Alternate Titles: When a Dead Ball Retrieve is the Same as a Dumbell Retrieve, You Can Be Sure It’s a Trained Retrieve
Or: Flyball Lessons from the Retriever Trainer Man
Preamble: If you don’t kow what flyball is check out this link before you read this blog or it won’t make much sense: http://www.flyball.org/aboutflyball.html
I spent my whole Valentine’s day weekend working the flyball score table. Mostly this meant watching flyball, recording flyball scores, shuffling papers and pressing the button to restart the flyball clock (Ok yes I forgot to do this part alot. Thank goodness I'm the tournament director's wife and they couldn't fire me on Valentine's Day). I also spent much of the time being irritated at Ivan Z Terrierable my beloved Parson Russell Terrier. Ivan, to my embarrassment, has not managed to play a lick of flyball even though he’s 2 ½ and can do the flyball sequence perfectly, but only when he is the sole canine present. Around other dogs Ivan loses his mind. The problem is so bad people won’t let their dogs play with Ivan, and we won’t even risk our own dogs to see if he’s making progress with his issues. Ivan's issues forced me, wife of one of the gurus of flyball (at least on the East Coast), to pursue professional help far a field from the flyball ring. Specifically since August we’ve been taking private dog training lessons from Mr Pat Nolan of Ponderosa Kennels at www.dogtrainingmaryland.com
"Mr Pat", as he is known to Ivan, trains practically everything including waterfowl retrievers for field trials and hunt tests, scent discrimination dogs, family pets, and just downright ornery dogs. He used to be into falconry and trained a deer for a commercial many years ago. Rumor has it he’s secretly training cats to do detection work commercially for really small countries that can’t afford dog food (but one ought never believe everything one reads on the internet).
As I was feeling grumpy with Ivan, one of Mr. Nolan’s ads crept into my mind, one that starts, “Do you love your dog but have trouble liking him?” It seemed fairly apropos for being sidelined on Valentines day. To be fair I don't know why I expect this to be so easy. I am not a guru by any means. Prior to Pat Nolan (I am now dividing my dog training understanding into two epochs Before Pat and After Pat or BP and AP) my dog training experience consisted of watching jerk and pop classes with Clancy our first Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier when I was seven year old (he failed 3 courses and then my father stopped taking him), followed by no training of any other dog (despite having dogs in our family for the past 30 years) followed by acquiring a lovely smattering of cavalier king charles spaniels that I clicker trained to do most things EXCEPT retrieve, followed by an insane amount of clicker training of Ivan and his sister Veruca resulting in dogs that know alot of tricks but only do them when they feel like it.
Now in life AP, I’ve learned that all dog trainers and all dog training methods are not alike. I’ve also recently learned that there’s things retriever trainers pay attention to like steadiness, visual cues, disobedience, and understanding the point of an exercise that might make it possible for some dogs who have been trained using exclusively food and play reinforcement fancied by clicker trainers to participate in flyball and other canine sports despite their emotional reactivity and lack of interest in food and play in the presence of other dogs.
Lets start with today’s lesson. But first I must digress to say what we've done so far. In six months Ivan has had some basic remote collar conditioning, probably on average 1-3x a week including about twice monthly trips to train in private lessons with Pat or his proteges. The Dogtra remote collar we use for training has contact points that send variable stimulation to Ivan’s neck and the level of the stimulation is controlled by a transmitter that I hold so I can use the minimum amount that he notices in any given situation. When he is angry or anxious at the presence of another male dog a higher level of stimulation is usually required but Ivan tends to notice stimulation at a very low level (around 8-9 on a 120 point scale). In early lessons Ivan learned he could turn the stimulation off when he walked toward me. Then he learned he could turn it off when I said “here” and he walked toward me and the faster he did this the faster he turned off the stimulation At times when he complied speedily the stimulation did not even turn on. Next he learned he could jump onto a platform and turn off the stimulation. Now he knows he can run from me to this target many feet away when I say “On” or “Kennel” to turn off the stimulation. He also knows “sit”, “down” “stay” and “heel” and performs those behaviors relatively quickly and/or reliably (I’ve never seen a quick “stay”) in order to turn off stimulation or keep it from coming on in the first place. He learned all of these things without stimulation as a puppy for food treats, but he never learned he had to do them when he wasn’t interested in the food treats. Now he knows he must comply with these basic commands which is fortunate because since puberty hit Ivan has not shown much interest in anything when other dogs are around other than the other dogs.
