When releasing our dogs from their 2on2off contact positions, we have a few ways we can do it.
We can choose to work on some duration - stop and praise them for a few seconds, then give their release cue. Be 100% sure dog is in a 2on2off position when you release them and YOU are the one releasing them.
We can quick release them - see the moment they hit their criteria with their front feet on the ground, then release them. 100% sure dog in in a 2on2off position and YOU are the one releasing them.
What we shouldn't do (but often happens) is early release them - the dog is somewhere in the yellow still moving down the board towards their 2on2off position, then the handler releases them. The dog leaves the board before hitting their 2on2off position. Sometimes the handler releases them, sometimes the dog leaves before the handler says the release cue.
Reasons to not early release -
Criteria becomes unclear to the dog. Releasing the dog can act as a sort of reinforcement. So if you release them higher and higher up the board, you are telling your dog that's where you want them. This will lead to the dog slowing and creeping down the board with the dog asking "is this where you want me?". Speed comes with confidence, dogs that understand their criteria and release have the fastest stopped contacts.
After the criteria becomes unclear this can create a bit of stress in the dogs, and you will see some dogs start to just jump off the contacts higher and higher to avoid confusion.
As Susan Garrett says "when there are inconsistencies, dog learn that some of the time can be all the time". Even if you only early release a few times, your dogs will start to show some confusion and start early releasing, even when you don't expect it. It is not fair to let the dog repeatedly practice a behavior (like early releasing), then get on their case when they do it again but it doesn't work for you or they miss the contact zone all together.
Reasons why early releases happen -
You're in too much of a hurry. Unless you are running in a Finals event, it's likely that having the fastest time isn't that important. Quick releasing doesn't take much longer that early releasing, wait that extra second to make sure your dog is in criteria before continuing on with the course and it will save you and your dog a bunch of confusion.
You're disconnected from your dog. Did you see their front feet hit the ground? If not, you probably weren't watching well enough. Take time to see criteria!
You're not patient enough to wait for your dog to hit criteria. After there has been some confusion on release spots, your dog will begin to creep down the board asking "here? here?". Resist the urge to say "target" or "touch" 20 times. Give the dog a chance to find their target position on their own, then praise and release when they do. If you have to give their target cue 20 times to get them in 2on2off position, you're always going to have to say it 20 times. Giving the cue word can be reinforcing, so let the dog sort it out on their own. Don't pattern them into waiting for multiple cues. Then release or reward when they do it on their own.
The dog has been reinforced for it. Giving the release word, re-cueing the target word, and moving your hand towards your pocket, are all reinforcing and tell the dog what he's doing is correct. Be careful not to do those things unless the dog is actually doing their criteria.
How to correctly handle 2on2off contacts in training and competition.
Training - Deciding how you are going to handle each contact before you get there. Are you going to quick release? Are you going to reward? Are you going to work duration before release? Ideally you are mixing in all of these. I like to do quick releases to practice the momentum we have in competition. Remember to watch the dogs feet, and be absolutely certain they hit criteria AND you are the one releasing them. I also like to proof duration after quick release to make sure the dog won't start quick releasing on his own. The duration and distance should be random each time. Can the dog wait to be release for 2 - 10 seconds? Can you run up to 20 feet away before you release? Remember the rule of thumb is you should be at least half way to the next obstacle before you release - if not more.
How to reward? Rewarding should be random, you can go in and reward the dog with food or tug while they are still in 2on2off position (just make sure to separate your release from the cookie). You can reward them with the release and give a toy or food after they exit the board. For a lot of dogs continuing on with agility after being released is a great reward!
Competition - Again, watch your dogs feet - make sure you are certain they are in criteria before you release them. I may choose to quick release or add some duration depending on your run. If we are not Q'ing I quickly flip a switch in my mind and make this run a training round. I will work even more duration that I normally do. Make certain you are releasing the dog. If the dog leaves before you release them, be prepared to "make a moment of it". The dog should not be allowed to continue to the next obstacle as if nothing happening. Continuing to the next obstacle rewards breaking the contact.
All venues now allow some training in the ring. Use that to your advantage! Criteria should be the same in practice as competition. If my dog self releases their contact I may choose to put them back on the end before continuing, or I might go back and do that whole obstacle again. FEO options are great for you dogs! The first six times Prim went in the ring, we did FEO - I rewarded start line stays and teeter contacts. I am continuing to do FEO with her even as she is commenting in other classes to continue to rehearse and reward good criteria. It can deteriorate REALLY quickly overtime, so it is important to bank those rewards!
In summary -
Dogs thrive on clear criteria and consistent expectations. We need to train a solid foundation and add challenges to proof the dog's understanding in a variety of situations. We need to have solid reward strategies to reinforce the behaviors we want. We must be consistent with our expectations so the dogs can execute their trained behaviors with confidence.