Free Shaping Two-on/Two-off

In Dog Training 101 the dog training student will learn that a performance or behavior is taught to a dog by applying sufficient reward to that behavior to the extent that the dog will begin offering the performance on cue. Free Shaping is a simple training method, intended to heap upon the dog so much reward for offering and being in the two-on/two-off position that the dog will learn to gladly and quickly seek the position when the handler gives a command to do so.


It starts simply with a table pushed up against the down contact ramp of either the dogwalk or the A-frame. The handler, with a bait bag jammed full of treats will draw the dog down into position, whereupon he will praise the dog, and give to the dog a treat, another treat, another treat, and another treat, and so forth for as long as the dog will hold the position.

If the dog breaks position then the flow of food treats will stop, and the handler will draw away from the contact. They will return later (not immediately) to the table and the down ramp, whereupon the stream of reward will begin again.

As the handler works with his dog he will give a command to this performance. It doesn’t really matter what the command is: Spot, Target, Bottom, Get It! so long as that command is reserved for asking the dog to assume the two-on/two-off position, and nothing else.

So far we have not allowed the dog to do the entire length of the contact obstacle. Instead, the dog always mounts the ramp from the table pushed alongside the obstacle. The handler is waiting for an indication that the dog really understands that he earns reward for assuming the position. When the dog does understand, he will begin to offer the position in anticipation of the reward. Only when it is clear that the dog understands exactly what behavior to offer should the dog be allowed to perform the entire length of the contact obstacle.

This is the perfect two minute dog trainer / meal-time training exercise. Dogs become very clever along about meal-time. And the dog’s trainer wants to promote the innate cleverness of the dog even while teaching an important foundation skill… like the two-on/two-off position on a contact obstacle.

Once the dog really understands the position, then the handler can begin to up the criterion. Aside from giving the dog the entire length of the ramp, the handler can begin to vary his position relative to the dog, and to work at progressively greater distance from the dog. When working this protocol at a distance, the handler should always leave the dog in position on the contact and go to the dog to give reward for being in position.

Note that this training protocol should span months of time. There’s no reason to be in a big hurry with it. The essential premise of the training method is that the basic reward, the food treat, for getting into position will instill in the dog a life-long habit. As Sue Sternberg once described this training method, “I’ll give the dog treats, and I’ll give the dog treats. I’ll give the dog treats, and give the dog more treats. I’ll keep giving the dog treats until I think I’m gonna die. And then, I’ll give the dog more treats.”

Is 2o/2o Training Dangerous For My Dog?

We hear from time to time the complaint that the asking the dog to assume a 2o/2o position on a contact, particularly on the A-frame, will put dangerous stress on the dog’s back, and so should be avoided.

This probably has not been studied to an extent that we know whether it is true or not. Most dogs really should be able to assume the bottom position quite easily. And frankly, if you teach the position correctly then the dog will assume a position mostly on the ground, so that the back feet are parked on the tippy-tip of the down contact so there is no implicit bend against the dog’s spine whatsoever.

It might be true that a 2o/2o position might place inordinate pressure on the back of a Bassett Hound or a Dachshund or other long of back breeds. But it’s hardly conceivable that these dogs need a method for contact performance at all, and should routinely run through the contact zone on the dismount.

Questions comments & impassioned speeches to Bud Houston: And Check out my new publication the Idea BookAgility Training for a Small Universe available at


7 Responses to “Free Shaping Two-on/Two-off”

  1. Erica Says:

    I used this method to retrain my boy and it really made a huge difference – we’re getting about 90% 2o2o in competition versus our previous 10-20% (of course in training it’s 100%). Using the table was an important bridge (no pun intended) to the final contact performance. I feel confident that with continued work, we’ll get to the 99.9% rate competition.

    Hope you’re enjoying a beautiful spring day with your new pup!

  2. Amanda Says:

    Independent contact performance is always desirable regardless of whether you train a 2o/2o or not. But I wonder if dogs whose natural stride will carry them through the yellow really need a 2o/2o. (I do not own contacts and am reluctant to shell out the $$$ to get them, and they are extremely heavy and bulky, so maybe I am just trying to justify my own sloppiness here.) I know that my contact criteria are very poorly defined and not independent at all, but am torn as what to do about it. I am sure this method would work extremely well if I invested the money and energy to put contact equipment in my backyard. (But do I really want to stop my dog and lose precious seconds when my dog does not travel at warp speed to begin with?) I keep going back and forth–it’s like the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other!

    • budhouston Says:

      Amanda I think if a dog has a natural stride then it would be foolhardy to mess with it. Of course a dog can fool us. The dog being introduced to agility who gingerly picks his steps up and down the contact equipment might one day catch afire (the cowabunga moment)… and you’ll learn suddenly that the natural stride is out the window and you’ve never actually taught the dog anything in terms of a finishing performance on the contacts.

      Oh, and don’t worry about the expense of a piece of competition contact equipment. Go down to Home Depot and buy yourself an 8′ piece of 2″x12″ Doug Fir and set it up on a block as your contact trainer. You could even paint it if you like!


  3. mariann jackson Says:

    sorry, beg to differ… it is very conceivable that a basset has to be taught 2o/2o. i had to retrain my basset, bob, ax,axj (12in) shortly after he started trialing because he started flying off the dogwalk to get on with other things. especially tunnels. bob was fast enough that he routinely placed in the top 3 in his classes.

    • budhouston Says:

      Well dang Mariann, I don’t know what you’re begging to differ with. I am a complete advocate for teaching 2o2o to dogs that need it.

      Bud Houston

  4. Sharon Aizer Says:

    Seems to me that Bud’s method of using the table to focus all our energy on the ultimate contact performance we want, whether that is 2o2o or something else, is a great idea. I used it for my extra speedy lab, even tho the performance I want from him is actually a “down” in the contact zone at the end of the ramp. It was great to just go from the table to his down position, and then, once he had it, to add in the entire obstacle. This technique – a first for me – is giving me that “border collie slide” approach to the dog walk. (Truth be told, however, I have not translated the down to the A frame yet….I’m thinking I’ll use stride regulators to shape a running A….but it is still under contempation!)

    The thing about my down position or the 2o2o is that the handler can control how many seconds you “waste” (see previous comment) on this performance. If I’m at a national level competition and seconds matter and I don’t need to perform some handling move in front of my dog at the end of the contact, I’m gonna be shouting him on from my sprinting position at the back end of the contact as he comes down the front – he’s not gonna be in that down for very long at all!

    What I’ve learned and am trying to practice on this second agility dog is to determine what performance you want BEFORE you train the contact. That way you can be consistent from the beginning and your dog will benefit. And yes, this takes time….so, as Bud has said, you must be patient. If you simply must start trialing before you have a perfected contact, play in NADAC where they have lots of games without contacts.

    • budhouston Says:

      Hey Sharon! Good to hear from you! Tennessee now. You do get around.

      We forgot to do the “Dixie Cup” thing at the TDAA Petit Prix.


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