At first I didn’t like the idea of “commanding” my dog to do anything but the fact is that Ivan is a dog and there are reasons for his own safety that he needs to comply with the rules of the people. For example if a strange aggressive dog is approaching, if his leash breaks in a parking lot or (this actually happened to his sister this past Fall and it was a very close call) or if the house is burning and I need to get him out pronto, he needs to take direction. There are people in the world who think you can teach reliable behaviors solely using food or play motivation based methods and that even mild aversive training techniques should be avoided. I would wager that none of these people have ever trained multiple terriers. A food only approach is probably fine for a dog that is highly motivated to have human contact, a dog that feels its owners’ disappointment keenly like my other favorite breed the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. But a dog that was bred to slaughter rats and scare foxes from their dens through the sheer force of its personality is more likely to be so fascinated with its own misbehavior that if he notices his owner at all screaming desperately for him to return at all he probably thinks the owner’s just joining in the hunt along side him. Dealing with Ivan and his sister Veruca from puppyhood and observing my huband’s 12 year old Parson Bitter has shown me that if these dogs accept anyone else as their leader it won’t just be because the leader provides food and praise. In saying this I’m not saying that its ok to be abusive or to use the old Jerk and pop method of obedience. But I am saying that avoidance conditioning used in a thoughtful incremental manner teaches dogs who respond poorly to appetitive motivation to act reliably in ways that are essential to their longevity. Some easy going terriers might not need these methods but I know of enough terriers that have been put down for aggression that I think its likely that purely appetitive training will not work for all individuals within any of the terrier breeds and from what I observe of certain other breeds I would not be surprised if the majority of breeds contain some proportion of individuals who need to understand that bad things will happen if they fail to comply because it is simply not in their nature to comply just because they like their owner. It would be nice if the Disney and Lassie stories all were true and dogs loved us unconditionally and did our bidding unconditionally but as fabulous as they are many dog breeds came to be because of their scrappy, independent natures. I have accepted this thing I cannot change and am doing my best to humanly motivate my pal Ivan so we can have a safe and hopefully fun life together.
After working on the basic e-collar conditioning for a few months Pat declared Ivan ready to start the “trained retrieve”. A “trained retrieve” is different from a play retrieve in which motivation for bringing back an object is to get to chase it again or an “exchange game” retrieve in which the dog is rewarded for retrieving an object with an even better treat or a chance to tug on a toy. The “trained retrieve” teaches the dog to voluntarily open his mouth when an object (a dowel or dumbbell) is placed in it, to open for on the cue “fetch”, to reach for the object when it is presented an inch away then a few inches, then to reach for it on the ground, and to hold it until the owner takes it. The end goal is a dog that retrieves the object to hand several feet away and only releases it when he’s told to release it and the handler takes it away. The trained retrieve involves avoidance because once the dog is taking the dumbbell he learns that remote collar stimulation is turned on when the object is presented and then ended by taking the dumbbell. Unlike an “exchange game” retrieve where the dog is rewarded each and every time for spitting the object out, the “trained retrieve” rewards the dog for opening his mouth and taking an object he would not normally pick up. If you think about it there is no way other than petting (which is also used liberally as a signal during the trained retrieve that the dog is doing the right thing) to reward a dog while he has something in his mouth; you are always rewarding spitting something out if you offer food or something to play with because the dog can’t hold something in his mouth and eat something else or play at the same time.
