Saturday, August 27, 2011


A long, long time ago -- in dog years, at least -- Helen Phillips told me, " Willard, there are a hundred different ways to teach this stuff."  That certainly applies to teaching go-outs (the first half of the directed jumping exercise).

One way that's all the rage around here right now is to get the dog to run out and touch the pole, baby gate, whatever, with his paw. The execution and the commands ("whack it" or "smack it" and the like) are cute and everyone's having a lot of fun, but I don't see dogs learning a tight turn and sit using that method.  It does encourage them to go all the way out but if they sit it's usually in position to reach the pole with a front paw, not squared up to begin the jumping part of the exercise.

I prefer to use my PVC box, a target and a flexi to teach go-outs.  By the way, don't tell me you can't learn to use a flexi.  With my first competition obedience dog, Honeybear, I was the most flexi-resistant person in the history of the sport.  But later I learned to use it, actually with great dexterity and skill.  If I learned to use a flexi, anyone can.  Just do it!

Back to the go-outs and the PVC box.

Itty Bitty Go-Outs
Assuming you have Shep feeling good about being in the box, put a target dead center at the back of the box, inside the box.  I use a white lid about 2.5 inches in diameter.  Put the lid on the ground (or mat) topside up.  I want the treat to be perched on top of the lid, not down inside.  Right from day one I have a pole or baby gate stanchion behind the target.  I want my dog to begin to associate that visual cue with "straight."

Just for orientation purposes I may put my hand in the collar and walk the dog out to the target/treat a few times.  If you have a helper, in the beginning she can point to the treat to help get the dog's attention focused.  He's going to learn where that treat is very quickly.

We start a couple of feet in front of the box.  The closed end is toward us; I want my dog to get comfortable jumping that bar on the way in.  After a little bit of orientation, it's time to get Rover on the flexi.  The flexi is in your right hand.  Get down on his level and give him a line with your left arm extended as far as possible.  Use a mark word; I use "straight."  (I don't care whether the dog is sitting at this point or not.)  Then send him with, "Away!"  Followed almost instantly with, "Get it!"  You want him to learn to get it on your command.  Later he'll learn to differentiate between your command to get it and your command to turn and sit . . . without stealing the treat.

As soon as Rover gets the treat say, "Come!" and give him a little flexi pop to come back. (I did not say yank his head off.)  When he gets back to you, reward him with a treat and lavish praise.  I like to have my dog jump for the treat, it builds enthusiasm.

You're going to be frantically busy at this point, particularly while all this is going on at warp speed at a distance of five or six feet.  And you're going to despair of ever getting the timing down.  Not to worry, as you lengthen the distance it all becomes more manageable.

As you work your way back to the 24-foot length of your flexi, you should be concentrating on two things:  getting Fluffy to wait for your command before tearing out there after the treat, and developing a really good mark.  A good mark is not only essential to straight go-outs, it's also the foundation for the directed retrieve exercise.

Initially don't even think about introducing the turn and sit.  That comes later.

The Turn & Sit
"Abracadabra!" (puff of smoke).  It's later.  You've got your dog doing what's described above with great enthusiasm and at a distance that's as far as the flexi will allow.  (Which is why we use a 24-foot flexi.)

Now put the treat on the target and temporarily put the flexi aside.  Start from the same close-up distance you used initially.  Put your hand in the dog's collar and walk him out to the target.  As you go, you're repeating your go-out command, "Away! Away!"  Don't run, walk. Give him time to think about what he's doing.  Just short of the target, physically turn him and sit him.  As you turn him, say, "Phydeaux, sit!"  Then give him a treat from your hand. This is important:  When you turn him and sit him -- or later when he turns and sits on his own -- he never gets the treat from the target; it must always come from your hand.

As you are marching the dog out to the target/treat, turning him and sitting him, always say the commands:  "Away!" and then, "Phydeaux, sit."  You want to be instilling those commands in his mind, helping him associate those words with the physical actions that accompany them.

In the beginning he may be difficult to turn and sit.  Practice with your hand in his collar until he turns easily and plants.  Praise and give him a treat each time he does it.

