Saturday, July 27, 2013

Hello, Walls!


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:

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!  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.

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.

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!
Deadball retrieves.

Over and Backs  
 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.
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!