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:

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:
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!
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.

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