If the dog drops the object while learning the “hold” part of the exercise stimulation is resumed until the handler puts dumbbell back into the dog’s mouth. The dog builds up his ability to carry around the object during the hold training and his is taught to walk with the object in his mouth and to jump on and off surfaces while holding the object. Thus over time the dog learns that his job involves taking or picking up, holding onto and then relinquishing the object to the handler’s hand. I have a distinct memory that when I was six years old my mother sent me upstairs to get things her hairbrush so she could do my hair before school. That is essentially the level of skill a dog with a trained retrieve is exhibiting. He goes to get something, he returns straight away without dilly dallying or getting distracted by Dora the Explorer or some strange smell and he waits until you take it. He is responsible for showing up with the object only marred, if at all, by a bit of saliva. Presumably this method of training is good for straightening out strained dog human relationships. Certain family therapists use a similar principle in which parents are instructed to place themselves at the top of the hierarchy and to start treating the kids like children. When this happens, messed up families often improve because the children don’t have to feel responsible for running things which children tend not to do so well anyway. It is my hope that after acting like a retriever and seeing he benefits from being the dog who brings stuff to the human, Ivan and I will establish a similar understanding that he is the one who turns things over because he must and I am the one who watches out for him and helps him have fun in exchange for his compliance.
Flyball itself is all about fun. Training tends to rely on prey drive but it is hard to teach a dog in prey drive not to prey on others if he is so inclined. When training normal dogs for flyball (I know the speech by heart because my husband has given it so often) “we try to use our happy voice because the more they have fun the happier they will be and presumably the faster they will go. You almost can’t have too big of a party for a dog who brings his ball back.” In the strictest behavioral sense flyball is a behavioral chain. The reward for running down the lane over 4 jumps, ejecting a tennis ball catching and running back past other dogs doing the same thing and a dog on your team passing you at the start and finish line is the dog getting to run its owner down to get fun treats or fun prey objects in exchange for the ball. If you are a lazy adult human being with a few extra pounds around your middle this might not sound too rewarding but most fit dogs love to run and chase. Because the exercise is taught backwards each part becomes the reward for the next part. According to the rules of flyball, the ball can really be dropped any time after the finish line so people frequently don’t even bother scooping the ball up, they simply grab Fido any way they can catch him and sometimes the dog drops the ball for his treat or chase object or he holds onto it for a fierce tug of war. Elementary school children are often employed as “ball shaggers” like ball boys at tennis matches to keep the stray balls from going back up the lanes. But it stands to reason that a dog that actually returns a ball to hand cannot munch on another dog. A dog that has learned to go to the flyball box and return immediately without watching Dora the Explorer or following a smell or visiting with the box loader, or chasing a dog in another lane, is actually a dog that “gets” that flyball is a retrieve.
So today, even though Ivan knows how run down a flyball lane, cross 4 jumps, hit the box and catch the ball and run in my general direction while I throw a party, because he has little interest in attending my party and tends to run amok, we started retraining Ivan to do flyball and this time we are aiming at getting him to view it as a retrieve exercise. There are some who might argue that if he doesn’t like doing flyball for flyball’s sake I shouldn’t bother him with it. I’ve decided that even though flyball is supposed to be fun, this training experience is akin to training a child to play piano. Until he learns how fun it is to play Greensleeves well, how can he really decide he doesn’t like it? Even if there’s some unpleasantness involved in the training, it is my hope that Ivan will dig flyball once he “gets” it. Ivan digs retrieving toys in the bedroom. He digs retrieving balls in the yard at home. He actually is doing a right speedy dumbbell retrieve after very little work on the trained retrieve. Its possible this is only because he dislikes the remote collar stimulation and knows if he’s complaint he won’t experience the stimulation. But he doesn’t look upset when he retrieves. His tail is erect his ears are erect and he appears confident like a kid that’s learned to ride his bike without training wheels.
So today we tried to apply Ivan’s new found knowledge of retrieving to flyball. The first exercises Pat had us do were kenneling and recall exercises so Ivan knew to go to his folding box and then return to me. Then we put the dumbbell on the box and had him retrieve it from there. Next we threw the dumbbell towards the box and had him retrieve it near the box. The few times when he got confused I brought him up to the dumbbell and also started placing the dumbbell rather than throwing it. When placing it I took him up to the dumbell to be sure so he would know where to go. This is also different from how flyball is taught. The dog usually doesn’t see the ball get placed in the flyball box. The dog hears the box loader screaming “get your ball” and in the beginning the loader might point to or tap the top of the box to indicate where the ball is but that’s really different than taking the dog up so he sees where the ball is in the box and SMELLS THE BALL and then dragging the dog back to the start but letting him take his eye off the ball the whole time so he understands the box (which looks much smaller from far away) contains an actual smelly round fun object AKA his ball.
