Start in boring, enclosed space (our home office/spare bedroom did the trick) with about 8 - 10 feet of space for working;
- Warm-up with a couple of tosses (i.e., not-dead balls);
- Restrain Dancer, toss ball, wait one second after it stops moving, send her to get it;
- Repeat until she's reliable;
- Increase time between when ball stops moving and dog is sent to get it in 1 second increments (literally, one second!)
- 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.
What's important here?
- Start with the familiar fetch game: this sets the stage for what's going on here, why we're in this little room.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.