How can TEACCH methods assist in the Agility classroom?
I knew that I'd be having some epiphanies regarding Agility training when I attended a 3-day TEACCH seminar in the spring of 2019. TEACCH is an organization based in North Carolina that focuses on individualized, structured teaching strategies for people with Autism. I loved their hands-on approach to the challenges of presenting information to learners and of course began to apply many of their ideas to the way I teach Agility Foundation classes. In this post, I'll talk about the changes I made after learning from the great folks leading the TEACCH seminar. In that light, let's talk about the Agility skill of Running Contacts!
Contacts are taught in Agility classes to encourage lightning speed and accuracy from the dog as they execute the contact obstacles!
Here's my old method of presenting Step 1, the "Get in the Box!" foundation exercise in my Contact Concentration class. In this example, my verbal instruction was
"Click and treat your dog for going in to the box."
And HERE is how I've modified that presentation of this exercise after learning the TEACCH methods of presenting information more effectively. That's right, those are post-its on the floor.
Simply flinging that PVC square down on the ground by itself (as seen in that "Before" pic) was not giving my students enough information. I had been giving them the instruction to mark and reward their dog for stepping in to the box, but my presentation of this exercise left out a lot of important points. The running contact requires a solid understanding of these questions : What direction does the dog need to be facing? Where does the human handler need to be? What do my Agility teams need in order to set this exercise up more clearly, and what were the tools I needed to clarify this exercise without having to use verbal reminders?
TEACCH training is all about organizing teaching strategies and directing the learner towards becoming more independent. This is a goal in my Agility classroom as I am the only instructor and cannot be in 2 places at once to guide students, despite sincere attempts to achieve this for many years. I also want practice sessions to be easily replicated in other environments wherever possible. In order to reach my goal of student independence (and encourage a great performance from their dogs) several additions needed to be made to my visual aids for teaching "Get in the box".
A good exercise for any dog training goal is to list the criteria for the behavior. The list for the "Get in the Box" behavior looks like this :
the dog runs to the box
the dog's "hop" in to the box is encouraged by elevating it with the training marker cones on each corner
the dog is oriented towards a distinct end point (the large orange cone in the above pic is that point)
the dog is rewarded consistently for getting in to the box (here, by the Manners Minder)
the handler can be at any of the 3 post it note positions as training progresses, and their dog will still hop into the box
To support all of this criteria, I added appropriate visual reminders : 1. in a reward area in the box on the flat (here, the Manners Minder Treat n Train remote treat dispenser), 2. the 3 Post-it notes indicating handler position, and 3.the big orange cone as an end point. My goal of reducing the need for my students to constantly be supervised by me had been achieved!
Moving on to
Here's some more context for you. As Jambo descends the A-frame, she anticipates hopping in to the PVC square thanks to all of that foundation work on the flat. She also expects a food reward to appear on that orange target plate (she is familiar with both the Manners Minder from previous pics as well as a target plate.) When she's successfully hit the yellow zone of the contact obstacle, the reward appears at the plate. I continued to add the visual reminder post-its on the floor next to the A-frame for the humans, though they aren't seen in these pictures.
My students loved the visual information that I added to this exercise. Here's video of Sheltie Sunny's first try with this exercise on the flat :
Here's video of Oakley, Seamus and Nitro - having spent several weeks training the flatwork, we've progressed to adding motion. "Finally!" say the dogs.
The TEACCH seminar showed me how very, very important it is to adapt teaching materials to the learner. In the fast-paced atmosphere of an Agility class, the more I can foster independent learning, the happier everyone will be!