Wednesday, August 29, 2012

BRINGING UP PRESTO! Box Work: The Turn & Sit

In my last installment on this subject I mentioned that from time to time I'm using a flexi as I send Presto! -- as if shot from a gun -- on his go-outs.  The flexi, which he's been on every day as he goes about pottying in the backyard, doesn't seem to faze him.  I really don't think he knows it's there.

I've gotten him flexi-comfortable because the flexi will be important in teaching the turn and sit.  But not right in the beginning.

Initially I'll put the flexi aside and we'll go back to our original go-outs starting position, two feet in front of the closed end of the PVC box.  With the treat on the target, I'll put my hand in his collar and walk him out to the target, just as I did when I was orienting him to where the target would be. As I go, I'll be repeating my send-away command, "Away! Away!"  I won't run him out there, we'll walk.  I don't want it to all be a blur; I want him to have time to think about what he's doing.  Just short of the target I'll turn him and sit him.  As I turn him, I'll say, "Presto! sit!"  And I'll give him a treat from my hand.  Very important:  As I 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.

It's important that as I march Presto! out to the target/treat, then turn him and sit him, that I always say, the commands:  "Away!" and then, "Presto! sit!"  I want to be imbedding those commands in his mind, helping him associate those words with the physical responses they should trigger.

I'm expecting that in the beginning Presto! may be a little bit difficult to turn and sit.  Of course the good news is that he's not a mastiff or a great Dane.  I'll practice with my hand in his collar until he turns easily and plants.  As I praise him and give him a treat each time he does it, it should come fairly quickly.

Once he's got it, every so often we'll do a go-out where I say, "Get it!" and he goes all the way out to the target, snarfs down the treat, then turns and runs back to me 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 around prior to sitting) and significant points lost.


Eventually -- many months out -- we'll reach the differentiation stage..  And that's the hard part.

Here's what I'm seeking in terms of a well-executed go-out.  I want Presto! to run out there straight as an arrow (which is the part he's been practicing since he was nine weeks old). Then I want him to do a tight turn and sit.  That's why we've been using the PVC box to teach turn and sits.

Swell.  But I also want him to keep going until I tell him to turn and sit.  He must not anticipate.  Must not start thinking,  Ah, I know what comes next; I'll turn and sit now.  That's one of the major problems associated with the directed jumping exercise.  Which is why Presto! and I will spend a year, maybe more, working on differentiation.

To begin that phase, we'll move in close to the box again, about five to seven feet in front of the raised bar.  Presto! is on the flexi and will be for months.  I'll send him, say, "Get it!" and let him get the treat and return to me.  OR, I'll send him, say, "Presto! sit!" and pop him into a sit just short of the treat.  Remember, he must not turn round and steal the treat off the target.  Instead, I'll hustle out there, praise and reward him.

Now comes the part that works the magic (I hope).  I'm going to mix it up, calling, "Get it!" and, "Sit" randomly so that Presto! never knows what I'm 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 -- I'll increase the distance.  That's good news; now I'll have more time to think and react.  By this time, hundreds of hours into Presto!'s training, I'll know his every thought.  When I send him away, I'll know what he's going to do, and I'll command the opposite.  If his body language tells me he's going to turn and sit, I'll call, "Get it!" and send him on for the treat.  And vice versa.  Many months out I'll be able to practice this without the flexi . . . using gentle corrections if Presto! responds counter to my command.

Looking way ahead -- and we're talking many months here -- when Presto! is doing really well, it'll be time to begin removing the PVC box, one piece at a time.  I already know Presto! is "right-handed."  Meaning he always turns to the right when returning to me.  So first I'll remove the bar on the left-hand side of the box (as I face it).  It's no longer playing a significant role.  Sometime later I'll take away the piece on the other side, the side he turns to, leaving only the front barrier.  Eventually that goes too, leaving only the target and the treat.  I'll eventually fade those.

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.  But this series of posts is about the use of the PVC box, so I'll wait and write about those Excedrin headaches when Presto! and I encounter them.  And we will.



Thursday, August 23, 2012

BRINGING UP PRESTO! Box Work: Itty-Bitty Go-Outs

In last week's post, I discussed the use of the PVC box in teaching Presto! the down, the sit and the stand.  I also use the box to teach the go-outs (send away) part of the directed jumping exercise.

