This too is a fine art. It’s like walking a tightrope – knowing when to adjust to the one side or the other, so that you don’t lose your balance and fall. It’s a case of keeping your focus on the job. It’s a case of knowing, what is not yet learnt. It’s a case of knowing what you’re aiming at. It’s a case of knowing what’s important, when to change your focus and when not to.

If we take distance control as an example, we first need to define the essence of the exercise. There are lots of aspects in this exercise, but they are not equally important and they cannot all be trained simultaneously. The essence of the exercise is in fact correct movement. It’s not waiting for the commands. It’s not building up distance. It’s not the number of positions. It’s not being in each position. It’s not maintaining the position until the next command. It’s the correct movement between positions that is the fundamental part of this exercise. Now all we need to do is keep are eyes on that. Easy, right? Maybe not.

‘Stand’

It takes many repetitions of each movement before the dog understands, that it has to move in a certain way. If we reward for being in the correct position, then the dog misses the point – or rather it doesn’t, if it’s us, that’s missed the point by actually rewarding for the positions.

Initially we need to be rewarding for any correct movement. So I’ll be putting aside the aspect of the dog waiting for my command. Actually I’m looking for the dog offering me the correct version of the task all by itself and it can decide the pace as well. Every correct movement gets rewarded. I train the movements in pairs with a clear break between each set. This gives the dog the chance to immerse itself into the two movements in each set, because it knows what the next movement will be. If the dog offers me correct movement to another position, whilst I’m not training that set, I reward that too. This is a beneficial change of track. I’m shifting my focus, because it’s promoting the dogs learning.

It’s only when the movements are always perfect, that I start working on the distance and waiting for the commands with the latter first. Usually I keep training in pairs and only occasionally jumble the positions up. Keeping this exercise well-tuned is a case of holding onto the correct movement.

A common fault is either not knowing this or losing sight of it. There is a general fear of having a dog, that does things before it’s commanded. This always costs points at competitions, so is not really surprising. Without the handler thinking, they let the ‘not waiting for a command‘ aspect override the essence of the exercise. When this happens, the dog misses important learning opportunities, because it perhaps offers correct movement and gets faulted for it. The dog is trying to show, ‘I think I’ve got it’ and the handler replies, ‘No, you’re way off’. This is a change of track, that doesn’t benefit the dogs learning.

‘Down’


Another fault occurs when the dog doesn’t move to the right position, but to another. This is incorrect movement, but often the dog is commanded again and has to move to the named position from another starting position. There’s no useful learning here whatsoever. In fact the dog learns that as long as it moves, it doesn’t really matter how. It’s not able to correct it’s mistake, if it doesn’t take the position from the original starting point and if it doesn’t correct, it doesn’t learn. This is an example of the handler changing tracks and not helping the dogs process.

A third fault often occurs when the distance between dog and handler increases. Dogs see the set up and you might think that your verbal command and hand signal are the same, when you stand two meters further away, than you usually do, but for your dog the picture is very different. This could cause the dog to try and repair the picture by moving closer and in so doing, perform incorrect movement. So increases are perhaps 10cm at a time to start with. The big increases come when you’re already several meters away.

Another common fault occurs when the dog loses its focus. Perhaps it’s tried looking at something else as a way to handle ambivalence, when things get difficult or when the success criteria aren’t apparent for the dog. If the handler waits until the dog checks into the exercise again, then suddenly it has the chance to take control of the whole process. Like any other exercise the dogs focus is of paramount importance. If a dog checks out by avoiding taking contact to the handler, then the handler needs to change track. Loss of attention is always more important than any element in any exercise. Changing tracks here is imperative for the dogs learning – if I point at a cup and tell a child it’s a cup whilst the child is looking at the ceiling, then it’s never going to learn what a cup is. Likewise a dog is never going to learn how to perform a sequence of positions, if it’s got its mind on something else.

‘Sit’

For every exercise, it’s merely a case of defining the essence, teaching it, building complexity around it and preserving it.

Piece of cake!