Friday, October 11, 2013

The Full Monty!

Well, okay, not the actual full monty, but it is a full run of the course, with no box prop!  Whoot!
video

This was at practice last night...we got it done! 

And we still have a long way to go, but a dog's first full run of the course is always cause for celebration.  So that's what this post is for.  Let's hear it again--whoot!!!  Go, Dancer!!

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Short Update

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!

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Look, Ma! No Props!

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.
video


Sunday, August 18, 2013

With a Tweak-tweak Here, and a Tweak-tweak There....

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).
video

 
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.
 
video
 
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.
 


Sunday, August 11, 2013

Tale of Two Balls

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. 
video
 
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.
video

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.


Saturday, August 10, 2013

Now the Real Work Begins

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:
  1. 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);
  2. Eliminate double (and triple and quadruple) hitting;
  3. Maintain a 4 paw turn (with no double hitting) when the box props are removed;
  4. 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:

video
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:
 
video
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!
video
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.




Sunday, August 4, 2013

Get Up, Get On Up!

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.

video

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!
video
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):
video

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.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Hello, Walls!

WALL WORK

In our last episode, little Dancer felt that the angled training board was meant to be climbed ("Scale that wall to get the ball," I heard her chirp), vs. bounced off.  I had intended to do wall work with her anyway, but with this development, I felt it could really be helpful.

Wall work in flyball is where you teach the dog to bank off a very nearly vertical surface.  A nice explanation of how to do this can be found, among other places, on my friend Crystal's blog (see Method 3...Crystal also catalogues several other common box turn training methods.  An interesting side note--I think by the time I'm done with Miss Dancer Prancer, I'll have employed bits and pieces from all of them!)

I lined a 2' x 4' piece of 3/4" plywood with some matting, measured where to put the tape line for her, and leaned it up against the house (with my old agility a-frame folded up behind it.)  I armed myself with a clicker and some of Dancer's favorite dog-log treats, and off we went.




 
Because Keeshonds are a naturally bouncy breed (the saying goes they make good apartment dogs because they exercise vertically), I figured that Dancer would pick up on the wall work pretty easily.  Just how easily was a surprise--within 60 seconds, here were our results:
video

Most instructions for wall work tell you to use a touch stick (not your hand).  But I was having trouble getting Dancer to go after the touch stick with enough drive to translate into eventually bouncing off a wall, so I opted to just use my hand with a treat, and lure her through it instead.  (I know, some of you are out there crying, "Sacrilege!"  But I'm not listening to you.  Yes, if she would go after the touch stick, I could probably have her whipping off the wall faster...but you see, if I had to wait for her to transfer her enthusiasm for the treat to the touch stick, and only then begin wall work, I would not do any wall work because that's just how I am.  So I figure this wall work is better than no wall work.  Them's the choices!)

Okay, she's bouncing off walls now.  That's just...er...great!  Perhaps there's a drawback in this process.  :)

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Setting Our Sights on the Box

Given that Dancer is a few days shy of being 11 months old, and given how small she is, I've been assured by "people who know these things" that I'm pretty safe to start training her more seriously now.  (Up til now we've been doing only very brief training sessions, only over pretty low jumps, etc.)  But her little body should be able to handle some more hard core stuff. 

So let's get serious about the flyball box!

Once a dog has deadball retrieves and over-and-backs down pat, the next step in training the box is to combine those two exercises:  have the dog retrieve deadball over a jump...i.e., insert a deadball retrieve into the over-and-back. This gets them used to the idea of leaping to grab the ball instead of just walking up to it.  I call these bounce retrieves.

Dancer handled this change up very easily.  Once she understood that her ball was on the other side of that jump, and would always be in the same place, she happily bounced over that jump to get it and bring it back to me.

video
In training bounce retrieves, I'm making sure I place the ball in the same location every time, and my goal is to have Dancer bounce and grab the ball in one motion, then bounce back to me.

Once a dog is performing this exercise fluently, my next usual step is to put in a flat training board and set the ball on it.  This gets the dog used to the surface of the box, and helps to get the dog used to where their ball is always going to be.  Again, Dancer mastered this exercise with ease--she had not problem with the matted surface of the board.

Here's our training board.  It is a board about 18" x 24", approximately the dimensions of the flyball box pedal.  We use the same matting as is on our flyball box, and place white tape across the bottom of the board to further replicate our flyball box (which has the same tape on it).  At the top there are 4 Velcro tabs, placed at the same spots as the flyball box holes.  Tennis ball felt will stick to the Velcro hooks, so the ball can be placed in roughly the same spot as it will be on the real box.

video
Dancer does a fine bounce retrieve off the flat training board.

