Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Utility Training Concepts

Picking up on last week’s essay’s topic, I’d like to explore some of the concepts I train on regularly when working on the Utility exercises with a dog who understands all of the exercises.

When I’m training the Signal Exercise, I vary how far away I am from my dog. I vary how long I wait between signals. Because my dogs know how to stand at a distance, I vary the order of position changes, although I more often do the order required for the Utility ring. I vary the background behind me. I glance away from my dog before each signal, simulating looking at the judge for her cues. I work on my dog’s attention at a distance, which is critical for successful signals.

On Scent Discrimination, I vary where in the pile I place my scented article. Gryffin has been having a particularly hard time when it’s in the center, so I almost always put at least one there during a session. After the first retrieve, I put the next scented one somewhere my dog didn’t check, if there are any such places. If I do more than two retrieves, I again put the next one somewhere my dog didn’t check at all or very well. I almost always have a chair nearby to put the extra articles on as there is typically one there in the ring. If I am training with someone else, I ask them to scent the articles in the pile, and also to place my scented article out in the pile. Most judges are out beyond the pile to watch your turn, so that is what I ask my training partner to do. I use the “After a sit” method of sending to the pile, so I vary how long I have the dog remain in heel position before actually sending him to the pile, and sometimes I do another couple of turns instead of sending to the pile.

On the Directed Retrieve, I sometimes give the signal to the glove, but don’t release my dog to retrieve. I vary the order in which I have my dog retrieve the gloves. As with the Open retrieves, I vary how quickly I give the retrieve command to make sure my dog isn’t anticipating. I am careful to have my gloves at the distances apart and from me that they are in the ring, though I do occasionally use different distances to simulate an inexperienced steward who places the gloves badly. I frequently have a decoy glove near the path to the correct glove.

On the Moving Stand, if I have a helper, I ask that she say, “Stand your dog!” multiple times to make sure my dog isn’t anticipating the stop. I ask for a thorough exam of my dog. If I’m by myself, I sometimes say the judge’s commands myself. I’ll go examine my dog myself when training alone. I vary how long I wait before I cue the return.

On Directed Jumping, I vary which side of the ring I put the bar jump and the high jump. I vary which side jump I have my dog take first. My first OTCh. dog Tramp developed what I called “right jump-itis” - we had the jump on my right first so many times in the ring that she learned that that was the one to do first. When we finally got the one on my left first, she went to the wrong one. At least monthly, I put my dog in many oddball places, that, although they would be a qualifying go-out, are way off center and sometimes just beyond the 10 foot mark. Then I walk to the other end and send my dog to the jumps from these odd places. I practice to gating with a center stanchion often since that is pretty common at local trials, but I also practice sending my dog to a blank wall and to gating with an off-center stanchion. I practice stopping my dog short on his go-outs. On the next send, I expect him to go all the way, but am prepared for him to stop himself where I stopped him short the last time. I correct him somehow if he does stop short. This keeps my dog sharp about listening to me.

A final critical part of Utility training and ring preparation is that of stamina. Having a dog who finds the exercises reinforcing simplifies this aspect of Utility trialing. Even an experienced and fast Utility B dog is going to be in the ring for 7-8 minutes, which means you better have your dog well prepared to work without food or toys for that length of time and longer. An inexperienced Utility A dog who works slowly might be in there as long as 10 minutes. Be very aware of time during your training.

When my dog has a good understanding of the exercises, I also add other types of proofing regularly to challenge my dog’s understanding. Simply training around other people working their dogs is a great first step. Training in several unfamiliar places is especially crucial for Utility, particularly for mastering go-outs and signals.

One of my familiar phrases for first-time Utility students is that most people enter Utility about six months before they are really ready. Take your time to be well prepared. While there are a lot of little ways to NQ in Utility that can happen no matter how experienced you and your dog are, if your dog is hardly ever passing a given exercise on the first try when training in familiar places, let alone in a trial, don’t start showing or stop showing for a while and train some more. Utility is a challenge, but it makes it that much more satisfying when you succeed.

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