I filmed our training session on the paddock yesterday – just for fun and with no intention to blog about it, but also, as I have learned from filming training sessions in the past, it’s a great way to see why a dog won’t do this or that or appears confused by what is being asked. Being able to watch yourself train with your dog is a real eye-opener, and I can guarantee that 100% of training mistakes are due to handler error – this handler included. The point is, that once you’ve got over the embarrassment of seeing yourself on film (I still have a problem with this, I’ll never be a TV celebrity ‘dog expert’) you can start to learn from these errors, rectify where you are going wrong, and get it right. Believe me, this can truly be revolutionary, and if you’ve not had the benefit of a dog professional’s analytical eye upon you, learning to be your own critic is essential to your role and progress as an owner/handler.
These days I have learned to recognise immediately where I go wrong and I take that extra couple of seconds thinking time to avoid mistakes. I didn’t make any glaring training mistakes yesterday, but I did walk into a jump (ouch) and a while later, tripped over Beau who was minding his own business truffling for treats in the grass. To save myself unnecessary embarrassment I’ve left these ‘You’ve Been Framed’ moments on the cutting room floor, and the video is made up of the ‘best bits’ of our session – not the perfect bits, I’m a pet dog trainer, I don’t train to competition standard in any discipline, I simply want to see happy, responsive dogs enjoying what they are doing. So this 5-minute film is a mix of agility, obedience and retrieving, and when I watched it back this morning it struck me just how much my dogs have had to learn in order to achieve all this – and that’s the reason for this article, to let you know that there are no short-cuts, just lots of learning from mistakes, and that it takes time, patience, knowledge and effort to make things look easy. So I hope that you enjoy watching our little session, and that the explanations for each clip provide some insight into how we did it:
Beau agility (0.05 – 0.46). Commands used: ‘close’, ‘over’, ‘this way’, ‘tunnel’, ‘tyre’. I use ‘close’ as we start off, Beau is always a reluctant starter but gets into it once he’s moving. I use ‘over’ for the jumps, and as the tyre is his favourite and along that left side he has a tendency to carry on through the tyre unless I direct him with a ‘this way’ in order to send him over the central jump. Tilly likes to be involved too and will chase us about with her ball, hoping for a throw!
Tilly retrieving (0.47 – 1.09). Commands used: ‘sit’, ‘wait’, ‘go fetch’. Tilly loves to retrieve – I would go as far to say that she lives for it. But it took a while to get her so keen, and we did it in stages. So for Tilly to learn to retrieve a ball, I had to first get her interested in chasing a ball. We tried a variety of types of balls and toys, and eventually she showed interest in small, latex squeaky balls – chasing after them, grabbing them, and then lying down to kill them. I then had to teach her to ‘drop’ by going up to her and swapping the ball for a treat. She had already learnt ‘come’ but this proved to be a problem as once she was away with the ball, if I recalled her she left the ball and then came to me for treat, so I had to work out how to maintain her prey drive for long enough for her to keep the ball in her mouth for the return. We’d already done a bit of agility, so I set up a low jump in the garden, threw the ball just the other side of the jump and then sent her over. The first few times, she grabbed the ball and then lay down with the ball in her mouth on the other side of the jump, but then one time, with a bit of encouragement and with her focus on the jump, she jumped back over, ball still in mouth, I told her ‘drop’ and then immediately threw the ball back at her. And that’s when it clicked for her – if I bring the ball back, I get to chase it again! From then on, we made rapid progress. There is no requirement to tell her to ‘drop’ any more – in fact she practically throws the ball back at me – and there’s no need to swap the ball for treats as she retrieves for the ball alone now, every time. She’s not even interested in treats when retrieving – even if I present her with even the tastiest morsel, all she wants is the ball. Sitting and waiting for a retrieve is challenging for her, but she’s good at because the retrieve serves to reinforce the wait. In training, this is called the ‘Premack Principle’ or more commonly, ‘grandma’s law’ – if you do this totally unrewarding thing first, you get to do this amazing thing after, or in other words, if you finish your greens you get to eat pudding. Gradually, finishing your greens (or in Tilly’s case, sitting and waiting) not only becomes a means to an end, but as a behaviour, it grows in strength and will want to be repeated. Once Tilly has waited for a retrieve, I always follow this by throwing the ball again.
