Haven't written a new post in quite a while, first because Dancer was recovering from her spay and hernia repair surgery for the first two weeks of September, so we weren't training at all. Then the last two weeks of September we had two flyball tournaments, so I was too busy to post.
But rest assured, although I wasn't writing, we were training. As soon as she was given the okay to run and play again, we got right back into the swing of things. Not surprisingly, my Tiny Dancer didn't miss a beat. At our first practice in September, she was able to get the ball out of the box with no box props, doing her nice little turn. I decided I needed to start moving my body position (I'd been starting her while standing on her right side, but my preferred release position is to straddle the dog so my body is out of the picture), and I wanted to eliminate the arm motion that I was using. I'm happy to say I was able to accomplish both of those objectives within just a couple of tries.
This week at practice I wanted to start moving her further away from the box (so far I've been starting her very close up--probably no more than 6 feet from the box.) Again, we had pretty quick success. By the end of practice, I had her starting from behind the jump closest to the box (15' away), so she had to hop over that jump, do her turn and get the ball, and then hop back over the jump to return to me...which she did!
Now we'll just keep backing up until she's taking all 4 jumps to and from the box. Then we'll start adding other dogs into the mix. Very exciting times!
After a rather discouraging week of practice, where there was no improvement in the number of "good" box turns (good being no double-hit, no trapping the ball, all 4 paws on box; improvement being more than one or two good turns out of 10), I thought, "Screw it, let's move on." You know, because I'm the most patient trainer on the planet, and I can stomach lack of progress for a few days. Not.
The next step would be to start working it without the prop (box jump) in front of the box. Moving to this step before Dancer was doing a good turn 8 out of 10 times was risky: many trainers would keep trying other box prop configurations to force the good turn to happen, instead of removing the prop completely. But for some reason, elaborate box prop configurations really bother me. I mean, reeeeaaaalllly bother me, so I didn't really entertain that option. Recognizing that I might be now settling for double-hitting and/or trapping the ball (I knew I could ensure 4 paws no matter what), I removed the box jump completely.
And what did Dancer do? Five out of ten good turns! Fifty percent! Whoot!
Of course, that means there were 4 out of 10 like this...bad:
And even one that was truly awful:
But 50% is 50%, and I'm pleased! Yes, there's room for improvement (she's coming off a little wide in the good ones, for example). Yes, we could see regression next time (but I doubt it--each time she did a bad one, she did not get rewarded, and then she'd give me a good one after that...as you can see in the video below.)
Now we'll shoot for 8 out of 10 good ones, and then I'll gradually move her further back to about 10 feet from the box, and then I'll start changing my body position (right now, I'm standing on her left side, but in the end, I want to be releasing her from between my feet, with me standing over her.) And then we'll introduce a jump into this whole mess. Yay, progress!!
Here's the video of this session, for anyone who wants to see the good mixed with the bad.
Tuesday's practice at home was just a continuation of what we did on Sunday--same ball, same set up, with improvements: nice high position on the box, and good success getting the ball (6 out of 8 times), and not really double-hitting. But the slo-mo video revealed the secret to her success: she's basically trapping the ball, or to put it another way, the ball fires and hits her in the face, and as it starts to roll down the box pedal she grabs it in her mouth. And she doesn't have to double-hit because she's essentially pivoting offer her face as she traps the ball! So I was thinking maybe we can do better?
Dancer "trapping" the ball, not catching it.
Here's the video from Tuesday's practice (for you training geeks out there).
A few days later at flyball practice at the Dog Gym, the results were pretty much the same...trapping, trapping, trapping. Since I didn't want this to become a habit, I figured I'd better change it up.
Believe it or not, there are still many types of balls we haven't tried. Any ball that bounces and doesn't squeak is legal in flyball, so if at first you don't succeed...well, you know. I knew I wanted a larger sized ball, since the tiny ball didn't give her a good enough target. I knew I wanted something that was going to be rather sluggish leaving the box, since her catching skills are lacking. And I knew softer was better than harder, since she's just a little girl! So the next ball up for grabs is the squishy ball! These are soft, spongy balls (not foam--they're denser than that), just a bit smaller than a regular tennis ball. Kind of like a stress-reliever ball, but not as firm. A couple of dogs on our team have had success with these: one just because he likes them better than any other ball, the other because he was having catching issues similar to what I've been seeing with Dancer.
