Flyball Training - First Class

12 Feb 2007Steve Schwarz

I don’t really have a set course plan for training Flyball; where I cover specific things in each class. I go at the speed of the dogs/handlers and generally follow my Flyball Training Progression. The exception is my first class. I try to cover some preliminaries and then start work on the tasks in the boxes across the top of my progression diagram:

  1. Discuss dog and handler safety
  2. Set expectations for "how long does it take to get ready to compete"
  3. Give a demonstration of the training progression
  4. Discuss/demonstrate building ball, toy, and handler interest
  5. Restrained recalls
  6. Jump over a low jump and back
  7. Box pedal noise desensitization

Because these behaviors can be learned in parallel, we can train each behavior chain in the diagram at the speed of each dog. It also lets me break up each class into sections by spending time on each behavior chain. This article gives more details on the content of my first class.

Safety

Flyball is an extremely arousing sport for many dogs. Consequently, until the dogs are used to the excitement of watching dogs run by, I require dogs to be on leash at all times except when running themselves. I also try to arrange the waiting area for the dogs not working to be away from the active dogs. At For Your Canine Nancy has low (2-3 foot), portable, PVC tubing framed “walls” that can be used to block the dogs’ view but still allow the handlers to see and communicate. I also ask handlers to always be aware of their dog’s location so dogs are out of each other’s space when waiting or when we are talking.

Setting Expectations

In my experience, the dogs progress based on the dedication and ability of their handlers. As I say to my somewhat surprised students: “I’m not here to train your dog to do Flyball, I’m here to train you to train your dog to do Flyball.” It is really important for them to know that their dog will only learn this sport if they apply themselves outside of class.

For Flyball the skills a dog needs to learn are not difficult to teach. Only the box mechanics are challenging and they are easily broken down into little behaviors. Dogs without any connection to their owners or interest in tennis balls are the other training challenge; but mostly require the owners to put in their “home work”.

So to the question of “How long does it take for my dog to be ready to compete?” I always say “It depends on you and your dog”. An experienced trainer who knows what we are trying to accomplish at each step in the training, has regular, short, focused training periods, and has a dog trained in another dog sport can be performing the full sequence in a matter of weeks. Otherwise there is so much variability in trainer(owner) and dog skills that it is difficult to give an accurate answer.

Demonstration

I usually draft Milo and a helper and spend about ten minutes demonstrating the complete training progression. Starting from a restrained recall all the way to a send over four jumps, taking the ball from the box and back over four jumps to the handler. I do this to help the students see how the little drills we’ll perform will actually take them to the final Flyball performance.

Building Interest in Ball, Toy, and Handler

I usually give the students copies of this article as a handout and tell them to follow the approach in Susan Garrett’s article both for a tug or toy and for tennis balls. The later especially for dog’s uninterested in tennis balls.

I try to encourage handlers to develop toy/tug interest; in the run back area of a Flyball tournament there is a lot of activity and having control of your dog is important for everyone’s safety. Up to a dozen dogs (six on each team) will be in the ring at a time. Some dogs will be waiting off to the side and four from each team will be actively running at a time. During a race the dogs come back into the run back about every five seconds and it is critical that the handler be able to reward their dog for a good run, and then be able to manuver their dog out of the way of the next returning dog (and handler!). You can use a non-toy reward, but a tug has the advantage that you definitely know where your dog is if it is tugging with you.

Usually within the course of the next section of class I’ll get an opportunity to demonstrate making a tug or toy really interesting with one of the dogs. Of course having an interesting toy helps make the handler a lot more interesting to the dog too!

Restrained Recalls

Either my helper or I will hold each dog and have the handler move about ten feet away and then release the dog when the handler calls and moves away from the dog. The handler then rewards the dog with food, tugging etc. Classic restrained recall training. If tugging I ask that they tug with the dog all the way back to me where I’ll take the dog. We repeat a couple more times for each dog.

Since it is traditional for dogs to be sent to the box using “American rules of the road” (i.e. sent to the box from the right side of the mat and from the box on the left side of the mat), I’ll ask the handler to be facing away from the dog and reward the dog from their left side. This gets both the dog and handler used to what will become second nature once they are competing.