Next, every so often do a go-out where you say, "Get it!" and he goes all the way out to the target, snarfs down the treat, turns and comes back to you for another goodie.  Note that in this method the dog never runs out, gets the treat, then turns and sits.  I'm afraid that will result in searching behavior (sniffing the pole prior to sitting) and significant points lost.

This is hard.  And crucial.  So buck-up.

Here's what you want for a well-executed go-out:  You want Muffie to run out there straight as an arrow.  Using the flexi, the box, the target and the treats, you've developed a nice, straight run.  Then you want a tight turn and sit.  That's why you've been practicing those turns and sits in the confines of the box.

Swell. But you also want her to keep going until you tell her to turn and sit.  She must not anticipate.  Must not start thinking,  Ah!  I know what comes next.  I'll turn and sit right now.  That's one of the major problems associated with this exercise.  Which is why you'll spend the next year, maybe more, working on differentiation.

Move in close to the box again, maybe five to seven feet in front.  Spike is on the flexi again, and will be for months.  Now send him, say, "Get it!" and let him get the treat and return to you.  OR  Send him, say, "Spike, sit!" and pop him into a sit just short of the treat.  Remember, he must not turn back  around and steal the treat off the target.  Instead, you should go to him praise and reward.

Now comes the part that works the magic.  You're going to mix get it and sit randomly so that the dog never knows what you're going to tell him to do.  This is hard for him, so he's listening with all the attention he can muster.

Slowly -- very slowly -- increase the distance, which, happily, will give you more time to think and react.  By and by, you'll be able to tell what he's going to do, and you can command the opposite.  If he looks like he's going to turn and sit, you can say, "Get it!"  And vice versa.  Many months out you'll be able to practice this without the flexi . . . using gentle corrections if he goes counter to your command.

Somewhere down the road -- and we're talking many months here -- when Fluffy is doing really well, it's time to begin removing the PVC box.  We remove one piece of PVC pipe at a time.  By now you've discovered that your dog always turns the same direction (she's right-handed or left-handed).  First remove the bar on the side she doesn't turn to; it's no longer playing a significant role.  Sometime later take away the piece on the other side of the box, leaving only the front barrier.  Eventually that goes too, leaving only the target and the treat.

There's more to teaching go-outs -- training for the occasional ring where there's no center pole, correcting crooked go-outs, reorienting the dog who suddenly begins taking the jump on the way out.  And, of course, there's the directed jumping part of the exercise.  But this post is about the use of the PVC box, so we'll save the rest for another time.


Monday, August 22, 2011


One of my most useful tools in teaching competition obedience is the PVC box.  I was introduced to that versatile tool at a Louise Meredith seminar in Los Angeles nine years ago.  While the tool was new to me, the concept was not.  For many years I had been using Janice DeMello's "ruler chute" to teach go-outs.  It was formed by folding a measuring stick into a three-sided box.  The PVC box is simply an upgrade.  The fact that it is raised makes it adaptable to teaching several exercises.

It is made of half-inch PVC pipe with corresponding joints to hold the three pieces together.  The dimensions of the box will be determined by the size of your dog.  You want it to be a little bit wider than your dog, but not wide enough for him to wander around in there.  The purpose of the box, after all, is to restrict his movements.

I have a border collie.  The box I used to train him is two feet long and 20 inches wide.  I define the front as the end facing the other end of the ring.  The front is closed and is raised to a height of 3.5 inches.  The back, which opens onto the end of the ring, is slightly raised, about 1.75 inches.  So we have a three-sided box, open toward the end of the ring and closed at the front.

You might as well know right now that there is one aspect of this tool that is a real pain in the butt -- it frequently falls apart as you're carrying it.  So why not glue the pieces together?  Because as you reach the latter stages of teaching go-outs you're going to want to take the box apart, eliminating one piece at a time.  I've come to grips with this annoying situation by making two identical boxes.  One has the parts glued; it helps me keep my sanity until my dog reaches the latter stages of learning the go-outs.  That's a many- months period of mental equilibrium.  The second box isn't glued.  I introduce it when we reach the taking-the-box-apart stage of our go-outs training.  By that time I'm so delighted with my little guy's progress that when the box keeps falling apart I don't come unglued.

Before you can use the box to teach exercises, the first order of business is to teach Phydeaux to get into the box and be comfortable in there.  It's really easy; you'll have it in one short session.

