Saturday, June 29, 2013

Crucial Foundation Exercises

As I prepare to present my On Beyond Novice seminar at Austin Canine Central in Austin, TX, I've made a list of what I consider crucial foundation exercises to teach a new puppy or young dog. In reviewing the detailed training logs I kept when first training my Flat-Coated Retriever Sonic,  she was well started on all of these by the time she was 4 months old, in addition to several field-related exercises. She learned Around the Clock Scent Discrimination in 5 weeks starting at about 6.5 months.
  • Follow the cookie: this is important because I use a treat in my hand to initiate quite a few of my foundation exercises. If your dog is lunging and biting obnoxiously to grab the treat, it isn't any fun for you - who wants to get their hand and fingers munched on? - you need to teach him the skill of politely following. Sometimes pushing the food into your dog's nose instead of pulling away helps reduce the lunging. I view the treat in my hand like a magnet - if it gets too far from his nose, it loses its power. When first teaching, I move the food at a slow enough speed that my puppy can keep up with my movement.
  • Voluntary attention: this is one on which I use structured shaping. I put myself in the desired position, whether with my puppy in front or in heel, and wait for voluntary attention at something other than my hands. My goal is eye contact in front, general left side attention in heel position. 
  • Position changes: there are 3 positions (sit, down, stand) and 6 position changes, i.e., moving from one position into one of the other two positions. Because I want my puppy to learn to use his body in a very specific way for each of them, I begin all of these with a food lure.
  • Find heel: initially, this is just a voluntary and likely to be lured 'get to heel position' exercise, but as soon as my puppy understands that is a rewardable action, we add distractions. This teaches them the foundation of distraction resistance. In class, I do increasingly devious actions to pull young dogs away from their owners. The owner turns and ideally runs away from their distracted dog, while I become boring as soon as the dog shows interest in me. The combination of the distraction getting less attractive and the owner running away usually gets the dog chasing after the owner. The dogs learn remarkably quickly to resist pretty strong distractions from me.
  • Cookie-toss recalls: if you think about all of the exercises in Open and Utility, all of them except the Heel Free & Figure 8 and Out of Sight Stays in Open have a recall component. You don't want to have to think about recall speed when you are working on the advanced exercises, so make that something for which you lay a very solid foundation. Puppies love the CT recall exercise, and it lays a great foundation not only for speed but for grab something (the cookie here) and spin around and race back, a valuable component of an excellent retrieve.
  • Cookie-toss down: a quick down from a stand, ideally a fold-back down, is critical for excellent Drop on Recall and Signal Exercises.
  • Retrieve: play retrieve and beginning of formal retrieves, including the voluntary take, the hold, and head and collar holds without the dumbbell.
  • Basic sit stay/impulse control: I love to start puppies with Chris Bach's sit and maintain exercises. It teaches puppies that voluntarily offering a sit stay is rewarded.
  • Target marking: I teach puppies to stare at a cookie on a target (a plastic lid), at first about 3 feet away. Marking is important for go-outs, the Directed Retrieve in Utility, the dumbbell retrieves to a lesser extent, as well as a few other beginnings of exercises. It is also a precursor to teaching a foot touch to a target.
  • Spins left and right: this is an extension of the follow the cookie game, and it is a wonderful physical warm up for dogs, and doing it both directions helps to maintain body balance. The spin to the left (counterclockwise) is useful for encouraging a dog who works with his rear out too far to your left to straighten himself up. It is also helpful for the left finish.
  • Platforms: I use platforms - an elevated rectangle, ultimately sized just wide enough for the dog to sit straight - for a variety of exercises, including fronts, finishes, sit stays, and go-outs.
  • Play running: this teaches the dog that running with you is fun. While I'd say 90% of my students' dogs don't need a lot of encouragement to charge ahead when their owner starts to run, for the 10% who are pokey, this is a very useful exercise. It is a precursor to the Fast in obedience heeling.
  • Maneuvers and set ups: these teach the dog to move in all directions in relation to you - forward, right, left, backwards, tight circle to right, tight circle to left. Set-ups are applied maneuvers, and mean getting the dog to move into a sit in heel position, which you need for every obedience exercise.
  • Foot touch to a target: I use this primarily for go-outs, but you can also use it for the broad jump and the drop on recall.
  • Rhythm Heeling: this is the most important heeling exercise there is! There are no turns, no pace changes and no halts with this exercise. It is simply (HA!) you maintaining a brisk walking rhythm and your dog moving, ideally in a trot, with attention and correct position. A typical heeling pattern lasts for only 30-45 seconds, and yet many, many people struggle to keep their dog actively engaged for an entire pattern. Rhythm Heeling starts with 2-3 steps of moving attention, and gradually, through regular and consistent practice, becomes a lovely dance.
There you have it. If your dog is fluent at all of these exercises, you are well on your way to building a fantastic competition partner.

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