the object of our mission. The dog might certainly be living in the now, as dogs are given to do. So it is necessary to begin a regimen of shifting context so that the dog can generalize the performance. And frankly the trainer can measure over time whether the dog really understands the performance is a new context.

In the drawing above the only change we’ve made is to introduce the dog into the serpentine from the opposite side. Don’t expect the dog’s understanding to be as automatic as the previously conditioned performance.

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In this sequence the only change we’ve made is to replace a winged hurdle with a wingless. You might be surprised that some dogs will bypass the wingless because they’re more conditioned to seek out the winged jump.

I’m not one to use harsh or aversive language if the dog fails at a performance. Indeed, my correction is quite neutral. My response is typically to break off and fail to offer praise or reward. I don’t really want a dog who avoids offering performance because he’s afraid of being wrong. Instead I want him to thoughtfully offer behavior in anticipation of reward. But that’s just me.

It might be necessary to introduce a modest bit of handling to help draw the dog to the missed jump. But it really should be modest. Mostly throughout this training I’ve asked my students to coast along at 12′ or 15′ from the line of jumps. The dog can be drawn to the missed jump by a slowing of the handler’s pace, or a small show of counter-rotation.

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From the beginning we’ve worked with giving the dog an approach to the serpentine at an aggressive angle that facilitates a flat path of movement. In this approach to the serpentine the dog is introduced to the serpentine of jumps from a nearly perpendicular approach. This will introduce a wobble into the dog’s path that begins with a considerably wider turning radius making it far more likely that the dog will miss jump #3 if the handler is moving with any steam parallel to the line of jumps.

The handler might consider a slowing of movement or modest counter rotation at the spot marked “X” in this drawing to help draw the dog out of the wobble and into jump #3.

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This is a tougher bit, calling for a threadle between jumps #3 and #4. Teaching a handler the discipline for the threadle is outside of the scope of this discussion. But it’s important to note that if we teach our dogs the serpentine so that the performance is locked in the dog’s mind, then when the performance indicated by the numbering of the course is not the serpentine performance, then the handler really needs to step in and do his job.

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Here’s another look at a serpentine that requires the handler to step in to show the dog his way as we skip a jump on the exit of the pipe tunnel to create the approach to jump #3. Remember that the handler is the architect or the dog’s path.

Instructors Note

Teaching the dog any arrangement of obstacles as though it were a single obstacle with multiple elements is an advanced and technical mission… rather like the weave poles. That means that the performance needs lots of reinforcement, proof and practice.

I will endeavor to maintain the use of the serpentine in my training so that handlers who are on this mission can do the necessary ground-work. I’m none too sure that I can rely on all of my students to do the necessary practice in the back yard. So I will do what I can in my classes and mini-clinics.

And no, I have not abandoned the notion that most dogs will perform with considerably more energy if the handler will endeavor to weave in and out of the jumps himself. But if we really teach the dog to understand the serpentine performance it will allow the handler who is out of position to trust the dog to understand the performance. Consequently we can have the best of both worlds.

Questions comments & impassioned speeches to Bud Houston: BudHouston@hughes.net. And Check out my new publication the Idea BookAgility Training for a Small Universe available at www.dogagility.org/store.

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