Saturday, March 14, 2009

Cooper learns to retrieve

Cooper has been practicing his retrieve skills. The first thing that was taught was how to "hold", using a dowel. At some point I may describe in detail what this process is but for now, simply wanted to post an update as to where we are at. Retrieving is retrieving. The point is to run out as fast as you can, pick up something at the handler's direction and return as quickly and directing as possible. This may sound simple, but break down the steps and the parts and you will discover just how many skill sets are involved. My correction involves verbal marking and a simple chuck under the chin with my hand. No ear pinch, toe hitch or e-collar. I know that people have had success with all these methods (don't ask the dog's opinion!) but I choose not to use them in teaching the behavior.
Cooper knows the hold, but sometimes I do need to reinforce it yet. Reminders are doled out by marking the behavior verbally (uh-uh), administering a chin-chuck and immediately replacing the dumbbell in his mout Much of handling a dumbbell is moving and a thing to be aware of is putting too much pressure on the dog in the front position so that you create a dog who sits back away from you, comes in slowly or mouths/drops the dumbbell.
Therefore, at the stage of learning that Cooper is in, I place the dumbbell in his mouth and remind him to "hold" ("hold" is not an act of having the dog snatch the dumbbell from you out of prey drive, it is an acceptance to something placed in their mouth) and then begin to heel. From the heel position, I will then turn and run backwards and tell him "bring" and he runs toward me. I can create an oppositional effect by pushing him back with my hands on his shoulders so that he drives back strongly into me, and I can mark (yes!) his fast approach and take the dumbbell. Right now I am not insisting on a front sit. I work the front separate from movement, making him comfortable sitting closely with both front feet in between my feet, holding the dumbbell, marking and rewarding.
I am also not throwing the dumbbell yet. Any dog with the drive to compete in schutzhund should have high prey drive, so chasing something thrown should not be an issue. Instead, I practice the technique by restraining Cooper by the collar as I throw his tug toy to land against the wall. I then release him on a flexi lead with the "bring" command. Just as soon as he dives for the toy, I direct pressure to return immediately back to me as I encourage him. The dog needs to know how to pick up an article without passing it by or fumbling with it, to pivot and directly return. No touring with his prize, no circles of glory. So that there are no negative associations with the dumbbell, we make certain the object is something he wants to pick up and when he brings it back I play strongly with it, to encourage that fast return.
And advanced version to really make the dog pick up and return quickly, once you know he will come directly back to you, involves sitting the dog at a start point and you move halfway to where the thrown dumbbell/toy will land. You throw the object and tell the dog to "bring" and he has to run twice as far and fast, as you then turn and run back in the direction he started from. Some people add a whip cracking to get the dog to drive back even more quickly, but this can create an overstimluation and munching on the dumbbell, and frankly, I suck at whip cracking.
We still have to put the jumping together with the thrown dumbbell, but Cooper doesn't turn 2 until July 30th, so we have time to get that in place before he trials. Overall I am very pleased with his willingness and attitude and he made exceptionally nice pick ups and returns today.
Consistency and repetition, my friend.