As long as the dog doesn't balk at the training board on the flat, the next usual step is to start propping the board up on one side, so it's angled up off the ground.  Now we're starting to introduce the concept of bouncing off an angled surface while retrieving a ball.  For some dogs, I've been able to increase the angle with almost every repetition, so that in one training session I have them bouncing off the board at the same angle as the actual flyball box!  Hitting the real box and grabbing their ball is a very short step away, once we've gotten to that point!

Here is the training board propped up a few inches on a piece of wood.  When propping up the board, make sure it's very secure and not going to slip or fall when a ball bounces on it!  We don't want the dog to be afraid or uncertain about the stability of this surface in the beginning.  Later a little movement is okay (as long as it's not going to collapse), since the box pedal itself moves slightly.  But not in the beginning.

I was very eager to get to do the angled bounce retrieves with Dancer, since she'd proven herself completely proficient at every other foundation exercise to this point.  I was so confident that I could have that training board raised up to the actual flyball box angle in one session that I was going to have someone video tape it for me, so I could have a record of my fabulously successful training method and how well it worked on my amazing little Dancer.  But I forgot to set it up because my brain is a sieve.  It's really unfortunate I didn't because it would have been fun to show you all what a colossal failure it was.  Hubris is an interesting thing, isn't it?  Ahem.

As we all know, every dog is different.  At flyball practice last week, I angled the training board up just a couple of inches, set up Dancer's ball, and sent her to retrieve it.  Instead of doing her usual bounce over the jump to the ball, Dancer used the angled board to climb up to the ball!  A repetition proved this was not a fluke--clearly, the angled board was meant to be climbed in her mind.  Ack! 

We increased the height of the jump board in front of the training board, hoping to force her to really launch onto the board, but to no avail.  She just hopped over the jump, then took another step or two to get to the ball.  Another rep had her stepping over the jump board...we were losing ground here!  This girl was NOT going to bounce-retrieve off the angled board.

I had to tell myself very quickly to stop, stop, STOP!  I do NOT want the concept of getting the ball WITHOUT bouncing to enter into her little brain at all, ever, never, no, no, no.  How many repetitions would it take for her to have that devious little thought imbedded in her head?  I don't know, and I don't want to find out!  The point is, what I was doing was not working.  And sure, I could probably have found some physical prop that would have forced her to perform the way I wanted her to, but that would not be engaging her brain.  I want her to understand the concept of bounce retrieves, and I want her to do them willingly.  I realized I needed to come at this from a different angle (pun intended.)

I ended the session by putting the training board back on the flat and having her do a few bounce retrieves (i.e., we went back to the last point at which she'd been successful.)

Back the truck up and regroup.  Clearly, I have to teach this girl that "Bouncing Off Angled Surfaces is Fun" and "One Must Leap Onto the Training Board with All Four Paws in One Fluid Motion and then Launch Off Again".  It probably won't hurt to do some butt strengthening exercises with her, too.

Stay tuned for our next episode:  Wall Work and The Raised Training Board, along with Feel the Burn!

Thursday, July 4, 2013

We went to Flyball practice!


Practiced all of the foundation skills we've been working on, plus got to try recalls over the real flyball jumps!  It's great to do this stuff in a new location (although, My Dogs Gym is hardly a new location for this girl--she's probably spent more hours in the place than I have, since she pretty much grew up there.)

She rocked it all, and we had a great time.  Again, I can't wait til she's a year old so that we can do more rep's!
video
Deadball retrieves.


video
Over and Backs  
 
video
 Recalls over 4 jumps!
 
This isn't one we can easily practice at home, so I was really pleased with how well she did.  We started at the last jump and back-chained it to all 4.  She didn't miss a beat--and look at this girl, coming close to single-striding!  Keep in mind, she's probably less than 16" at the shoulder.  :)

Yeah, I got this!

And this!

Monday, July 1, 2013

U-Turns/Over and Backs

U-turns, or Over-and-Backs (O&B's) are one of the foundation exercises for training the swimmer's turn off the Flyball box.  The dog learns to bounce over a 6" jump and bounce right back again, similar to the motion she'll use ultimately to bank off the box.
 
There are some fundamentals I observe when doing O&B's, which I'll go into in a little more detail later in this post:
  • I am now deciding the direction of my dog's box turn.
  • I start this as a luring exercise, with the clicker to mark the desired behavior.
  • All four of her feet must completely clear the jump.
  • I want to keep her focus low, straight ahead, not looking up at me.
  • The timing of the exercise--the dog's motion and your motion--changes as the dog comes to understand what I'm asking her to do because....
  • The most important part of the exercise--what I am ultimately going for--is a strong LAUNCH WITH THE BACK LEGS, back over the jump to me.
  • The lure must be faded as soon as possible.
 
video
I've captioned the video to explain what's happening--it looks like we're both doing the same thing over and over, but we're not.  The differences are subtle, but important!
 
