Handling Skills for the Versatile Dog

By Jim & Phyllis Dobbs and Alice Woodyard

Our last article discussed the NAVHDA Invitational, NAVHDA's prestigious championship event for finished versatile dogs. In this article we'll start teaching the handling skills a versatile dog needs to compete in the Invitational.

There's a lot involved in perfecting a dog's handling skills, and this article only touches on the topic. If you're interested in more detailed instructions or in advancing your dog beyond the basics, get our book, Tri-Tronics Retriever Training.

Stopping the dog to the Whistle

One blast of the whistle is used during the blind retrieve in order to stop the dog at a distance and have him look at you for further direction. To teach the dog to recognize that one quick whistle is the same as the verbal command to stop (sit or whoa), use the "chaining" process.

Begin by blowing a single whistle blast, and immediately follow it with the known verbal command to stop. After several repetitions, you will notice the dog beginning to anticipate the verbal stop command when you blow the whistle. Now delay the verbal command to give the dog a chance to stop to the whistle alone.

If the dog doesn't stop right away on the whistle, use low level stimulation as you give a verbal command to stop. The dog gets a comparison--if he responds to the whistle, he can avoid the reinforced verbal command. Soon this whistle will have real meaning to him.

Teaching Handling Commands

The dog should learn four different signals--a "back" cast (turn 180 degrees and go back), left and right "over" casts (turn 90 degrees and go left or right), and a come in signal (move toward the handler).

A hand signal with a verbal command is used for "back" and "over." A come-in whistle is used to bring the dog in toward the handler. In Part XIII we covered how to teach the dog this whistle.

If your dog likes to retrieve, have him practice with piles of dummies. Follow the procedure described in the section "Teaching 'Over' and 'Back'," using a pile of dummies at each target location. If your dog is not that crazy about retrieving, use plywood platforms as the target locations.

Introducing the Platform Target

To introduce the platform as a target, place it under a dog crate and send the dog into the crate a few times, just as you did when teaching the "Whoa" command in Part III of this series. Then remove the crate, but leave the platform where the crate was, and send the dog to it a few more times. Finally, send the dog to the platform from different places in your training yard. Start from about 10 feet away and work back to about 50 feet away.

Once the dog is on the platform, blow your stop whistle. Have the dog wait a few moments, then release him and call him off the platform. If he steps off the platform before released, or fails to go all the way to it on command, correct him with low-level stimulation as described in Part III.

Teaching "Over" and "Back"

To teach the dog to go "over," leave him so that his side is toward a platform or dummy pile that is ten feet away. Stand about ten feet in front of him, and if he isn't looking at you, blow your whistle once. Then cast him to go "over" by extending one arm straight out from your side as you take a step in that direction. Practice both left- and right-hand "over" signals.

To teach the dog to go "back," place him with the pile or platform directly behind him. Cast him to go "back" by extending your arm straight up over your head as you command "Back." With each successful repetition, increase the distance between the dog's starting point and the target, until the dog is about 50 feet from the target.

As a next step, put out two platforms or dummy piles, about 100 feet apart. With the dog waiting directly between them, stand about ten feet in front of the dog and alternate left- and right-hand "over" signals. Gradually increase the distance between you and the dog.

When the dog is good at taking the "over" signals to two targets, introduce a third target behind the dog, and add the "back" signal. Alternate among the three casts so that the dog gets practice at differentiating between them.

Teaching the Come-In

When using the come-in whistle as a handling command, you want the dog to retrieve a dummy on his way in to you. At first he won't understand that he is supposed to retrieve. So as the dog is on his way in, toss a dummy out in front of you so that he will see it thrown. Command "Fetch" as he approaches it.

If he doesn't pick it up, he's probably confused. Don't use the collar, just help him by encouraging him to retrieve. Once the dog is comfortable at picking up a dummy he sees tossed, you can have a white dummy already in place before you call him.

The Single "T" Exercise

This exercise puts it all together for the dog. Picture an imaginary baseball diamond, with targets (dummies or platforms) at first, second and third bases. The imaginary "pitcher's mound" in the center is where the dog will be as he waits for your signal, and you will stand at "home plate."

First practice sending the dog from your side to the dummies or platform at second base. Start from about 10 feet away, and add some distance with each repetition until you can stand at home plate and send the dog all the way to 2nd base.

If the dog flares off and tries to go to either first or third base (they are closer and therefore might distract him), stop him with "NO" and call him back for a re-start. If he flares twice in a row, move up, shortening the distance in half, and send him from your side again. Moving up makes it simpler for him to take the correct direction. Make sure the dog is looking toward second base before you send him.

Next, stand at pitcher's mound with the dog at your side. Send him once to first, second and third bases, so he'll know where all the targets are.

The next step will be to send the dog from home plate to second base, and stop him with the whistle when he arrives at pitcher's mound. Once he is stopped, you will redirect him with a "back," an "over," or a come-in.

But before you try to stop a dog while he is on the way to second base, it is a good idea to refresh his memory of stopping to the whistle to turn off the collar. (Do this away from your "baseball" set-up.) Begin with some stops to the whistle during heeling, as you automatically apply low-level stimulation to coincide with your whistle.

After the dog is stopping quickly while heeling, practice a few stops to the whistle while he is coming in to you. If he fails to stop, reinforce a verbal command to stop with the collar, but continue to practice until he is stopping well with just the whistle. Then repeat this procedure in your "baseball" set up. Call the dog from second base and stop him at pitcher's mound. Then cast him "over" to either first or third base.

Now you can introduce stopping the dog to the whistle while he is heading away from you. Send him from home plate toward second base, and just as he arrives at pitcher's mound, stop him with your whistle. If the dog should not stop the first time you try this, don't use the collar to reinforce the whistle. Just use a firm verbal stop command to get his attention and stop him.

Once you can stop the dog on pitcher's mound, practice all four signals (the "back," the left and right "over," and the come-in whistle). For the come-in, toss a dummy out in front of you after you send the dog but before you stop him, so he'll have something to retrieve on his way back in to you.

Send the dog all the way to second base as often as needed to keep up his momentum, typically every other repetition. Otherwise, he may get into the habit of stopping on his own at pitcher's mound.

If the dog does not take your signal correctly and starts to go the wrong way, stop him with "NO. Here." If he ignores the "Here" command, reinforce it with the collar. Then put him back on pitcher's mound and repeat the signal.

If the dog still refuses to take the correct cast, simplify by moving the dog closer to the target and you move closer to the dog. Then repeat the cast.

Try to keep a "mental notebook" on your dog and give him the most practice on the directions which cause him the most trouble. And, if he seems to be anticipating being stopped, give him more repetitions on going all the way to second base without stopping.

Coming in the Next Article:
The next article will cover handling on water.

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