QUESTION: This [new jump height rule] seems to present a new opportunity: don't train the dog to jump an arbitrary height, but rather match the proper jump height (and broad jump distance of twice the height) to the dog! Now I'm wondering, is there an optimal jump height for a given dog, and if so, what are the factors determining that height (e.g., stride, weight, shoulder height)?
SUZANNE CLOTHIER: I'm not sure what you mean by "optimal" -- do you mean least stressful? most comfortable? the height that brings out the best in the dog's jumping style? easiest? I'll assume you mean the lowest jump possible that allows the dog to jump with correct form (thus reducing stress); a lowered height naturally offers less concussive force, but is NOT always the best choice for "some" dogs.
The dog's jumping abilities are comprised of structural attributes, functional attributes (flexibility, balance, strength), his knowledge of the complicated process of jumping, and his personality. Regardless of the breed, if the dog is not thoroughly trained, he will have jumping problems. Regardless of the training, if the dog has physical limitations (which can be as subtle as a difference in range of motion from one leg to another), he will have jumping problems. By jumping problems, I mean that he may have trouble reaching certain heights (problems usually begin to show themselves even to an unskilled eye as the dog approaches shoulder height). However, some dogs are blessed with excellent structure, superb muscling, iron ligamentation and a long-legged, relatively light frame. Combine this with a "gung-ho" personality, and you will have a dog who can probably succeed at AKC heights even without much skill. On the agility course, however, this dog will demonstrate his lack of knowledge and/or physical limitations.
I have seen beautiful jumpers that were Bulldogs, Am Staffs, Newfs, Frenchies & Corgis, so don't assume that correct jumping is limited by body type. There are decided limitations to these breeds due to the fact that they were not designed to jump. In each case, however, these dogs had been carefully and systematically schooled in jumping skills, and were flexible, balanced, and well-structured. On the other hand, I've seen many, many individuals of "athletic" breeds who were horrible jumpers.
As a general rule, the further from the natural canine norm that a dog's structure falls, the more difficult jumping will become. By canine norm, I mean Nature's own version of the dog; for clarification on that, look to the pariah dogs, any 3rd generation mixed breed, the coyote and the wolf. All possess light frames, long legs, moderate angulation, iron ligamentation and considerable flexibility.
My gut reaction is that the optimal height is the lowest allowed height. However, I wonder whether there is a bio-mechanical or jump-form or even motivational related reason for jumping more than shoulder height of the dog.
Oddly, some of the most talented jumpers I know do NOT jump cleanly or well at lower heights. They are often sloppy until shoulder height or sometimes much greater is achieved. (This is well known in horses - some of the most talented jumping horses in the world were extremely sloppy at lower heights but precise and clean at staggeringly high jumps.) My experience leads me to believe that for these dogs and horses, the "demand" of the jump has to be fairly strong before they actually begin to use what they have. Kind of like taking a Maserati out on a 55 MPH highway, I guess!
A top agility competitor, Marietta Huber of Illinois, trained with me for a while. Her black Lab, Licorice, had to be worked at 36" jumps (including 36" high by 36" wide) to keep him from being sloppy at 30".
Some of this also has a physiological basis -- ideally, for competition, an athlete needs to be "overtrained" - that is, trained 15 - 20% beyond the competition demand. This allows for the reduction in ability due to the stress of competition, and insures that the competition demand is well within the athlete's limits, not barely within his grasp. For this reason, my jumping program also conditions the dog for repeated efforts, so that the two jumps required in AKC obedience is well within his capabilities in terms of muscular effort.
Many trainers make a serious error with training their dogs to jump when they reach competition height (whatever that may be) and stop at that point. Seminar participants and students are often shocked when I recommend that a dog be worked 2 - 6" above his competition height. This assumes, of course, that the dog is physically, structurally, emotionally, and functionally capable! (Again, this is standard in horse training. A horse who competes at 3'6" jump heights often trains at home at 3'9" - 4' jumps. And dogs are far superior athletes and jumpers compared to the horse.) For me, I think a dog who cannot comfortably meet and exceed his competition height does not belong in that class!
I have been evaluating jumping dogs since 1989, and have done so coast to coast. My experience has shown me that most handlers and instructors are unable to accurately assess a dog's athletic abilities and limitations. Without such information, it is difficult to be fair to the dog. Assuming that the dog is fine is grossly unfair. I urge anyone seriously concerned (as they should be) about the impact of jumping on their dog's well being to rent, borrow or buy "Your Athletic Dog" - it is the only video on the market that shows you how to assess your dog's athletic abilities, and how to improve weakness and minimize problems. Handlers are often stunned to realize that physical limitations were the source of many, many performance problems - from crooked sits to sloppy fronts to arcing go-outs to jumping problems - even to problems in tracking!
The more you know about your dog, the more humane and fair you can be in your decisions as a trainer. Dogs are not volunteers in this sport - they are draftees. It is the handler's moral obligation to collect as much information as possible about the dog before making demands on a dog or making a decision on the dog's behalf.
Jumping is a complex movement, which requires considerable training of the nervous and muscular systems. Please - train your dog in a way that systematically and progressively educates him. He will repay your investment of time with confidence, style and most importantly, the skills he needs to perform at his best with minimal risk of injury.
I will never live long enough to understand why people get so hysterical about jump heights. The sport is "obedience" - NOT physical prowess! I cannot see where a lower jump takes away from the dog's willingness to be obedient. I have seen so many dogs who were physically and structurally not suited for jumping, but their owners were determined to get that qualifying leg anyway. For these dogs, I am glad the jump heights are lowered. Hopefully, this will limit their injuries, distress and the horrible methods used to "train" (torture?) a dog who is failing but probably doing the very best he can (i.e., throwing them over the jump, longlining them, electric collars and electric jump bars, pulling strings to throw them off, Plexiglas/wire "surprises", nails driven into the top of the jumps, etc.).
Given the history and function of many breeds, it seems only reasonable to offer exemptions. Right down to the muscle cells and the rate at which they twitch, breeds ARE different, and blessed with different abilities. We should all probably keep in mind that AKC obedience sprang from a PR campaign to prove that purebred dogs were not stupid! Since the dogs involved in this were Standard Poodles, their trainer naturally selected behaviors that were well within a poodle's repertoire - jumping, retrieving, heeling, etc. Had Ms. Helen Whitehouse Walker been the owner of Cairn Terriers instead of poodles, we might all be trying to fit our St. Bernards into a 9" piece of pipe and convincing them to hunt rats to demonstrate their brilliance!
Thanks for asking for my opinion - hope some of this was helpful.
"Optimal Jump Height for Obedience?" by Suzanne Clothier