It’s been a while since I wrote about Early Take Off. Like lots of projects it is often difficult to maintain momentum when the goals are grand and the steps to reach that goal are small and mostly informative in nature. Some time ago I wrote a  Q. and A. about Early Take Off based on questions which I have been asked over the years, I am just getting around to publishing it. You can read it here and it will have a special page of it’s own  here on my site. Linda Mecklenburg has written more on the subject and I hope to help keep that momentum going with this article. Read Linda’s new pages on ETS on her website

I hope you will share it with others, and keep the information and dialogue open about this frustrating syndrome.

I promise to write about how well Scoop is doing soon. With the help of Cindy Difranco’s massage video I just might be able to keep him moving soundly. I love the video, and think you will too.

All the best to you and yours, and sincere hopes for a fab 2012!


Questions and Answers about Early Takeoff,  by Nancy Gyes

Q: Why do dogs drop their head and add the little steps before they take off for a jump?

NJG: That is sometimes referred to as stutter stepping or measuring. Many, but not all ETS dogs add a small step and drop their head just before they take off early for the jump. Some dogs only do this on spreads or on jumps that are at least 20 feet apart and on a straight approach. Some dogs just take off early without the head drop. It is one of the known symptoms of ETS, and we do not know for sure why some dogs do or don’t do this. As the dog drops his head he might be trying to locate the jump by moving his head up and down.

Not all dogs that add steps and drop their head have ETS. At times an injury or body discomfort can cause a dog to add steps before they jump. Dogs that are uncomfortable jumping do not usually stutter step as well as take off early, they might even take off quite close to the jump.

Q: Why do some dogs jump short distances just fine but take off early for a jump once the distance between jumps gets to around 20 feet or more?

NJG: Since dogs cannot tell us what they see we can only speculate that since ETS dogs have greater difficulty jumping the longer distances, that they have more problems seeing or perceiving where the jump is when it is at a distance greater than around 15 feet.

Q: When *should* a dog take off for a jump?

NJG: Each dog has a comfortable takeoff distance for a jump. If the dog takes off 8 feet from a jump, but lands 8 feet from the jump, then that might be considered jumping long, but the jump distance is equal on ascent and descent of the jump and so is not considered “early”.

Q: How early is early?

NJG: On occasion a dog without ETS takes off at a slightly greater distance than they land on a jump. It could be a sign of beginning stages of ETS or it could be nothing at all. If your dog consistently takes off 7 feet from a jump but lands only 3 or 4 feet past the jump that would be considered early.

Q: Is ETS a problem with depth perception, and is there a test for that?

NJG: There is no eye test for depth perception in dogs. Our dogs cannot tell us exactly what they see and don’t see, and there is nothing in the dogs’ eye that is able to be measured to test their depth perception. Dogs’ eyes are different from ours and they do not have as good depth perception as people. We don’t know for sure how this affects their jumping.

Q: My sheltie usually jumps fine, but sometimes takes off a bit early for a triple, is that ETS?

NJG: It could be. Once you have your dog’s vision checked and you have also ruled out any kind of strain or injury that your dog might have, you would then begin to suspect ETS, especially if any of your dogs’ siblings, parents or other relations have ETS.

Q: My students’ dog jumps worse in the poorly lighted barn where we train, is that normal?

NJG: Some ETS dogs jump worse in poorly lighted buildings or under lights outdoors at night. Some struggle with different footings, like matting or dirt when they usually train on grass. If your dog is already stressing about their jumping it would be normal to expect a dog to struggle even more on different surfaces or in different lighting they are not familiar with.

Q: What kind of vision tests should be done on my dog? Are they expensive?

NJG: You should have a retinoscopy. In the SF Bay Area the test costs about $200. It could be more or less depending on the Animal Opthamologist you use.

Q: What is a retinoscopy, and do they put the dog to sleep to do it?

NJG: Your dogs’ eyes are looked at by the veterinarian using a retinoscope  and your dog will be awake and usually the owner is with the dog. The entire testing might last an hour.

Q: The local animal eye doctor does not do the recommended vision tests, where should I go?

NJG: You need to look for a veterinarian who is a Diplomate in Veterinary Opthamology, and that has tested many dogs using Retinoscopy. Some Veterinary Opthamologists have the machine but are not well versed in its’ use. Try doing a google search in your area or call some of the local Veterinary eye clinics for information. The retinoscopy is a test to determine a dog’s acuity. This potentially would determine if the dog is near or far-sighted, or if the difference between the eyes is great enough to warrant a prescription for contacts.

