Weaving in Style

I have to admit when I first started teaching my dog, Tess the weaves for agility she was seven years old and I rejoiced if she understood what I wanted her do with that field of PVC.  I used the 2 x 2 training method made famous by Susan Garrett because it just made sense to the PT part of me.  As a pediatric PT I do A LOT of training/teaching of new skills.  Breaking an activity into small steps increases acquisition time, which is exactly what the 2 x 2 method does brilliantly.  Teaching a weaving style was never part of my instruction process as I left that part entirely up to Tess.

Since dogs use four limbs for movement rather than two, they not only choose side preference (right vs. left) but they also chose drive preference (rear vs. front).  Drive preference is dictated my many things and it varies from breed to breed and within breeds.  Rear drive preference equals two stepping (two paws on one side of the weave pole).  When two stepping through the weaves, a dog’s lateral weight shift and drive are rear leg dependent with a longer “suspension moment” which requires a strong core.  Single stepping (one foot on each side a weave pole,) is used by a front drive preference dog and requires the dog to pull itself through the weaves with the front legs while the back legs follow behind.  This style requires a spinal “whip” for lateral weight shift and requires a flexible spine.

I am often asked, “Which style places a higher demand on the dog’s body?”  As a Certified Canine Rehabilitation Therapist who has worked on many agility dogs with shoulder and back injuries I can say single stepping is very hard on the dog’s body, but when asked, “What style should I teach my dog?” I say, let the dog decide.  “But single-stepping looks faster.”  Sometimes looks are deceiving.

A dog can be slow through the weaves for many reasons, but using the “wrong” style is not one of them.  Here are a few reasons I have observed for consistently slow weave performances.

  • Training issue #1: The dog doesn’t understand its job (not enough training in multiple scenarios i.e., jump before weaves, contact before the weaves, entry from the left, entry from the right, etc.)
  • Training issue #2: The handler forgot to teach speed.  Accuracy was rewarded but speed was left up to the dog’s discretion.  Motor learning is a powerful tool especially with animals.  When you reward a slow accurate weave performance you just rewarded a SLOW weave performance.
  • A strength/conditioning/efficiency issue (including collection, drive, endurance): This is where a good canine rehab therapist can help.  We are movement efficiency experts, at least PTs are.  (FYI, not all CCRTs or CCRPs are PTs.  Got to love those acronyms – see below.**)
  • Injury: This should always be ruled out first!  Based on my experience these injuries are usually subtle soft tissue issues that don’t present as lameness!  See your nearest CCRT or CCRP soon (FYI, PTs are experts in soft tissue injury identification. Hint, hint, nudge, nudge).

I feel speed in the weaves has nothing to do with style, but has everything to do with efficiency.  Efficiency of movement is one of my favorite lectures to give.  Promoting efficiency will get you speed and is how you can insert longevity into your dog’s sporting career.  For example, in the human world if you watch five professional baseball pitchers throw a baseball during a game you will see five different pitching styles. Each style is based on efficiency of movement for that INDIVIDUAL player’s structure, strength, and range of motion (not just of the arm, but of the whole body). If you start tinkering with a pitcher’s style you can ruin a pitching career.  So, “which pitcher is the better pitcher?” the one that throws fast AND accurately not the one with the prettiest style.  Promoting efficiency within the style, whatever style that might be, is the key, not perfecting the style.

It is true that two stepping is less demanding on the dog’s body than single stepping, but I would never stop a dog from single stepping if that’s the style that the dog has chosen, and I am a VERY longevity-minded individual when it comes to sports for the four legged athlete.  The dog knows its body far better than we do and we need to trust them on this one.  Just remember, efficiency promotes speed, not style.

Tess used both styles throughout her agility career.  She initially learned on 22” spaced weaves poles and her rear drive was strong enough to push her body through the 22” spacing using the two stepping style with little effort (she’s a square standard poodle at 22” at the withers).  But when we changed to 24” poles the rear drive demand increased and she switched to a single stepping style.  Tess modified her style to promote efficiency.  Just for curiosity sake I put Tess back on the 22” weaves and she began two stepping again.  For Tess it wasn’t a training issue, but rather physical efficiency that determined her style.  As for speed, she was faster using the two stepping method, but was it due to efficiency or was she covering less distance using the 22” poles?  My inquiring mind wishes that I had a canine movement lab to answer all the questions my little brain comes up with, but for now I’m saving up for a $90,000 underwater treadmill.

If you have any questions please join my poodles-in-motion yahoo group for discussions and video sharing.

** CCRT: Certified Canine Rehabilitation Therapist (may be either a vet or a PT) trained through the Canine Rehabilitation Institute

** CCRP: Certified Canine Rehabilitation Therapist (may be either a vet or PT) trained through the University of Tennessee

FYI: Veterinarians and physical therapists complete the same coursework and certification process to become a CCRT/CCRP.

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