Then I’ll setup two Flyball jumps with supports on only one end of each so the jump is double normal width. The dog is held on one side of the jump near the jump with the handler on the other side of the jump about ten feet away. The dog is released when the handler calls and moves away from the dog. Repeat a couple more times for each dog. I’ll then have each dog do a “set” of three tries, rotate through all the dogs and then repeat.

Depending on the number of students, the amount of time left in class and their success rate I might do another set or two with two sets of double wide jumps. I follow the same approach as described above.

When it comes to holding the dogs initially I’ll hold the dog by the collar without a leash. I might change to holding the dog across its chest or upper part of the hind legs (more traditional Flyball holds) only if the dog is comfortable with me handling it and after several weeks of us getting to know each other.

Jump Over a Jump and Back

This is the first step in teaching a dog the swimmer’s turn on the Flyball box. I have some extra wide 6 inch high jump boards that fit in Flyball jump uprights that I use for this drill. The idea is to have the dog jump almost sideways over the jump and jump right back (pop) over the jump. If you see a dog doing a swimmer’s turn on the box they initiate the turn as they jump to the box, take the ball and then complete the turn as they jump back off the box.

In the “olden days” of single hole flyball boxes it was common to have dogs slide into the box straight on, take the ball and then turn back toward the handler. Then with three hole boxes (with two holes at the outside edges of the box) even sliding dogs would be slightly turned toward the side of the box as they got the ball. All of which is really tough on the dog’s bodies. In the modern era it is pretty much unconscionable not to train a swimmer’s turn; the four feet hitting the box together greatly reduces the impact and strain on the dog’s body and it gives a faster performance too.

It is difficult for the big long bodied dogs to perform a swimmer’s turn; the box is just too small for them to comfortably get all four feet onto the pedal. But I still start them training the same way. I’d rather have them pounce on the box with their front two feet and body partially turned than teach them to hit the box straight on.

Dogs are “handed” just like people and this influences which way dogs prefer to turn at the box. As I described above about American rules of the road, dogs are usually “fed” into the jumps from the right (when viewed facing the box) and come back down the jumps and exit to the left. Consequently, it may be fractionally faster if the dog turns to their left at the box. Of course the dog’s comfort comes first, there are dogs (like Milo) who really dislike turning left. But all things being equal having a team of dogs the predominantly turns one direction makes it easier on the box loader at a tournament (one less thing to go wrong…).

So given that I’ll start this drill by having the handlers put their dog on their right and then send the dog over the jump as the handler turns to their left (a Post Turn Post Turn/Shoulder Pull/Pivot TurnLearning the Post Turn) and immediately calls the dog back over the jump. For the more coordinated handler, I’ll have them do a Front Cross Front CrossLearning the Front Cross over the jump to help keep the dog from going around the side of the jump. A double wide flyball jump can also be used.

Box Pedal Noise Desensitization

First I’ll ask the handlers if their dogs are noise sensitive. I’ll set up the flyball box off to the side while the dogs are queueing to work on one of the exercises and gently push on the box pedal and release it. I’ll ask the handlers of the noise sensitive dogs to treat their dogs on every motion of the pedal. I really mean only moving the pedal and that does not include “cocking” the arm that ejects the ball, just moving the pedal on to which the dog jumps.

Most box pedals are pretty quiet but some dogs are worried by the thump of the pedal when it hits the box. Initially I want the dogs to be unconcerned by the noise of the pedal by itself. As long as dogs are unconcerned I’ll gradually increase the speed of the pedal until it makes the more common thump noise preceding the actual box triggering. If any dog shows sign of concern I’ll reduce the noise level and ask the handler to give the dog a treat each time the pedal is moved.

Homework

I ask the handlers to repeat the drills we worked on at home. For dogs without interest in tugs, toys, their handler or tennis balls it is critical that the handler work with their dog outside of class. Just a couple minutes a day on any of these tasks:

  1. Start building interest in toys/tugs and tennis balls by following Susan Garrett's article
  2. Restrained recalls with and with out simple "jumps" (how about cardboard folded and taped into long triangular shapes about 6 inches high?). Setting up these fake jumps down a carpeted hallway really works well.
  3. Over and back jumping over one of the "jumps"

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