Q: My dog’s eyes have been checked and they are totally normal, is that common with ETS dogs?

NJG: Yes it is. ETS dogs usually test for being considered to have a normal range of vision.

Q: If ETS is a vision problem, why can’t you test a dog’s eyes to diagnose it?

NJG: There are many different kinds of diseases in people and animals, and not all of them are able to be diagnosed with specific testing. Some diseases are diagnosed by elimination of other diseases being present which CAN be tested. We are still hoping that advanced research may indeed discover something about our dogs’ eyes that will point to an answer regarding ETS.

Q: Why does my ETS dog jump angled jumps and jumps on a circle better than straight on approaches?

NJG: The current thinking is that since the jump is on an angle, that your dog has an easier time distinguishing the distance, and height of the jump since you have wings which are offset from each other. This could give your dog more perspective of the jump. There are some writings on dog vision which discuss the difference in how dogs see horizontal lines differently from vertical lines. This might explain why our ETS dogs need the vertical wings to help them analyze where the horizontal jump bar is. The most difficult jump for an ETS dog to distinguish is a jump that is placed 21 feet or greater from the previous jump and the dog has a straight approach to that jump, and the jump has multiple bars like a spread.

Q: I was told by my trainer not to get ahead of my dog so much, does it help to run right next to a dog that jumps early?

NJG: ETS dogs seem to struggle at times to find exactly where the jump bar is, so when the handler is a considerable distance forward of the jump, that gives the dog one more thing to consider in deciding where to take off for the jump. These dogs often do best when the handler does not run out too far ahead of the dog. This can be especially important when your dog jumps a spread.

Q: Do some dogs recover from ETS?

NJG: If your dog really has ETS they do not actually “recover”. Sometimes the dogs are only minimally affected, and for many years of competition the handler can manage the places on the course that the dog might take off too early. Over the years there have even been dogs with ETS on the AKC World Team, and many of those dogs and of course others compete at the highest level. Other dogs are affected more intensely and it is obvious that they are struggling too much to be jumped at regular completion heights.

Q: My friends and trainer tell me my dog is injured and I should not compete with her. I have had her checked by every kind of expert there is and they say she is totally sound. I think she has ETS, what should I do?

NJG: First, make an appointment for a full eye exam. There is no diagnostic tool yet for ETS, that is one of the goals for the trainers and veterinarians who are interested in helping owners with ETS dogs. Go to Linda Mecklenburg’s webpages and read the three articles on ETS and leave your name and information about your dog in the comments section at the bottom of the ETS pages. Awesome Paws- ETS

Leave your dog’s name, current age and age of onset of problem, eye test results if have have them and a link to a video of your dog jumping if you have it available.

Q: I have never corrected my dog for dropped bars, and I train very positively with her. I have been told that I have created the problem of early jumping by training incorrectly. Is there something I could have done to make my dog jump like this?

NJG: No, ETS is not “handler induced”. Almost all dogs can jump if they are sound, built reasonably well, and have normal vision. We can help or hinder our dogs’ who seem to have ETS, but in my opinion you cannot “give” your dog the symptoms of ETS, (taking off early). By correcting an ETS dog when they jump early or crash bars the problem can seem to get worse as the dog loses confidence, and the dog takes off even earlier to avoid touching the bar, which then leads to a circle of even worse jumping.

Q: What kind of jump drills could help my ETS dog?

NJG: Some owners of ETS dogs have found that training on straight lines can acerbate the problem. They do well with confidence building on training arcs and circles. The way to keep an ETS dog happy is with building confidence and adding lots of reinforcements to the kinds of patterns your dog already jumps well.

Video tape your dog so that you can watch them jumping in slow motion and possibly discover the areas that your dog seems uncomfortable. Repeated exposure to grids where your dog takes off early and appears uncomfortable may not be the right kind of training for your dog, especially if the bars are coming down. Build up your dogs’ confidence, use lots of rewards and absolutely no corrections. For some dogs even stopping to reset the bar points out an error to your dog and they may jump less confidently and henceforth, earlier, after you fix a downed bar.

Q: What can I do to help further the studies on dogs that take off early?