So I brought home a couple of squishy ball and started using them when we played fetch, just so Dancer could get used to the feel of them and come to understand that this is "her" ball. And in today's training session, I used them in the box.
Here's a breakdown of the video: 1) Box bounce for warm-up; 2) Spontaneously offered box bounce as I tried to load the ball (never let it be said this girl lacks enthusiasm for this game!); 3) Drop; 4) Trap; 5) Drop; 6) Almost not trapped - yay! With double-hit - not yay! 7) Same as 6! 8) Very slight trap with no double-hit! 9) cursed box didn't fire; 10) cursed box didn't fire (I think it's getting choked with dust...I have to clean it up); 11) Very slight trap, no double-hit!
To sum that up, it appears she was getting a little better at figuring things out as we went along. We had 2 drops, 1 trap, 2 slight traps with double-hit, and 2 slight traps with no double-hit. Given that, we'll hold with this ball for at least one more practice to see if we get more improvement.
This is where the rubber is hitting the road, my friends. This is where a box turn that could last a lifetime is forged. And wonder of wonders: I finally have the patience to work it and video and analyze and try different things--patience that comes from already having 2 other flyball dogs currently running, patience that comes from the fact that (in the grand scheme of things) she's coming along remarkably fast. Okay, so I'm not really being patient after all.
Yeah, yeah, get it out of your system. Two balls. Har har. We get lots of ball jokes and snickering in this sport. :)
We practiced again today with the large tennis ball. While the success rate was not huge, and she still had some trouble catching the ball, I feel pretty good about following this path. I didn't use the perpendicular prop today, but even without it she was getting some really nice height on the box. More importantly, she sustained that height throughout the entire training session. She had some trouble getting the box to trigger, particularly when she went really high, but we ended up with just 2 no-triggers, 3 triggers with drop/missed ball, and 3 triggers with catches. I think the fact that the larger ball's position on the box is further out to the side (vs. the small ball hole, which is a couple inches closer to the center) also helped her to maintain height in the turn. And the large ball is just a bigger, brighter target for her, so in the long run I anticipate the success rate will go up.
I made a short comparison video of the best turn from our August 6th session vs. the best turn in our session today, just to make sure I wasn't just making things up in my head. And sure enough, the difference is clear.
Here are side-by-side still shots, too. Given that the small ball turn was never very high, and degenerated further in later training sessions, vs. the large ball turn which is nice and high and so far is just improving in our one subsequent session, I feel like we're on the right track.
August 6th, 2013 August 11, 2013
And if anyone's interested, here's the full video of our training session today.
It's possible...throwing salt over my shoulder, knocking wood, and making fawning gestures to the doG gods above...that this is the baby box turn I've been searching for, and now I can only hope I start seeing it more and more.
Last week Dancer started turning off the box and getting the ball in the process...which is AWESOME! Don't let me lead you to think I'm less than tickled pink. That's a huge milestone, and something that can take a dog a very long time to learn. That she's doing this at such a young age, and after so little time training (remember, just over 2 months ago she didn't know how to retrieve a ball) is a great thing.
That being said, we've still got a long way to go. She still needs to:
Trigger the ball to fire out of the box (vs. just stealing it off a Velcro tab, which is where we left off last week);
Eliminate double (and triple and quadruple) hitting;
Maintain a 4 paw turn (with no double hitting) when the box props are removed;
Build in the distance of the actual flyball lane, including the 4 jumps, and maintain that same beautiful 4 paw turn.
So in this week's training, I wanted to work on eliminating the double-hitting before I focused on having the box trigger the ball. My reasoning was that if she could hit the box with more confidence and less feet fussing around, while targeting the ball with her face, she'd put herself in a better position to catch the ball when it actually started flying out of the box (hence the name of our sport...flyball). Since she was double-hitting so badly when I took the box prop out, I decided to work her muscle memory with the box prop in place. What I got was a majority of very nice turns (5 out of 8 were great), with a couple of double-hits and one just sloppy & low:
August 3, 2013
The next session (notice I'm not doing box work everyday...don't want to get her burned out on it), since she'd done pretty well with not double-hitting the day before, I wanted to see how she did with the box firing the ball. Why the rush? I didn't want her getting too used to the ball not moving. In my opinion, all of these foundation steps need to be very temporary, since they are just a means to an end (and not the finished product). I want to keep her making progress toward the final goal, but I don't want her to get a foundation behavior so hard-wired that I have to make her unlearn it later on. By moving on quickly, almost as soon as she's showing proficiency, I can keep the foundation behaviors malleable enough for her to adapt them to the next step. That's my theory, anyway.
Up til now, I'd been using the old box that I own myself. However, it's holes are lined up differently than the holes on our team/competition boxes, so using my own box for this next phase wasn't possible--the ball wouldn't be in the right place. I had to borrow one of the team boxes (which is what I'll be using from now on.) I also didn't want the box to fire full force in the beginning--better if it could just softly spit the ball out while Dancer learns to grab it. So my dear husband made me some "thruster blocks" that allowed the ball to fire, but only very gently. As you can see in the video below, she does all right with this new change, especially for the first time out. We got 5 decent turns and 5 not so good, so 50/50:
August 6, 2013
I was feeling pretty good about our progress, and was thinking that I would just stay the course: keep box prop in place, keep the ball firing gently, try to improve from 50/50. Hopefully in the next few sessions, we'd get to 80/20.
Would that they could all be like this, from now and forever! Alas!
Alas, the best laid plans, right? Our next session was at flyball practice at the Dog Gym. I didn't get any video because I'm always too busy at practice to think of it; however, if I had gotten tape, it wouldn't have been pretty. I set things up just like I had them at home, and it all went to hell. Three paws, three paws, two paws, degeneration! Waaah! We ended up making the box jump higher, putting it closer to the box, putting other props in there (all things I hate doing--the more props you put in, the more props you have to fade out), but it didn't matter because nothing worked. It was as if her butt had lost the ability to get up onto the box at all. We joked about putting a moat filled with crocodiles around the box, but I honestly think Dancer would have just lightly stepped on the croc's heads as she walked up to touch the box with 2 paws. And catching the ball was no where to be seen. It was so bad that I had to stop thinking about it and regroup the next day.
And in thinking about it all night and part of the next day, I realized that Dancer has, at heart, a ball-catching issue. This is not particularly surprising to me because Raff couldn't catch a ball in his mouth to save his life--which could also explain why I had such trouble (to the point of giving up completely) getting Raff to do a 4 paw turn. Unlike brother Wyatt, who could probably catch a ball fired at his head from a rocket launcher, Dancer can catch a ball softly lobbed at her head only about 30% of the time. So while she had a nice little box turn when the ball wasn't firing, we lost that when the ball did fire.
How to fix that? First, I got a ball that was easier to catch. They make these very soft tennis balls for people who are just learning tennis, and in flyball, those are frequently what the doctor ordered. I'd been using the small tennis ball for Dancer, figuring that would be better for her tiny mouth. These soft tennis balls are the same size as a regular tennis ball, which isn't necessarily ideal for a smaller dog because it can be a little unwieldy in their small mouth, but would make a bigger target for catching. Easier to see, easier to grab. And because it's softer/squishier than a regular tennis ball, once a dog has it in their mouth, they can get a grip on it pretty easily.
Second, I reintroduced a perpendicular prop to the picture. I wanted to break her completely of the idea of two paws, and a perpendicular prop is very effective at that.
Off to work we went!
August 10, 2013
What I like here is that her butt is definitely up! Too up! So far up that once I remove the thruster blocks so the box fires, she's still not even triggering it! In one week, I'm pretty much back where I started last week: double-hitting, not triggering the box.
But too far up is better than too far down, in my opinion. And I believe she'll have a better time catching the bigger, softer ball, once we get the box firing again, which should help to eliminate double-hitting. And once she can catch the ball easily, I can "incentivize" her to get off the box more quickly, which should also help eliminate double-hitting. I can work with this.
I should also mention that besides the box training, everyday we play two rounds of fetch, just like we've done from the very beginning (which helps with physical conditioning and passing skills), and we do wall work a few times a week. I'm also working her butt muscles and core muscles a few times a week by having her "stand up and beg". All the box work in the world won't yield a nice 4 paw swimmer's turn if the dog's butt and core muscles are weak.
