I've taught Bravo! to respond to hand signals using traditional methods. I'm not completely satisfied with the end product. If there's one thing that gives me anxiety in the Utility B ring it's that Bravo! will glance away just as I start to give the signal, and we'll flunk. It's not a debilitating problem, but he's done it three or four times in his career -- just enough to make signals the only Utility exercise I'm uncertain about.
THEREFORE . . . This is a series about attention. My dog's attention to hand signals is nothing to write home about. Sandra Davis is one of the most creative, successful competitors in our sport. The method she uses to teach signals for dependability is interesting. So here goes.
"To me," Sandra says, "there are two exercises where the dog's attention to the handler is crucial -- heeling and signals. Of those two, the signal exercise is the most critical because if you lose attention you fail."
Sandra's method of teaching signals begins in her dining room, on the dining room table, when the puppy is about 12 weeks old. She puts a rubber mat on the table and stands the puppy on it. She teaches the stand, the drop and the sit, in that order. No come, because the dog is on a table. She teaches that separately for Novice.
I'll try, with words, to help you picture what her hand signals look like.
Stand signal Sandra stands with her arms hanging at her sides. She thrusts her right hand out, palm facing the dog, thumb extended. The hand, flat and stiff, ends up about a foot from her thigh.
Drop signal Right arm and hand extended straight above the head.
Sit signal Underhand scoop with her left hand.
Sandra adds a verbal command to each of these hand signals and teaches them over an extended period of time.
As Sandra begins to train her dog he is on leash (on the table). Later on a flexi -- "So that I have a little tension on the dog," she says. Over time, she backs away gradually to six feet with the leash, 26 feet with the flexi.
During the period when the dog is on the table, Sandra is very precise about rewards and corrections. If the dog responds correctly to a signal, Sandra first says, "Good," then walks back to the dog and rewards him (using the same kibble he finds in his bowl). "I say, 'Good' before I take my first step," she explains. If the dog misses a signal, Sandra says, "Aach!" before she takes her first step to return.
"I want the dog to know whether I'm coming back to praise or blame," she says. "I think that's only fair."
Proofing begins while the dog is still on the table. "I get my husband to say something or open a door," she told me. "Anything to take the dog's eyes off of me. Then I give the signal. I set it up; I want to control this. I don't want to go out in the world and have uncontrolled proofing."
During the proofing stage, the dog learns the corrections for not paying attention. If the dog misses a drop, Sandra pops him on the shoulder. If it's a sit, Sandra raps him under the chin. "These are not severe corrections," she says, "but the dog knows. He learns he better not take his eyes off of me.'
She continues. "The dog learns that all these things that can distract him can also get him into trouble if he succumbs to them. They are little traps, and he can avoid them by watching. And because he learns this on a table, he isn't going anywhere."
When Sandra says, "Aach!" thedog's ears go down. If it's a drop he missed, he belatedly drops. But Sandra treats the situation as if the dog hadn't dropped at all. She goes back and pops him on the shoulder, then returns to the signal-giving position. Then she goes back to the dog and starts all over again by gently, physically putting him in a stand.
"It's a lot of walking back and forth," she admits, "until the light finally dawns: 'Oh, I win by watching.' "
Eventually the dog graduates from the table to the floor. There Sandra places a stick in front of him so he won't travel forward. Then the training proceeds on the floor, on a flexi, just as it did on the table.
Some trainers insist that their dogs pay attention to their backs when they leave the dog during the recall, the drop on recall or the signal exercise. Sandra does not. "The dog can look and gawk all he wants while my back is turned," she says. "I think it would drive a dog crazy to be corrected for not looking at your back. But when I turn around he'll be looking at me because he learns how long it takes me to walk across the ring."
End of series on attention.