NJG: Your participation in open discussions about ETS may help your dogs as well as many others in the future. There is good reason to stay optimistic for many of our ETS dogs. Lots of dogs do not get progressively worse. We want to support handlers and dogs who are currently in this situation so that as many as possible can continue to participate in the sport they love in the most functional way possible. There is much to be learned by our dogs that show less severe signs. They ARE however related to the ones showing more extreme signs. We want to support the people who have ETS dogs and take advantage of the opportunity to learn from them.

What makes them worse, what makes them better? We can learn from that. Those handlers who believe their dogs may have vision problems are seeing patterns in how they can help them cope better in the way they train and handle. We can learn more about what the problem may be by observing these handlers who are very aware of their dogs’ tendencies to take off early. We also can look at familial patterns, as ETS seems to be hereditary since some families of dogs produce more ETS dogs.  While we hope a genetic study will be forthcoming, it may take a while for the DNA project to get started and for the studies to find the links.

Thanks for remaining open minded and supportive of research about ETS. With your help we may discover the cause of this problem and hopefully the cure.

17 responses

  1. I just had my young Terv (she’ll be 2 years old on April 22, 2012) tested with retinoscopy. Her eyes were found to be perfect.
    She does show definite signs of ETS: head dropping before takeoff, stuttering, difficulty with spread jumps, more trouble gauging the bar if I am too far ahead, etc.
    She slices jumps very well and does well with jump circles. It’s the straight on approach with jumps that are more than 12 feet apart that worry her. When she knocks a bar, she adapts by jumping higher – sometimes almost as high as the stanchions!
    Things that are working: rear crosses so that she can focus on the bar and I can push her closer to the takeoff point, stride regulator on the ground before spread jumps to help her take that one added stride needed, lead out two jump pivots at the start line where turns are involved. She seems to be able to key off on my body position on the other side of a jump bar if I am close to it.
    Her strengths are that she is very athletic and willing. She loves Standard courses because the jumps are broken up by the contacts. She is able to Q in JWW but there is no flow to her run.
    I have done some of the Susan Salo jump grids but she powers through them with accuracy and no difficulty until the variable distance becomes too much for her to gauge. As I said, I have adapted her method by placing jump bumps on the ground before the jumps that are far apart or for spread jumps.
    She is an amazing dog who is a Grand Champion, TDI, and after only 3 weekends of trialing, is already at the Excellent A level in both Standard and Jumpers.
    I will continue to research and experiment with ways to help my girl since we both love agility.
    I so appreciate your positive comments about these ETS dogs, Nancy. I look forward to other ways we can help these dogs enjoy the sport without being stressed by the jumps.

  2. My 3 y.o. BC starts to race me when I’m ahead of her, either because of a lead-out or because I’ve moved laterally to position myself ahead of her, and when she races, she jumps early. She doesn’t stutter step or lower her head, she just gets recklessly determined that she’s going to catch me and win the race.

    There are several reasons why I don’t think it’s ETS:
    1. She jumps appropriately at all other times — I can have great lateral distance from her, maybe 20 ft. or so, and she doesn’t jump early as long as she sees in her peripheral vision that I’m even with her and not ahead of her. So it’s not like I have to be at the jump for her to guage the distance.
    2. She doesn’t race and jump early in our fenced backyard, even when I’m ahead of her, and I think it’s because she knows I’m contained. She doesn’t feel the need to catch me, whereas at a trial or even the practice field that we had to travel to, maybe she thinks that if I win the race, I might keep on running away from her. She doesn’t have separation anxiety, btw.
    3. She doesn’t jump early when she’s ahead of me. I can send her to jumps and tell her to go on, and she jumps with the proper distance. Maybe that’s why she’s so happy at the end of a run because she’s thinking, yippee, I won AGAIN!

    Her CERF was “excellent” according to the veterinarian opthamologist, and because of the above reasons, I haven’t gone any further. I think it’s a mental issue and not a visual one. My instructor agrees, but is unsure what we should do about it. I’d like to know your thoughts on this, and what might be the possible remedy. Thanks ever so much.

  3. I promised I would get more information about the depth perception test I had done on Cinder so here it is:

    1. YES – there *is* a DP test. The Camarillo Eye Clinic (805-388-3933) will set one up for you.
    2. A Human eye doctor does the exam.
    3. The exam is based solely on the optics of the eye, its focusing ability, not on what the dog *sees.* The doctor tests both pre and post dilation and using all these different lens on a stick (that’s the only way to describe it,) she checks to see if the lens focuses near/far sighted and/or regular. Once again, this is based solely on the optics of the eye. I was told to google “refraction” if I wanted to learn more.