Presto! has been practicing go-outs since he was in his tenth week.  He has been doing little sits/downs/stands in the box almost since the day he joined our household, so he is comfortable in "his" box.  He thinks it's a fun place to be; he gets to do hands-on things with me and he gets treats.

You have to understand that I'm 6'5" and Presto! was still a really little guy when we started this, so a lot of the handling I'll describe here was done on my knees.

I put a target dead center in the back of the box, inside the box.  Presto!'s target was a white lid, three inches in diameter.  (Actually a plastic lid that would fit an opened can of Hill's Science Diet dog food.  I had elevated that lid to its highest and best use.)  I put the lid on the ground, topside up.  I want the treat to be perched on top of the lid, not down inside.  In the beginning I had a white pole stuck in the ground a few inches behind the target, just outside the box.  Shortly I'll begin putting a couple of baby gates out there from time to time, alternating with the pole. The stanchion supporting the baby gates will take the place of the pole.  Right from day one I want my little guy to associate that visual cue with the word "straight."

Because Presto! was so young, he had not learned to sit and wait while I placed the treat on the target.  (Believe me when I tell you that border collies are not born with the word "wait" as an intrinsic part of their vocabularies.)  So I'm practicing go-outs when my wife Barbara is available to place the treat on the target.  In the beginning she pointed to the treat to get Presto!'s attention focused.  But by the second session he knew exactly what he was aiming for.

We started a couple of feet in front of the box.  The target and the pole were at the far end.  The closed end was toward us; I wanted Presto! to get comfortable jumping that raised bar on the way in.  For orientation purposes I put my hand in Presto!'s collar and -- Oh, my achin' back! -- walked him out to the target a few times.

Then I started sending him on his own.  I kneeled down behind him, both of us centered in front of the box.  Presto! watched while Barbara placed the treat on the target.  Then, holding him with my left arm around his chest, I extended my right arm straight out next to his face while saying, "Go-outs, Presto!, straight, straight."  (I know, I know, it should be my left arm giving the line, but at this point it's easier to hold him with my left arm/hand.  Otherwise I'm in a crossed-arms position.  And I don't think it makes a bit of difference at this point.)

At this very early stage I don't care whether Presto! is sitting or not as we set up for a go-out.  What I do care about, and what tells me a lot and makes me very happy, is that Presto! is straining to go.  Hallelujah!

Then, in rapid succession, I say, "Away! (he tears out to the target), "Get it!" (he grabs the treat), "Presto! come!" (he comes blazing back and jumps for the treat I'm holding about 18 inches off the ground.) 

All I want right now is for go-outs to become woven into the fabric of Presto!'s life.  Later we won't have to work through the jarring transition that's necessary when a dog has been taught to stay close and look at you, then suddenly has to learn to run away from you, do it rapidly and go in a straight line.

For a long time we'll be doing only what I have described above -- mostly leash-free but occasionally on a flexi.  And at slowly increasing distances.  Right now Presto!'s itty-bitty go-outs are about 20 feet.

Presto! and I aren't even thinking about the turn and sit.  But you and I will . . . in the next post.


Thursday, August 16, 2012

BRINGING UP PRESTO! Box Work: Sit/Down/Stand

Sometimes I think there should be background music while the Utility class is in session . . . a little traveling music.

Entering the cardiac arrest phase of the signal exercise, Hortense stands Fluffy and heads toward the other end of the ring.  Fluffy creeps forward while Hortense's back is turned.

Hortense gives the drop signal.  In the process of going down (assuming, of course, that she doesn't go into a sit and blow the whole thing) Fluffy moves two steps closer to Hortense. 

Now the sit.  Fluffy's conversion from the down to the sit involves moving everything forward.  By the time Hortense gets ready to signal Fluffy to come, Fluffy is probably two or three points closer to the other end of the ring than she was when Hortense left her on a stand.

A few minutes later it's time for the directed jumping exercise.  Fluffy goes flying out there, executes a turn that doubles as a tour of the far end of the ring, walks about three steps forward and sits.  Then repeats the whole performance on the second go-out.

