Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Playing Fetch

It seems that everyone plays fetch with their dog at one time or another. The home/play fetch often involves the dog bringing a toy and nudging or slamming it into you to signal it is time to play. Then the owner throws the toy, adding a "fetch" command, and encouraging the dog to bring it back. Sometimes this evolves into a game of keep-away, and at other times the dog will spit the toy a foot or two in front of owner, back away and bark or jump anxiously waiting the owner to fetch the toy himself and throw it again! In a home with children, the "drop it" becomes a favorite so that the dog spits the toy out rather than having kids try to pry it out of the dog's mouth.

Even if you have a pet dog, there are things you might consider changing in the above scenarios. If you have a working dog, your world is about to be rocked.

First, let's examine who is training whom? If your dog brings you a toy and insists that you play NOW and you do, he is a smart pooch and a darned good human-trainer! It truly is not a bad thing to have a dog who desires to interact with you. Don't get me wrong. We just want to tip the scales in favor of the handler on this one. You might consider keeping the favorite fetch toy in a place out of reach so that when the dog comes to you, you can add the cue "wanna play?" and go get the toy. If he has a toy in his mouth already, you might want to cue it and then ask for an obedience command, such as a sit. Now you have put the play on your terms. Once he complies with the sit, you can mark "yes" and reward with toy play.

What word to use? If you have a working dog, do not use your formal retrieve command for home play. Once we set about teaching the dog how to properly hold and retrieve toys or dumbbells, it has specific perameters. If we use the same word but allow the dog to take a victory lap, we are telling the dog this is the behavior we desire. Remember that behavior rewarded is more likely to be repeated. And this means, even if it is not our intention to create this connection... if taking a victory lap means the dog gets to play again or the handler makes a fun chase game, it is rewarded and will be repeated. And it will then be rather unfair when we ultimately correct the dog for doing exactly that later on.

Let me describe the game of fetch I played with my puppy, Ridley, today. She had a kong toy and wanted me to play, so I cued "wanna play" and held out my hand. If she dropped the toy I did not pick it up. She had to push the toy into my open hand as I sat on the couch. I then said "aus". Ridley does not know this as a command but quickly grasped that if she let go of the toy, I would mark it "yes" and throw it for her. Within only a few repetitions she got the idea. I did not tell her to fetch or bring(the formal command); instead, I said "get it, get it, get it!" ... the path it was thrown left her only an alley to run out to the door, get the toy and return. Running back, I am simply saying "good girl!!" Try not to do this in an area where the dog can go zipping around in endless circles. But you know, if they do, settle in and read the newspaper. No play with you until they bring it back to your hand.

The most important part of this is that while Ridley was still supercharged and ready to play, I took the toy from her and said "All Done" and led her to her crate with a biscuit. When I am done with my training sessions, I like to let the dog know clearly that we are finished. The toy is removed and the game is over. And she gets some quiet crate time to relax. It separates the activity with me, from her free play.

For fun house fetch, don't use a dumbbell or toy similar to what you will be fetching in competition. Don't use a tug toy that you need to worry about working the grip and the out with, either. A rubber kong bone is nice. Kongs bounce unpredicatably and you do need to be careful about the dog twisting or running into things to catch it, so I am not a fan of throwing kongs outside. Something that lands flat is best.

If you throw a toy outside for fun, keep in mind that you want the dog to learn to come directly back to you so you a long line will be helpful and just as soon as the dog picks up the toy, you call the dog back to you with enthusiasm while moving back and away. Don't lean forward or reach out to take the toy from the dog. In competition the dog will need to come in close to the front position, so try not to create the habit of bending over and reaching out to take anything from the dog. This is somehwat more advanced than house-fetch, but something good to keep in mind. What we want to build at the point will likely transfer to throwing a tug toy and having the dog bring it back to us for tug play, but your puppy isn't there yet. You just need to keep the image of the finished product in front of you as you build the blocks of the foundation.