    I hope this information is helpful 🙂


      • Morning Linda, I watched the video and a retinoscopy is exactly what Cinder had. Since this test determines near and far-sightedness, in Cinder’s case it proved one eye was normal while the other was far-sighted. In humans this would cause a depth perception problem wouldn’t it? So (from what I understand,) if a dogs eyes both tested equally abnormal or equally normal, it would NOT determine a DP problem. But if one eye was different, it would. Is this correct?


        • I’m not sure I know the answers to your questions 🙂 But I do know that many dogs with early takeoffs have been examined with retinoscopy have proved to be near or farsighted or both (this is not a new test, but only in the last year or so has it been advised for ETS) . Some of these dogs have been fitted with contact lenses (variable results; some positive). Not all dogs with early takeoffs have abnormal retinoscopies, so it is not the magic bullet, but it is a start. I’d encourage anyone that has not read the ETS articles on my website to do so. I try to keep the most up to date info on early takeoffs there (rather than hidden in blogs or FB) so that everyone has a resource for info when they need it. If there was a fancy new test for depth perception I would want to know about it! 🙂 I hope that helps.

    • I have seen the retinoscopy of a dog with severe ETS, Geri Hernandez’ Style. The tests showed that her vision was not different enough from one eye to the other to warrant being fitted for a lens. Style had close vision problems, the opthamologist joked that if she needed to read for a living she would need glasses. Typically ETS dogs jump just fine at a short distance, it is the long distances and spreads with all the bars that cause problems, not the actual width or difficulty of the jump. Sandy Rogers dog Brink who probably had ETS, WAS fitted with a lens, but not until he was around 9 or 10 years of age. And I think the jury is out on whether it helped.


  4. Hi All,
    I had a depth perception test done on Cinder in 2009. Cinder has a mild form of ETS and so do all of her relatives that I know of in agility. (Nancy I think I sent you video?). Since I’m old, what I remember is that a human eye doctor came in and tested her using all these different lens. Next week I will call my eye doctor and get more specific info for all of you. I remember it being inexpensive as well 🙂


    • As far as I know, depth perception issues are suspected in dogs if the retinoscopy results show the acuity in each eye is very different, one eye from the other. That can cause DP issues with humans. However, from what I’ve been told, humans can have DP issues even when the acuity is good and/or equal, one eye from the other. That’s where the verbal feedback in humans comes into play with human exams. We can’t do that with our dogs. To the best of my knowledge, we have no way of definitively testing for DP issues with dogs.

      • Lauri, I will definitely be calling my eye doc on Tuesday so I can post more info but here’s what I know:
        1. Cinder (and all her relatives that I’ve seen in agility) have some form of ETS
        2. Kat (my younger bc) does not have ETS.
        3. I had both dogs tested for dp: Cinder came back slightly abnormal and Kat came both normal in both eyes.
        Do I think this test is “definitive?”. No. Do I think it’s a starting point? Yes. I just wish cinders relatives had taken this test because here we have this whole family group who has ETS and no one could be bothered 😦

  5. Thanks, Nancy, for following up on this topic. I only wish this information had come out years earlier when I had started training my Papillon, Taylor. I’ve said this before, but I do hope this kind of information brings better understanding and acceptance for those of us who have dogs who experience ETS.

  6. Kristi is going to call me back and I’ll try to get her to explain the test here, but it was definitely to test Cinder’s depth perception. She had it done a few years ago and I don’t believe contact lenses were suggested. I know quite a few dogs related to Cinder and her ETS is the most minor. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to talk any of the other owners into having their dogs tested.

    Nancy, I know Kristi still has the paperwork, so you can check it out while Terry’s cooking in a couple weeks.

  7. Mia, will Kristi try to get Cinder fitted for a lens?
    Is it truly a depth perception test they say they conducted?
    Tell us more

  8. Kristi C. had a depth perception test done on Cinder (who has mild ETS). It was done at the Camarillo Eye Clinic by a human eye doctor arranged by Dr. DiSilva. Cinder came back normal in one eye and slightly abnormal in the other.

    • Mia, can you share more info about what type of testing this was? As far as I know, the human tests usually require feedback from the person. This must have been an electronic testing of some sort. Would love to hear more. I’m in No Cal and we’re looking for ways to test our dogs up here.

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