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!


  1. Maybe Dancer wants to step flyball up a notch, climb a cliff, get the ball, and repel back down. To make the new sport really exciting, we could put it in a nest and have it defended by angry birds.

    1. Ha! Just imagine trying to set up for that kind of tournament!