Monday, May 27, 2013

Day 3: Solid Retrieve, a Bit More Enthusiasm

Day 3 of retrieve training brought even more success!  Dogs like this little girl make me feel like I'm a better trainer than I really am.  I know this to be true, trust me.  Just because I know HOW to train a dog in this sport doesn't mean I'm always successful.  (Ask me about Boca sometime.)

And it's no wonder she's doing so well.  Dancer is a Kidkees puppy, bred by Kathy Gray and co-owned by Kathy and Judi James.  Her parents are mama Sprite, CH Kidkees Makes Me Giggle RN and dad Ash, CH Cascadia Once in a Blue Moon RA NA NAJ.  Kidkees has dogs who perform in agility, obedience, and rally.  Dancer's great-gran Bonnie is a therapy dog and crisis response dog.  So I think it's safe to say we can expect great things from this little girl!

My hope to get her running back to me with a little more speed was realized.  I did tweak the reward a bit--both Terry (my husband) and I noticed that she loves the cut up pieces of "dog log" treats, so I put those in the treat ball and used them to reward her.  Well, what a difference the right reinforcer makes!  Whereas the day before she was kind of just phoning it in, this kicked things into a bit higher gear.  She began running back with more speed and enthusiasm, plus she was hanging onto the ball the whole way and dropping it at my feet.  Score!!!

Since Dancer's retrieve is coming along far ahead of schedule, I'd like to take up the rest of today's blog space with some of my thoughts on...


I've heard that some of the top trainers in Flyball discourage people from playing fetch with their Flyball dogs because it makes for a lazy return--the dog dashes out after the ball, and then lollygags its way back.  And yes, in ball-loving dogs that pattern does happen.  Watch Wyatt playing fetch, and that's exactly what you'll see.  However, I have never experienced this causing a problem with my dogs in Flyball.  The dogs who don't love balls are getting a reward for fetching the ball in our backyard game--the ball isn't the reward, the cheese is the reward. The sooner they get the ball back to me, the sooner the cheese happens, so it doesn't take them long to figure out it's in their best interest to get their fluffy butts back to me!

What about the ball-lover?  Well, Wyatt's return run to me in the Flyball lanes has always been just a hair faster than his run to the box, despite the opposite performance in our twice daily games of fetch.  I believe there are two reasons for this:  1) Dogs don't generalize.  For Wyatt, the fetch we play in the yard is a completely and totally different game from the Flyball we play in the lanes.  2) When playing Flyball, I reward Wyatt for running back to me, and that reward is always something he likes just slightly more than the ball he gets from the box, so yeah, he gets his fluffy butt back to me as quickly as possible!  When we play fetch in the yard, I allow the thrown ball to be his reward because he just loves it so much.  And since the fetch game is being played for fun (and exercise) for the dogs, I'm happy to let him play it in whatever way he prefers.

On the other hand, I do believe that our fetch games can help lay the foundation for some other important Flyball skills.  Obviously, the RETRIEVE aspect of fetch is a good Flyball skill.  Flyball is, at its core, just a fancy dead ball retrieve, which is why the first skill I wanted Dancer to learn was a retrieve.  Granted, she doesn't have a dead ball retrieve yet (by dead ball retrieve, I mean the dog drives out to get a ball that's not moving--that hasn't been thrown), but it's pretty easy to transition from a moving ball retrieve (fetch) to a dead ball retrieve.

In our backyard fetch games, the dogs are also learning NOT TO CHASE the other dogs who are fetching their balls.  Obviously, this is not something that a single dog playing fetch with its owner will learn.  But when we play, there are three or four dogs involved.  Each time I introduce a new dog, if it seems inclined to chase the others (and let's face it, they ALL are so inclined), I restrain them until I can trust that they'll wait their turn.  When all the dogs I'm playing with are familiar with our fetch rules, you'll see me throw the ball for the first dog (Wyatt), and you'll see the other two or three dogs staying by me, barking and hopping around with excitement, but still waiting for their ball to be thrown.

The final foundation skill that I believe starts in our fetch games is PASSING.  In Flyball, dogs have to pass right by each other, as one dog exits the lane and the other starts its run.  Both dogs are running at full speed, running past each other virtually shoulder to shoulder, but completely ignoring each other in the process.  We spend a lot of time working with dogs to get them to the point of being able to do this completely unnatural behavior, and for many dogs it's the single hardest part of their training.  But in my backyard, Neena runs right past Wyatt as she races to get her ball, then on her return, she runs past Raffy as he races to get his ball.  And now Dancer is running straight past Raff, as she runs out and he's running back.  They learn that the game being played has nothing to do with the other dogs--it has everything to do with that ball and with getting back to me.

Having just stated that "dogs don't generalize", how can I now claim that behaviors in fetch can transfer to the Flyball lanes?  I guess I should revise my comment to say, "Dogs don't generalize, people do."  That is to say, with deliberate effort, we get our dogs ultimately to generalize all of the time.  The retrieve is a skill that we will deliberately transfer to the lanes, just like we can deliberately transfer a "sit" from the kitchen to the backyard to the Obedience ring.  But no, dogs don't typically generalize all on their own.

In terms of not chasing and passing, I look at fetch as part of the overall process of desensitization that we do with our Flyball dogs.  And doing that twice a day in a distracting environment can only help the dog's performance in the lanes, in the long run.

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