I think the reason why Pat suggested this technique is that retriever training (and all I know of it I’ve gleaned from observation these past 6 months) relies heavily on teaching the dog to make the most of visual information. It is much more efficient for a dog to mark visually where a bird falls than to have to give a dog complicated instructions to get to an area and then hunt with his nose for the fallen duck. Dogs do learn to be handled so they can be instructed to find ducks they didn’t observe fall, for example if the hunters hit several birds at a time and one falls in a spot the dog can’t see. But it works best if the dog is learning from the early stages to watch the sky so for most retrieves he is working off visual landmarks or better yet if he sees the actual fallen bird. The dog that is jumping around in the blind like a march hare can’t really see a bird fall so retrievers are taught to be “steady on the line”. This means they wait at heel position in a sit staring in the direction the handler faces until they are released. A barn could be burning down and housecats could be raining from the sky but the dogs are expected to stay at attention so they can be ready to see guns and the ducks fall. When dogs start to learn directional signals (casting) visual landmarks such as piles of bumpers are often used to make it easier for to learn the signals to move to the right or left (in teaching casting sometimes the handler throws a bumper towards a pile of bumpers to the right or left and in such a manner the dog learns the exaggerated reach toward the right or left means he should travel towards the handler’s left or right). Also when teaching retrieving, taking a dog who is struggling right up to a bumper or a dumbbell he can’t see or is not sure if he sees at least in training is potentially more helpful than calling or pointing to the area. Later a dog might be assisted by having a bumper thrown in the general direction of a downed bird. Regardless of the exercise, the emphasis most of the time is on learning from visual information because presumably dogs don’t need to be taught to use their noses and if they are not taught early on to use visual cues they will rely too much on their noses which can really slow things down.
After a few successful dumbbell retrieves we switched over to retrieving the ball. Ivan did a wonderful job of going up to the box and fetching his ball off the box and returning it to hand. Instead of having a “boxloader” put the ball on the box, Pat had me walk Ivan up as I placed the ball and then asked me to pull him back with me to our “start” line. This served a dual purpose of getting him jacked up to get the ball but also ensuring he knew the target and the speediest route (a straight line). When I let him go he was pulling to get the ball just like dogs do in flyball. However, the fact that he kept the ball in his mouth all the way until he got to my hand told me he “got” that the exercise was a retrieve and the same rules of going out quickly and coming back and delivering to hand applied even though the object had changed. Practicing “dead ball” retrieves (AKA retrieves of a motionless ball) off of his “kennel” box made the ball as the target for the retrieve completely obvious. At no time in this process did I need to use collar stimulation. He seemed just to get that a ball retrieve and a dumbbell retriever were the same request (we did change the command from “fetch” to “get it” just so it would be clear that get it referred to the ball whereas fetch referred to the dumbbell). I am still surprised he changed from one object to the other so quickly Dogs tend to have a hard time generalizing from one context to another. But here, the context stayed completely the same and only the object changed; plus it was an object he has always been comfortable pursuing. I consider it one of the great ironies of Ivan’s life that as a 6 week old puppy he retrieved a tennis ball which is how he weaseled his way into my husband’s affections in the first place and yet now at this age flyball is a struggle.
The next time we train with Mr. Nolan we are going to take an actual flyball box and work the dumbbell retrieve from the flyball box so he understands the retrieve applies around the flyball box. We are going to work on distractions around the box so that if he gets corrected, at least initially he is being corrected for dropping his dumbbell rather than his ball. It is our hope we will be able to transition to the actual flyball exercise rather seamless as soon as Ivan “gets” that he needs to retrieve to hand without detours from the flyball box. It is my sincerest hope that next Valentine’s day I will spend the day both loving and liking my dog and hopefully running him in an actual flyball tournament rather than sitting behind the score table forgetting to push that reset button.