Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks

Marco my 2.5 year old Australian Shepherd is not a natural toy dog. In fact I had to teach him out to pick up a ball, chase it and bring it back all separately. This even took a few weeks. Since then however he is ball crazy which is a good thing. I routinely use his ball as a reward when we’re practicing obedience or agility.
During the spring the idea of playing Frisbee with Marco came up and I thought it’d be easy. I’d throw a Frisbee, he’d catch it and bring it back. It isn’t even so different from playing fetch with a ball. Well I was wrong!
I soon discovered that not only could I not throw a Frisbee like I had pictured in my imagination but Marco didn’t know how to chase or catch it either! Luckily I’m not easily deterred so we got to work.
The first thing I had to learn to do was throw a Frisbee. So I practiced that sans-dog. It’s still a work in progress and my partner is infinitely better at it then me so at least Marco has a throwing partner.
The next step was teaching Marco how to grab a Frisbee. He tried several different tactics including hitting it with his muzzle, watching it crash and then pouncing on it and getting hit in the teeth a bunch. So we practice with me just holding the Frisbee about a foot above his head and getting him to jump up and take it from my hand. He learned how to put it in his mouth. We also tried a few different Frisbee types including the chuck-it flying squirrel which was great when we started since it was soft.
Once we had that out of the way I changed the height distance and also taught some short throws (1-2 feet away). He caught onto to that and it’s still part of our warm up today. I also use this game at shows to help pump him up before going into the ring. He’s an Aussie and they love to bounce (think Disney’s Tigger).
From there I started putting him in a sit about 7-10 feet away so he was under where the Frisbee would fly and wouldn’t have to coordinate running and jumping. This allowed him to practice watching the Frisbee and perfecting his leap into the air for a good catch.
So now it was time to add the running element. Not so easy! After watching a number of You Tube videos on Disc Dog and their distance event it was clear that Marco would need to do a right finish to get acceleration before the throw took off. Luckily Marco has a right finish or a “go around” for obedience and rally so it wasn’t a new skill. We did have to speed it up though.
From a “front” position Marco is cued to go around. As he runs behind the thrower he picks up speed. By the time the Frisbee starts its flight he’s at full speed and right under it. Marco can now do distance catches with all 4 paws off the ground. He’s getting really good and catches more than he misses.
I’ve also learned that playing Frisbee is tiring! More so than ball, tug, agility or just plain running around with other dogs. Marco can do about 10 throws at full speed before he’s ready to take it easy. We keep the sessions short so they’re exciting and interchange it with other games. It’s good exercise, great bonding and cool to watch.
The moral of the story? Even playing a simple game of Frisbee can take time to train. Please don’t expect your dog to inherently know how to pee outside, walk on leash, come when called and other tough skills without training. Training takes time, patience and above all else problem solving. If something isn’t working break it into smaller steps and give your dog a fighting chance. Also train “fun” things so you can hone your own skills and play with your dog.
Dogs with fear and aggression issues have shown massive improvement when their owners teach them tricks and play with them. It increases confidence and focus. I highly encourage every dog owner to train their dog to do something new several times per year.

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