This continues to be an amazing learning experience, for both Dancer and for me. She's got me pulling out every trick in the book, and I'm sure before this is done I'll have learned a few new ones, too. My little Keeshond.
ELEVATED BOARD WORK, PERPENDICULAR PROP, AND THE KITCHEN SINK....
The wall work we had done gave me an arm motion that meant something to Dancer--it meant bank off this surface!
With the arm motion, I was able to get her to bank off the box itself. I started with a box jump in front of it, but was soon able to remove that and still get a nice, 4 paw bounce off the actual box. No ball. Thank you, wall work. But I didn't want to repeat that too often because I feel it's important to get the ball back into the picture asap. I don't want her to get muscle memory fixed for box-bouncing without the ball, only to have to learn a new position when the ball is in place.
One of the trickiest parts of training a box turn is introducing the ball into the equation. Most dogs can do a box bounce with no ball, but when you put the ball in, they forget about bouncing and go straight for the ball. The easiest way to get around this is to use the training board...start out pretty flat with the ball attached, angle it up slowly, and you're all set. But as I've described already, Dancer put a new spin on that approach, by insisting on climbing up the angled board, even with a box jump in front of it.
Another way to approach this problem is to prop the whole training board up off the ground. My friend Crystal introduced this concept to me after she had seen some teams using a snub-nosed flyball box.
While this is far from what a nice turn will look like in the end, at the very least she is bouncing onto the board in order to retrieve the ball. The flat surface allows her to reposition her feet before she launches back to me, and in general, she's not moving very fast. So I don't want to work this exercise for very long. But as a means of communicating "training boards are meant to be bounced upon", this was effective.
The elevated training board taught her to grab the ball while all 4 paws were on the surface. Yay!
But when I angled the training board again, she reverted back to climbing. Sigh. Time to go old school! I put a couple of chunks of wood perpendicular to the angled training board, to give her something to go around.
This shows the perpendicular prop up against the flyball box (not the training board that I started Dancer on...but this pic is just an example to give you the idea.) Dancer had to approach it from the left side of the prop to get to her ball on the right side of her board.
This worked. The wood being perpendicular to training board forced her to approach the box on one side, instead of climbing straight across the training board to get the ball. It effectively made her get her back feet up onto the training board in order to reach the ball because she couldn't reach the ball otherwise. While it didn't make her think about doing that, it did allow me to mark and reward the behavior I was seeking (back paws on board!) Many trainers are hesitant to use this approach because it's too reminiscent of the old-fashioned cone method (see Method One); however, I believe that if used in a very limited way (just a few reps, maybe one training session), it can be a useful communication tool. I used this on Wyatt, and it allowed us to break through a plateau we'd reached when I was first training him 7 years ago.
Armed with a meaningful arm motion (from the wall work), and having rewarded the ball retrieval only when her back feet were on the board, I went back to the traditional set up: jump board in front of angled training board, and yay! I was able to get her bouncing onto the angled board, and I was slowly able to angle the board up further and further until it was the same angle as the actual box.
And then, I was able to remove the training board completely, and, well...WHOOT!
I started with a box bounce (no ball) as a warm-up, then added the ball. Did I mention, "Whoot!!!"?
We've got a ton of work to do yet--for one thing, the box isn't actually firing the ball out, the ball is just stuck on there with Velcro. And she's double-hitting with her front feet (that is, she's landing on the box, getting the ball, and then re-setting at least one of her front feet before she launches back off the box.) Still, I was so excited at her progress that I took out the box jump, just to see what she would do. Had she internalized the 4 paw turn, or was the box jump the only thing making it happen? I was delighted to see that she still got all four feet on the box. Nevertheless, her turns really suffered without the jump board. You can see from the slow motion sections for those last few turns that she's adjusting her feet all over the place...doing a lot of walking around on that box pedal!
We don't want all that extra motion. We want to see a nice clean on and off, with the paws not shifting all over the place (here is big brother Wyatt, showing off a turn that hasn't changed much in 7 years):
But little Dancer has made a darn good start!
Now we work it, fine tune it, make it a rock solid forever turn. One day at a time.