The first few times, lure him into the box with a treat, saying, "Get in your box."  Next tell him, "Get in your box," and give him the treat as soon as he's in there.  I continue to reward that behavior for quite some time, eventually randomizing the treats.  You want him to think that being in the box is heaven.  I've found that before long if I leave the box on the ground in the yard after we've trained, the next time we go out there he'll see the box, run into it and look at me expectantly.  I reward that, too.

Once you've got your dog convinced that his box is wonderful you're ready to apply it to your training.

Let's look at how the PVC box can enhance your teaching of sits, downs, stands and (next time) go-outs.

The reason I teach sits, downs and stands in the box is that I don't want the dog to creep forward on any of those position changes.  When I see a dog creeping forward on the signal exercise or walking forward on the turn and sit, I know the trainer has skimped on teaching fundamentals.

The sit, the down and the stand should be taught at the front of the box, where the raised PVC bar impedes forward movement.  If you allow Fluffy to start a few inches back, you lose the advantage of that barrier.

The sit  I want a tuck sit.  I want Bowser's front feet to stay planted while his butt pops forward into the sitting position.  And by the way, I want those back feet and legs perfectly aligned with the body, not tucked under in a "puppy sit."  Correct that the first time you see it and every time thereafter.

The stand  I want a kick-back stand.  Again, the front paws mustn't move; the back legs kick out into a stand.  Remember, the front feet can't creep forward if they're right up against that bar.

The down  I know from experience that if the dog is taught to down by first going into a sit, then sliding down onto his tummy, sooner or later that's going to bite you.  He'll get to the sit and say, "There I did it," and never go down the rest of the way.  And that's probably going to happen in the ring when he's stressed.

So why let the sit be a part of the down in the first place?  I teach the concertina or fold-back down.  From a stand, I hold a treat under the dog's chin and move it in and down -- not one or the other, both at the same time.  As the treat goes toward the dog and down, he'll naturally fold back as he seeks to get the treat.  If necessary, I'll put my other hand on his rump to help the rear end go down.  Make sure Fluffy doesn't get the treat until she's all the way down.

Next time  Using the PVC box to teach go-outs.


Friday, August 12, 2011


There is a sanctioned obedience match up the road a piece this Sunday.

I asked my friend, "Are you going to the match?'

"No," she replied, "it's a sanctioned match."

Here we go again.  Her dog is on the one-yard line, about to finish her UDX2 and her OM2.  Then, at ten years of age, retire to rest on the laurels of a fine obedience career.  That dog has a few quirks -- a tendency to bow to the right on go-outs and a penchent for staring right through the handler on the drop signal -- which need frequent fixing to keep the dog on track.  Fixing my friend wouldn't be permitted to do in a sanctioned match.

According to the American Kennel Club, the purpose of a sanctioned match is to provide an opportunity for dog clubs, judges, stewards, and (competitors) and their dogs to gain experience for licensed events.

In the the ring at a sanctioned match, the dog and handler must proceed as if they are competing in a licensed trial.  That means no food, no toys, no hands-on, no training aids of any kind. 

Which, in turn, means my friend and her dog can't do the tweaking they'd be entered for in the first place. So they'll stay home.  The dog won't get to work in a show-like environment.  The club won't get the entry revenue.  All this at a time when everyone is wringing their hands about the drop-off in entries and trying to figure out how to make obedience more competitor friendly.  ("Oh, but we didn't mean that!")

I'm kind of dense.  More than two decades in the sport and I still find the rules governing sanctioned matches hard to rationalize.

Someone please explain to me:  If my dog turns short on a go-out and I take him gently by the collar and march him out there, saying, "Away! Away!" how does that dilute the dog club's learning experience?

Please help me understand:  If, while heeling, I have a treat fastened to my armband to help my little guy concentrate on his focal point, how does that diminish the match judge's learning experience?

Straighten me out here:  I hold my dog around the chest and jazz him up before sending him to retrieve his dumbbell over the high jump.  How does that rain all over the stewards' learning experience?  (Assuming they are paying the slightest bit of attention in the first place.)

Hip me, please:  I put a target at the far end of the ring to help my Utility A dog perfect nice, straight go-outs. And that sticks a fork in the match secretary's learning experience how?