Turning Direction:  I've recently changed my mind about this, so if you're someone I've worked with in Flyball, you might be reading this and thinking, "But that's not what you told me!"  And you'd be right.  Typically, I use the direction the dog turns when doing deadball retrieves, and that can still be an excellent way to go.  Some dogs have a decided preference for their turning direction.  My Aussie, Wyatt, turns left for everything in life, while Raffy turns right...for everything.  He turns right in order to go left--I am not exaggerating.  Some dogs don't have much of a preference--in deadball retrieves, they'll "go both ways".  So in those cases, I advise the handler to just pick a direction and stick with it.  However, recently I've observed a new phenomenon: dogs who do deadball retrieves one way, but who seem to prefer to go another way when they've just cleared a jump.  Little Dancer is one of these dogs.  She turns right every time she does a deadball retrieve, but when we started doing O&B's, having her turn right was very clunky an unnatural.  When I switched it to left, it went very smoothly.  So my advice for turning direction now is: start with deadballs, and use the dog's dominant direction from that exercise as a starting point.  But when you start doing O&B's, try both directions anyway, just to see if one is smoother than another.  Dog still showing no preference whatsoever?  Pick one and stick with it (and it's very handy for future box loaders if you pick the same direction as your other dogs' turn!)
 
Luring:  I start with the dog and me on one side of the jump.  I'm standing by the left upright, with the treat in my left hand.  I'm luring her over the jump with my left hand, and she is turning left.  I have to lean down, in order to keep her from having to look up at me.  I want her head/gaze to stay on the same "plane" the entire time.
 
All 4 Feet:  In the beginning, I'm going slowly enough to make sure Dancer gets all 4 paws over the jump before I start luring her back over the jump. 
 
Timing:  In this, our first O&B lesson, the timing is pretty even between the going over and the jumping back parts of the exercise.  Over...and...Back.  As we progress, I'll be working to make this change to a much faster tempo, with a small motion for her to get over, and a much larger faster motion for her to get BACK.  Go from "over...and...back" to "ovr'nBACK!"

Launching with back legs:  This goes hand in hand with the timing mentioned above.  I will be doing everything I can to get her driving back over that jump, spending as little time on the other side as she can, and doing everything in her power to get back over it as quickly as possible.  A dog doing that will ultimately be driving off her back legs, which is the main point of this exercise.

Fading the lure:  As soon as possible, I want her to understand the task at hand (jump over and drive back as quickly as she can) without having to follow my hand through the entire exercise.  I will gradually make the hand motion smaller, until ultimately I'm just giving her a little hand signal that now means "do that whole range of motion".  As long as I'm luring, she's not going to be moving as quickly as she can--she'll only be moving as quickly as I can...and she's a lot faster than I am!  So I need to get out of her way asap.

Since she's only 10 months old, I'm not pounding through these every night.  We do maybe three rep's, once or twice a week.  Can't wait til she's a year old!  This girl's got quite a lot of stamina for training.  When I don't have to worry about her little growth plates, this whole process is going to go pretty fast!


Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Deadball Retrieves

Finally...I know, right?  Here's what we did:

Start in boring, enclosed space (our home office/spare bedroom did the trick) with about 8 - 10 feet of space for working;
  1. Warm-up with a couple of tosses (i.e., not-dead balls);
  2. Restrain Dancer, toss ball, wait one second after it stops moving, send her to get it;
  3. Repeat until she's reliable;
  4. Increase time between when ball stops moving and dog is sent to get it in 1 second increments (literally, one second!)
  5. When up to 10 seconds, switch it up by leading the dog to the spot where the ball will be, place the ball there, make sure the dogs sees it, then quickly lead the dog back to the starting point.  Once there, quickly release the dog to get the ball.
Like this:
video