All of which explains why I teach the sit, the down, the stand and the go-outs in a PVC box.  And why Presto! began his "box work" when he was nine weeks old.

See my post of August 22, 2011, "The Many Uses of the PVC Box," for more on how the box is constructed and used.  Note that the box should be only slightly wider than the dog.  But that only matters when teaching a tight turn and sit. In the photo that accompanies this post -- taken several weeks ago when Presto! was slightly more than nine weeks old -- he's working in a much larger box, one I had from earlier dogs.  By the time we incorporate the turn and sit, many months hence, he will have grown to fit the box.

The first step was to teach Presto! to love his box.  That took one brief session.  I put the box on the ground, said, "Get in your box,"  lured him into it with a treat, said, "Good box!"  and gave him the treat.  Pretty soon, whenever the box hit the ground he ran into it, looked at me, expected and received his treat.  Now, several weeks later, I say, "Should we do box work?"  and he runs to where the box is leaning against the wall on the back porch.  Everything about him says, "Hurry up!"

Unquestionably my strongest motivation for starting box work almost as soon as I got the puppy was to teach the "concertina" (foldback) down at the dawn of his experience.  Let a dog get into the habit of going through a sit enroute to his down and you're flirting with multiple NQ's when Rover gets to the sit, stops there and thinks he's completed the exercise.

All the sit/stand/down execises are taught at the closed end of the box, up close to the raised bar.  (The one in the picture is raised 3.4 inches.) That bar effectively inhibits Presto! from traveling forward as we practice these exercises.  So he has never even thought of creeping forward on any of these position changes.

At a very early age he's forming habits I'm confident will reduce unnecessary loss of points during his competition obedience career.  And he loves it.

Let's leave discussion of box work's role in teaching go-outs until my next post, "Box Work:  Go-Outs."


Thursday, August 9, 2012


Presto! hadn't been in his new home nine hours before he had his first little lesson.  Right now, at 14 weeks, he enjoys three five-minute lessons a day.  We're rotating through 25 little "exercises." 

Fundamental to everything I'm doing with him are these two absolutes:

Everything we do must be fun. My first instructor, Debby Boehm -- the person who took me from bumbling neophyte to (bumbling) OTCH handler -- told her students, "If first you get want-to, all else will follow."

Think about it.  In your lifetime, what's been easier to learn, something you loved doing or something you hated but had to master?

When I say, "Should we go practice?"  Presto! can't contain himself.  Each training session consists of five or six exercises.  He can't wait to get into position to begin each exercise.  Between exercises, he sticks to me like glue, head up, eyes riveted on me: "What're we gonna do next?"  And the learning curve has gone right through the roof.

I train exclusively on a buckle collar.  Presto! will never see a prong collar.  And God knows he'll never see an electric collar.  Both are the tools of weakness.  Would I change my mind if I had a Rottweiler?  Absolutely not!  It's about want-to,  not about , "By God, you have to!"

Everything we do is laying the foundation for the exercises that will be so important later.  The
first thing Presto! ever did here, training-wise, was little follow exercises. Those were preliminary, preparatory, precursors to preludes and preambles to heeling.  In other words, he didn't know he was starting to learn to heel; he only knew he was having a blast (for a grand total of 30 seconds).  He's still having a blast, but now, at 14 weeks, he quickly pops into position when it's time to heel.  He does a nice tight about turn. (I didn't teach that, it just happened one day.)  And when I halt he sits at my side.

Oh, and all this is off leash.  We won't have any heartburn later about taking the leash off -- he's been off leash since he was eight weeks old.  However, recently I've disciplined myself to put the leash on about a third of the time. We're going to need that in Novice.

There's all this talk (quite valid) about the difficulty in teaching go-outs.  "We've put so much effort into teaching the dog to be at our side, to be focused on us," we say, "then suddenly we want him to run away from us, and in a straight line to boot. That's so hard for the dog!"

Presto started doing little go-outs when he was nine weeks old.  He gets to run out to a target, get a treat, then run back and jump for another treat.  He loves it.  He'll grow up never knowing about the difficult transition.

More about go-outs and sits and stands and downs, all of which I teach in a PVC box, in my next post, entitled "Box Work."