Clarify this if you will:  My little guy gives me a perfect front.  I respond by dropping a ball from under my chin.  And that blows the learning experience for who?

Just askin'.


Saturday, August 6, 2011


With the exception of a few rare, hardy souls who sleep in their trucks overnight, I'm nearly always the first to arrive at the show site the morning of a trial. Often by 5:30 a.m. if there is access.  Sometimes there's a gate that doesn't open until 6 a.m.  I'm the one at the front of the line, drumming my fingers on the steering wheel, mildly pissed.

If Dick Guetzloff is entered, I can count on him to show up only minutes after I arrive.  The first thing Dick does is scope out the site.  There's a limitless number of oddball things that can be screwed up in the immediate vicinity of the obedience rings.  And whatever it is, as the sun rises Dick is wasting no time finding it and fixing it.  Or, if he can't fix it, he'll storm around before ring time until he finds someone who can and will.

Dick sees a lot of things that I'd miss.  A lifetime of experience accounts for that, but I've learned at the feet of the master.  So the rising sun finds me surveying the environment, then going hell-bent, hands-on to right whatever is wrong.

That isn't cheating.  Whatever we fix benefits not only us but every other team.  And there's nothing sneaky about doing it at 5:30 a.m.  We certainly aren't going to do it at 9 a.m. with the rings going full blast, are we?  Besides, it's just more comfortable if no one else is around.

One of the most common screwups we encounter is the Utility ring with four posts across the go-outs end.  If a professional superintendent has set up the rings, there's usually no problem.  There'll be three or five posts.  But if the show committee has recruited volunteers -- often conformation people who have never been exposed to obedience or the rings it's held in -- there's likely to be a glitch.

Which brings us to Thanksgiving Day 2009 and Yuma, Arizona.  As things have evolved over the past few years, the Yuma and Imperial Kennel Clubs' shows have become my favorites.  The clubs have moved the obedience and rally rings to a secluded part of the Yuma County Fairgrounds.  We have the area all to ourselves.

True, the Harrier jets still scream over at tree-top height, two abreast,  just off the runways of the Marine airbase directly across the street.  But now our rings are 100 yards off the flight path.  Besides, for reasons that have always eluded me, the ear-splitting racket has never seemed to bother the dogs.

Our motel is never more than five minutes away, even if the one intervening traffic light is red.  We have real bathrooms at the show.  OK guys, if you're in a part of the the country where all dog shows are indoors, you have no idea what real bathrooms mean to those of us who traverse the outdoor circuit.  Talk about luxury!

The piece de resistance is the parking.  If you get there early enough to be in the front row, you're no more than 50 feet from your obedience ring.  No tent.  No schleping.  You can work right out of your vehicle.

The Jack Bradshaw organization sets up the conformation rings, out by the road.  Club volunteers -- well-meaning but reatively clueless -- set up the obedience and rally rings.

The 2009 shows started the Friday after Thanksgiving.  We drove over there, 186 miles, on Thanksgiving Day.  Our Thanksgiving dinner was turkey sandwiches as we went.

Into the fairgrounds we went, down a dusty road, right turn through a back gate and . . . we hadn't even parked when I said, "Oh God!  There's no center pole."  Well, that had to be fixed, pronto.

I have a friend who comes from the San Diego area.  He always sleeps in his truck on the show grounds.  He was already there, exercising his dogs.  I'll withhold his name here, not to protect a guilty co-conspirator but as a bargaining chip in case the AKC persecutes me for what happened next.  I'll turn "club's evidence" and rat on him in return for a shorter suspension.  We'll call him Dude.

I hopped out of my van and yelled, "Hey Dude!"

"Hi, Willard " he replied.

"There's no center pole in this ring," I said.

Dude looked.  "Sure enough.  I hadn't noticed that."

It's called teamwork.  Dude paced it off.  I moved the poles.  Five minutes later we had a three-pole go-outs end.  Mission accomplished.

I hid the extra pole behind a large light stanchion near the fence.  Well that I did, too.  The next morning the judge didn't like a couple of dead spots in the rings.  She had the whole setup uprooted and moved 30 feet north.  It was just as well that the extra pole wasn't lying around to confuse the issue.

