Disc Dog Communication
Published in Dog Sport Magazine April 2008
X-posted @ K9Athlete.com
Putting Things into Perspective
One of the things that we tend to forget when we’re playing a game with a dog is that games are nothing more than behavior chains.
When we engage in a game with our dogs, especially a competitive game, we tend to lose track of the fact that we’re just dealing with behaviors, and I can’t think of one game where that problem is more prevalent than in canine disc.
Almost everyone who reads this is either a dog trainer or someone who plays a game with their dog and more often than not, both. Talking about canine disc in terms that dog trainers and dog sport competitors can easily understand can provide a quick fix for some of the problems that frustrate people trying to play disc with their dogs.
Silence is Golden
Most of us know a dog who plays disc but doesn’t catch that well or try real hard.
This often happens because the dog is getting a constant stream of exciting positive feedback regardless of whether or not a catch is made. The criteria is not clear and there are no clear consequences. The game is just as fun after a catch as it is after a miss.
It’s very common for a dog that consistently pick discs up off the ground from errant throws to not understand that the game of disc is about catching the disc.
One dog that we worked with had never caught a disc although her and her handler had been playing the game for quite some time. The handler played with high energy and was liberal with praise. Maggie loved to play disc.
I told her that I didn’t think her dog understood that the game of disc was about catching. She disagreed. So I popped out a roller, a throw where the disc rolls along the ground like a wagon wheel, and wouldn’t you know it? Her dog ran right behind it, mouth 3 inches from it, for 20 yards. When it tipped to the ground, she pounced on it, picked it up and proudly retrieved it to her shocked handler.
This was an extreme case of a dog not understanding criteria because of inconsequent communication. The game became fetch and not catch because the consequence was the same regardless of whether or not the disc was caught.
If a dog is catching sometimes, when it is convenient, or not working hard for a catch, there is probably some of this problem going on. A better job of setting criteria and more clear communication should fix this.
All we have to do is mark the catch with a positive marker, “yes!”, and reward with a vocal party. If the dog misses, they get silence.
Contrast the exciting vocal party for catches with boring silence for misses. It effectively communicates the criteria and reinforces the desired behavior. This should lead to a dramatic change in catch percentage.
Party for a catch, silence for a miss.
Two is Better Than One
The game of disc should always be taught with at least two targets.
Having multiple targets ensures that we always have something the dog wants. If we’re playing with one, the dog quickly learns that he the upper hand. Learning to play with one disc is like giving our dogs our bait bag.
With multiple discs, when the dog makes the catch we still have motivation in our hands. He winds up with a dead toy and we have a nice lively one.
This throws the odds in our favor and allows us far more ability to manipulate the situation. It allows us to train.
We can now wait for behaviors. We can deliver reinforcement more efficiently. We can maintain a higher rate of reinforcement.
Two Targets is a must.
Now that we have power in the form of multiple targets, the game has totally changed. Waiting becomes a viable tactic, and it is effective.
Dropping the disc is easily taught.
Call the drop (or Just wait for it). Mark it,”yes!” and pop out a roller.
If the handler does a good job, pretty soon, the dog believes that dropping a disc creates the opportunity to chase another. Dropping discs becomes a desirable behavior.
Using Predictable Behaviors
If the dog doesn’t retrieve the disc well, no worries. We just find the spot that the dog is already dropping and attach the drop cue to it and quickly reward.
If the dog drops at 10 yards away, call the drop at 11 and mark and reward it with a roller or a bite. Predict the behavior, add the cue, and reward it well.
This attaches reward history to both the cue and behavior.
Pretty soon the dog is listening for the cue that leads to the reward. If we don’t call it, they’ll hold onto it while rapidly approaching, waiting for the cue. It doesn’t take long to get a full retrieve.
If they do drop it before asked, draw attention to it with an NRM and wait. When they go get it, ask for the drop and mark and reward. Make a note of the distance the dog dropped at and predict the drop based on that new information, build some reward history, then up the ante.
If this is a problem behavior, the handler must take responsibility for the drop. The dog never gets rewarded for dropping early or without the cue.
Timing is Everything
There is one important point to keep in mind when teaching a dog engaged in drive.
The positive marker and reward happen nearly simultaneously. This is extremely important and cannot be stressed enough.
Things happen quickly when a dog is engaged in drive. Fractions of a second matter. The closer in time the reward is to the mark, the better.
Once the dog has learned the behavior you can relax a little, but when teaching keep the positive marker and reward tightly linked.