Tilly retrieving (1.10 – 1.27). Commands used: Tilly – ‘sit’, ‘wait’, ‘go', fetch’. Beau – ‘leave’. Although Beau seems oblivious to what’s going on around him when I’m training with Tilly, he’s actually paying attention. If I send Tilly to retrieve, he’ll often run in too. If I’ve hidden the ball or she’s not seen where it’s landed and she has to search for it, he’ll sometimes run in and find it straight away. In this clip, he runs in – at the point where he veers off to the left (1.19) I’m telling him to ‘leave’.
Beau retrieving (1.28 – 2.12). Commands used: ‘sit’, ‘stay’, ‘go fetch’, ‘come’. Beau is somewhat of an unenthusiastic retriever and it takes a lot to keep him interested. Tilly provides competition, which helps, but whereas Tilly will work fast and for the ball alone, what suits Beau is a retrieve to hand in exchange for a treat or two. Most of the time he comes straight back with the ball, albeit at his own sweet pace, but he can lose interest half way and so sometimes I need to recall him as he’s making his way back to me to keep him going. At this point, I know he’s had enough and so once he’s returned with the ball and we’ve done our ball-treat swap, I let him have the ball back so that he can take it off and lie down and have a little play on his own for a while. There’s no point in pushing him once he’s reached his limit and as it’s taken a while to get him this interested in retrieving, I’m not about to put unnecessary pressure on him and risk him shutting me out. In this clip, I use the ‘watch me’ command as I approach Beau after placing the ball near the fence, just to hold his attention while I move around to his right side and open a clear path for him to retrieve. This helps to keep him place as I’m cueing him up to ‘go fetch’. By applying gentle pressure to his chest with the back of my left forearm, I engage the ‘opposition reflex’ whereby he naturally pushes forwards into my arm, so that when I eventually release him, he’s already moving forward and so moves faster towards the ball. In this clip, Tilly cuts across his return and he veers off to the right. At this point he’s lost the drive to return to me with the ball so I have to recall him (‘come’) before he loses interest in returning to me with the ball.
Beau retrieving (2.13 – 2.59). Commands used: ‘sit’, ‘stay’, ‘watch me’, ‘go fetch’. In this clip, I throw the ball into the tunnel. While Beau is in a sit-stay, Tilly tracks down the paddock over the cavaletti poles to the tunnel. Beau decides to return to me via the tunnel and so flushes Tilly out, who decides to beat him on the return and get in a sneaky throw while he’s still on his way back to me!
Tilly retrieving (3.00 – 3.40). Commands used: Tilly – ‘sit’, ‘stay’, ‘watch me’, ‘go', 'fetch’. Beau – ‘leave’. I use the ‘watch me’ command sooner with Tilly because she is so keen to retrieve and I don’t want her to break her sit-stay until I send her away. Beau is watching from the sidelines all along and again, I need to tell him to ‘leave’ (3.29).
Beau retrieving (3.41 – 4.04). Commands used: ‘sit’, ‘wait’, ‘go fetch’. In this clip, I set Beau up so that he can’t see where the ball is going to land. He still hears it land, but I’m covering his eyes! Once he’s found the ball, he decides to return, unprompted, through the tyre, his favourite piece of agility equipment.
Tandem retrieve! (4.05 – 4.56). Commands used: ‘sit’, ‘stay’, ‘watch me’, ‘wait’, ‘go fetch’. I tell Tilly to ‘wait’ as I’m walking back from placing the balls near the fence and hold Beau’s attention with a ‘watch me’ – interestingly though, although my eye contact is with Beau, Tilly is also watching me as she waits for me to send her in for the retrieve. Beau almost breaks his stay as Tilly runs down the paddock because I take a step forward, which he takes as a signal to move forward, but I realise my mistake and a sharp ‘wait’ holds him. Tilly gets in a couple of quick-fire retrieves while Beau, making his way back up the paddock, drops the ball on route but then makes up for it by returning, unprompted, over the jump.