Let the trial begin!

Another troublesome situation rears its head every spring in Tucson.  There's an all-breed specialty that's held on a lawn at a large motel.  Nice site.  Get the right room and you can walk right out the door and into the obedience ring.  Trouble is, not more than 30 feet from the ring are ice and soft drinks machines.  How'd you like someone filling their ice bucket during the signal exercise?  Or getting a Pepsi (thunk!).

The first year I couldn't do anything about it.  But by the second year I had control of the situation.  Before I leave home for those shows, I print a set of signs for each day of the show.  One for each machine:  OUT OF ORDER.  I also bring Scotch tape with me, and long before ring time each morning the machines have been silenced.

Dick would be so proud.


Tuesday, August 2, 2011


If you've been around for a while, if you're a veteran obedience competitor, much that follows may be old hat.  If, on the other hand, you're newer to the sport, something below may strike you as helpful.  Call them tricks of the trade.

1.  Enhancing Your Line  Credit Dick Guetzloff with this one.  One day Dick was watching me practice the directed retrieve exercise.  "You've got a long arm," he said, "why don't you use it?"  Dick was right.  I had been doing what I now see so many others doing, putting the back of my left hand next to my dog's right eye when I gave him the line for the assigned glove.  What good does that do?  You're giving Fluffy a line not the back of your hand.  The idea is you're indicating the direction, helping the dog choose the correct path between where the two of you are now and where you want her to go.  If you could carry a pole into the ring and extend it all the way out to the glove as a pointer, wouldn't you do that?  So why not use all the arm you've got to send the dog out there on the right track?

2.  Rolling the Gloves  Let's not leave Kay Guetzloff out of this.  This one comes from her.  When you put the gloves away after each time you show or practice, turn them halfway inside out so that the fingers are scrunched up inside.  If they're damp, that's even better.  Leave them that way until the next time you're ready to go into the ring.  When you unroll them, instead of being flat as pancakes they'll be rumpled up and much easier for your dog to see, particularly when showing on grass.  Of course, you'll occasionally have to contend with the overly conscientious steward who puts the gloves down, then pats them flat.

Simple to do as this is, I can't think of one person who's bothering to do it.

3.  Check the Jump Settings  Right before you enter the ring, while the judge is picking up the clipboard, glance at the jumps.  Have they been set at the correct height?  The best time to correct a mistake is before you enter the ring.  If you or the judge discovers the error while you're engaged in the exercises you'll have a long dead spot in your run, breaking your rhythm and allowing your dog to wilt.

4.  Carry Your Own Soap  To the uninitiated, carrying your own soap when you travel out of town to show may seem a bit strange.  (Because it is.)  That may well be, but I'm not the only soap-carrier.  In conversations, I've learned that many of the very best competition obedience people carry their own soap when they travel.

Why?  Is it because they sweat so much blood in the ring that hotel soap isn't up to the challenge?  Well, that too.  But the real reason is scent articles.  It's about not introducing another layer of unfamiliar odors on the hands that will rub up the articles.  Some people have said, "The dog will recognize your scent through whatever else is on your hands."  Maybe so.  But why make the dog's task more challenging?

5.  Carry Water, Too  Maybe this is so basic that there isn't a soul out there that doesn't already do it.  Or not.

I can't think of many things worse than diarrhea at a dog show -- not mine, the dog's.  Well, one thing that comes to mind is diarrhea in a motel room.  One way to lessen the chances is to carry Fido's drinking water, whatever he drinks at home.

When we go to a three-day show with two dogs and a doglet we have at least seven one-gallon jugs of home tap water with us.  We also have an auxiliary three-gallon jug in the van.  We seldom open it, but it's there if we need it.  Sort of a safety net because no matter which direction we go our trip takes us through several hundreds of miles of the most arrid desert in the world.

6.  Extra Dumbbell  Always have an extra dumbbell in your equipment bag.  Particularly if you use a wooden one.  They break.

7.  First Things First  Be sure to make your hotel reservation before you send in your entry.  It's frustrating to be happily entered only to learn there's no room at the inn; every motel within 50 miles of the show site is sold out.

Many of us make our hotel reservations as much as six months in advance.  If your plans change, you can always cancel.