What's important here?
  1. Start with the familiar fetch game:  this sets the stage for what's going on here, why we're in this little room.
  2. Solid fetch foundation with familiar cues:  I've already covered building Dancer's fetch skills.  But what I haven't pointed out is that when we play fetch, every time I throw Dancer's ball, I say the same thing, "GET your BALL!"  And off she dashes, to get her ball.  When we move to deadball retrieves, I use that same verbal cue (it's not really a command, it's just a "familiar stimulus").  Because we've warmed up with regular fetch, and because in the beginning the ball is only dead for one second (literally), and because I'm using the same cue, she's likely to go straight after the ball.
  3. Boring space, no distractions:  I've tried doing this in the backyard with the other dogs around as a starting point (cuz I'm lazy, which we've already established), and it just doesn't work.  The dog needs to be able to keep their little lemon-head focused on the ball, they need to be able to keep visual contact with the ball even after it's stopped moving.  Distractions prevent this from happening.
  4. Short distance:  not more than 10 feet, short tosses, etc.  Again, if the dog loses track of the ball, she won't know what you're asking her to do.  So, if your toss is bad and the ball goes out of sight, it's best to just start over...do not ask the dog to go find the ball.  You haven't trained her to do that yet!
  5. Short time delay between ball going dead and releasing the dog to get it:  one second, then two seconds, then three, etc.  Don't start with 10 seconds because your dog will lose track of the ball, and you'll end up with confusion, not happy retrieving.
  6. Transition carefully from tossing the ball and waiting til it's dead to placing the ball: if your dog isn't staying fully aware of the ball from the time you place it, through you're leading her back to the starting point, all the way until you release her, she's NOT ready for the ball-placing step.  Keep working the toss-delay-til-dead part.
  7. I'm going to keep working this protocol until I get the same speed and enthusiasm for the deadball as I'm getting in our live ball fetch games.  Once I have that, I'll move on to the next step.
But in the meantime, there's another foundation skill I'll be training concurrently.  While I'm training deadball retrieves, I'm also going to be training Over and Backs, or U-turns.  Stay tuned!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

NOW can we learn deadball retrieves?!

Happy to be a 2 Kees household again...easy to tell them apart when they're side by side!
 
My goodness, what an exciting couple of weeks have passed since I last posted!  First, I must confess that I fell into my favorite pass-time:  procrastination.  Since Dancer was now our dog, why rush the training?  We've got forever, right?  Plus, she was going to be spayed on Friday the 14th, which would put her on limited activity and curtail our Flyball training, so why start when we'd only have to stop?

So a week blew past, and I'd done nothing (I also told myself I was letting her "settle in"...that's important when you adopt a new dog, right?)  We still played fetch everyday, and she was still rocking that, so it's not like I was ignoring her.  But her Flyball career was stalled.

Then last week, Neena got sick:  Monday morning greeted us with a 106.1 degree fever.  She's fine now--turns out it was an abscess, but it took us until Friday and many vet visits to get that figured out.  And since Terry and I have been through hell and back with our dogs in the last 16 years (2 epileptic dogs; 1 who also had Cushing's, hypo-thyroid, arthritis, and myasthenia gravis; 1 with lymphoma; 1 dementia; 1 kidney failure; 1 jammed a 1" x 1/4" stick through the roof of his mouth into his head; and 1 who ran into a tree and blew up a disc), we tend to get a bit twitchy when mystery illnesses linger.

Also on Monday of last week, Dancer went into heat!  Cancel the spay on Friday!  So Monday night saw Terry running out to PetSmart for some bitch pants and liners...he's such a good doggy-dad.  He's also gotten very good at changing her.  Bet he never thought he'd be changing anybody's panty-liners at his age!  (Consider this a warning to any 50 + year old men out there who might be reading this:  never say never.)

So with Neena back to her usual psycho self, and Terry and I literally screaming with relief about that, and with Dancer's spay postponed til September, we're back on track!

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

She's Baaaaack!

And not only is she back, she's back to stay...forever!  Judi and Kathy agreed that Terry and I can adopt this little girl, and we couldn't be more pleased.  Well, Wyatt could live without her, but Raff, Neena, Terry, and I are in agreement that she belongs here, and so here she is.  Love.

She and Neena can wear each other out every day.  Or several times a day, is more likely.  And she and Raff can play Keeshond games as only Keeshonden can play them.  And all three of them can focus on each other and hopefully leave old-man-grumpy-pants (a.k.a. Wyatt) alone.

To celebrate, tonight we did a little group activity that I think I'll call "Choose to Jump".  It involves me standing beside a Flyball jump with a clicker and a cheesestick, and whoever goes over the jump gets clicked and cheesed.  Pardon the poor video quality--it was dusk, plus I recorded it through the window, with my camera (phone) propped up on the window sill.  We've never played this game before, so I had no idea how it would go...and actually, it went pretty well!  Dancer didn't really have a clue what to do, so I gave her the benefit of a little luring.  Neena had almost no focus, so she got lucky but didn't really connect the dots.  Wyatt started strong but didn't seem to truly figure it out.  Who was the clear winner?  Why, of course, the Raffinator!  When it comes to figuring out how to get the cheese into his mouth, few dogs can compete with this fluff butt!
video

Dancer's here, and we're going to have a total blast this summer, and beyond.  Other than Wyatt being slightly put out, and other than my having an endless playlist of "Dancer" songs going through my head 24/7 (Tiny Dancer, Rhythm is a Dancer, and other variations...Dancing with Myself, Dancing Queen, you get the idea), and other than the toe-licking thing, I just don't see a downside here.