Saturday, November 15, 2008

Getting Consistency on Fronts

To those of us "in" obedience, the term front refers to any time our dog comes and sits directly in front of us, ideally perfectly straight and centered in a square sit. Scoring-wise, any position of the dog within reach of the handler is a passing front. A finish means the dog moves from wherever he is into heel position at the handler's left side, either moving around behind the handler to the right, or swinging to the left. Neither the front nor the finish is a principle part of any exercise, so you won't fail an exercise if your dog fails to do either of them, as long as he gets close enough for you to touch without moving your feet.

In Novice obedience, there is only one front: 3 points out of the possible 200 points available for the whole class. In the grand scheme of a qualifying score in Novice, this single front on the Recall exercise isn't that crucial.

In Open, there are four fronts: one on the drop on recall, two with a dumbbell in the dog's mouth, and one on the broad jump, which requires a 180 degree arc into the front.

In Utility, there are six fronts: one on the Signal exercise, three after a retrieve, and two coming off jumps.

According to the AKC, a totally skipped front is supposed to be 5 points off, because in AKC arithmetic, 3 + 3 = 5 (-3 for no front, -3 for no finish). However, not all judges take off that much. Surely it depends on the exact circumstance. In any case, a dog who totally skips fronts, AKA does automatic finishes, ends up losing a bunch of points that way by the time you are in Open, and it gets even worse in Utility. Having had a dog (my 3rd) who had a lot of problems with auto finishes in Utility, I've been there, done that, and it really wrecks havoc with your score.

In my experience, perfecting fronts and finishes are long-term projects with the majority of dogs, measured in months, if not years. I teach fronts in a long series of steps to my dogs:
  • Stationary front attention
  • Chair fronts
  • Moving front attention
  • Scoot fronts
  • Steering fronts
  • Wagon wheel fronts
  • Cookie-toss fronts, which include platform fronts and/or chute fronts
  • Angled fronts
  • Offset fronts
Do you have a dog who skips fronts? First, be aware or become aware of on which exercises your dog tends to skip the front. With my Rio, it was the Signal Exercise and Directed Jumping in Utility, i.e. those without something in his mouth. This may have been confusion over the Moving Stand call to heel. One of my current dogs, Gryffin, has had several really bad fronts on the Directed Retrieve exercise in Utility. In part, I think it stemmed from the close proximity of the judge as Gryff was coming in, plus he often focused his attention on the ring steward in the ring, standing nearby waiting to retrieve the remaining two gloves. Knock wood, he has been doing well in recent trials.

Some dogs go right to heel when a judge is close by and moving around behind the dog. For some dogs, this motion isn't an issue. But for many, the pressure the dog feels from the judge is too much if the dog isn't accustomed to someone there. In Novice, the judge is typically at the opposite end of the ring from the handler and where the dog has to front. In Open, judges are often at the opposite end during the retrieves, but some stand at the same end of the ring as the handler to watch for bumping on the front. Once the dog sits in front, the judge will move around behind the dog to check the straightness of the front. This motion might cause your dog to finish early. On the Broad Jump, the judge will be closer due to the nature of the exercise.

In Utility, the judge is typically at a distant on the Signal Exercise finish; moving in on the Scent Discrimination fronts, moving from behind you to behind the dog on the Directed Retrieve front, and moving from somewhere either behind you or off to one side on the Directed Jumping fronts.

A crucial step in dealing with anticipated finishes is to always be prepared to catch your dog anticipating a finish. Do NOT simply stand there and let him complete it! Catch him with a foot or your hand. Turn your body away to prevent completion. You need to recreate an error in order to fix it. With a really severe problem that seems to only crop up in the ring, sacrifice a Q and catch him in the ring. The day after Treasure finished her UDX (she earned legs 6-10 all in a row), she started to go right to heel on the drop on recall, a problem that had cropped up too frequently in the recent past to ignore it. I don't remember exactly how I stopped her, but I did, and that one small correction mostly cured her of doing auto-finishes.

Fronts take a long time to perfect. Adding the hold of a dumbbell, scent article, or glove to the front typically decreases accuracy initially. Think about it from your dog's point of view. He needs to think about not only where to sit, but also about holding onto the item he's carrying as he executes the sit. I can still picture my first Flat-Coat Tramp's early attempts to front while holding a dumbbell. Her nose was to one side, her rear curled around to the same side. She did hold well, though :-). When my younger FCR, Ty, first started to front with a dumbbell, her fronts were very crooked, and she'd hold her nose in the air, chomping away on the dumbbell while swinging her head from side to side. Ack! Not exactly the picture we're aiming for. Her typical rear-to-my-left sit has been decreasing while training for and showing in Novice. It has reappeared as we've been working on her retrieves. She's just not yet able to adjust her front and remember to grip the dumbbell correctly. I still have to help her quite a bit.

Once you have narrowed down when your dog is most likely to skip a front, you should start to proof that exercise more heavily. The following proofs are from The Art of Proofing: Preparing Your Dog For Obedience Trials, my newest book:

Work fronts:
  • Past odds and ends on the floor, such as sticky dots, hair balls, or scraps of paper.
  • With a person standing nearby, first behind you, then to one side, then the other.
  • With a person walking up behind your dog as he comes into his front. This can happen on any recall. This can cause automatic finishes, which means your dog does a finish without a cue from you. Make sure your dog cannot only front well enough with someone nearby, but can also stay in his front sit until you cue the finish. If he starts to finish without a cue, don't let him complete it-mark the error verbally and turn in place with him or block him with a hand or a foot.
  • With someone dropping a toy nearby when your dog is 6-8 feet from you. This can cause your dog to skip his front. You want him to keep his focus on you all the way into his sit in front.
  • With a person walking all around you as your dog fronts. A lot of dogs are especially startled by someone walking out from behind their handler, which often happens when a dog is returning to a front from a glove retrieve on the Utility Directed Retrieve, or after jumping during the Utility Directed Jumping.
  • With your dog holding a dumbbell, scent article, or glove. A dog's ability to front accurately often deteriorates when he holds something in his mouth.
  • While standing off to the side, so that your dog has to "find front." The farther your dog is from straight in-line with you, the harder this becomes. Most dogs are better at straightening their front from one side than the other, so you should spend more of your training time teaching your dog to master his harder side.
  • With an object or a person blocking your dog's path. Start 6-8' away from the object at first. When he can adjust himself into a straight front properly, move closer to the distraction.
  • With a toy or a cookie-loaded target behind your dog. If he is a thief, you'll need a helper or a leash to prevent him from cheating and stealing the treat early. Instead of stopping in front with his back to the toy or target, your dog might do an automatic finish, going right to heel position so he can see where the toy or target is. When your dog successfully fronts, you can release him to the toy or treat as a reward. This is a great concept to teach young dogs in preparation for later Drop on Recall and Signal training and proofing.
  • With your back near a baby gate or a wall.
  • Standing at a 45 degree angle to a wall or gate.
  • Leave your dog on a sit stay across from another person. Go stand to one side of that person-you are off center from your dog-and call your dog. Does he come to you or the other person? This is particularly important to work on with small dogs, who may not look up as high on your body as larger dogs. This becomes extra challenging if your helper dresses in clothes and shoes that are similar to your own.
  • Alternate between a call to heel (like the finish on the Moving Stand from Utility) with a call to front.

With Rio, I also resorted to tossing a treat or toy as he was coming to me, especially after jumping. You might prefer to have someone else do the tossing for you.

Given enough time and training, most dogs can learn to front with accuracy and consistency. Good luck!

Until next time, happy training!

No comments: