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Working our dogs at a distance Part 2

Most of us would love our dogs to obey our commands whether they are near to us or at a distance. Normally I find handlers complaining their dogs only comply with their commands when they are close. There are two simple reasons for this.

The first is when we let our dogs off the lead; they can go and play. This means they are free to have fun of what ever they wish to do. What this is teaching them is that once away from you it is always playtime, to do whatever they like. Trying to find something that is better in order for them to do what you want them to do, you need to know what drives your dog.

The second is handlers must train their dogs to accept control commands at a distance. Even though you may teach your dog to go into a down when close to you, at a distance the chances of it obeying are about nil.

It is very important to know what drives your dog. Some love toys, whilst others love food, or even both. Then we have other drives like herding, chasing, and attacking. If you have a professional police dog that is slow on its track, putting a criminal at the end for a chase and a bite will most certainly speed it up, as it enjoys the reward.

Following on from last weeks article, the send away is the basic building block of all distance work. Before you can do anything with your dog, it has to be willing to go away from you on command with some incentive. It does not matter if it is a straight competition send away or to go away to search for a lost or hidden person. It just has to go away to whatever distance and in the direction the handler wishes, then do the work required.

Last week I wrote about target sendaways used in obedience competitions. These are fine but if the dog cannot see a target, it is often lost as to what to do. Show it a target box and it will go off like a rocket. This raises the question how do you teach a dog to go away without any sort of target.

In all the Working Trails competitions, the judges are also competitors so we know how people are training their dogs. Aware of these methods, it is possible to see such errors of training that handlers often use to sneak in a good send away. Young handlers often use any handy targets like a distant tree, bush, or a pole etc. The problem is what happens if the judge does not use any targets.

When I judged the higher stakes of Patrol or Tracking Dog, I expect the handler to send their dog out in the direction of my choosing for about 250 or 300 meters using one command. When they reach a certain point, but not a tangible target, they must then redirect their dog left and then right. This is followed by a recall that will include a stop command when the dogs must go into the sit, stand and down. When this is completed, they then recall their dog to come and sit in front of them, followed by heeling up. Do all this using one word for each command; they will get all the points. To do this without a target shows that the handler can control and work their dog in almost any situation.

So how do you train for such an exercise without using a target and being unable to praise them whilst they are at a distance? What is going to make them go away from us?

One method sounds good but does not work. This is to send the dog away by using your arms chasing it away in front of you. To the dog, it thinks you are annoyed and chasing it out of your pack. This means it will show submission and try to come back to you for forgiveness. From the start, the dog will hate this exercise and the handler only becomes angry.

Another method is to pretend to throw a toy or ball. Dogs do eventually learn that you have not thrown it and will not go. You cannot throw a ball or toy in a competition nor get the dog to do any other work in the meantime.

The current method starts with a target but the handler must be aware that once the dog is going away happily and quickly, they must gradually remove them. This means the handler has to teach the dog to trust them that there is something out there. If it does certain actions, it will get some reward at the end. This is the beginning of working as a team.

The method I use can have a dog completing a send away as far as a hundred metres or more in twenty minutes, but again I start with a target and a food treat or its toy.

Whilst the handler holds the dog, I show it a road-cone and a treat. I then walk backwards about twenty meters so it can still see them. I put the cone down with the food at the bottom. I next walk out of the way and the handler lets the dog go to the cone, where it finds and eats the reward. All the dogs I have in my classes love this game and cannot get out there fast enough.

Once the dog is going forward and knows the cone, I just keep moving it further and further away until the dog is completing and enjoying a long send away, at speed. This is teaching the dog the command AWAY. Sometimes if the dog hesitates on the way out the handler can repeat the AWAY command and the dog knows to continue until it reaches the cone.

To progress, I change to differing targets like a pole, a white stone, or even a piece of white cloth. The cloth I lay on the ground so the dog does not initially see it. As it goes out, you can see the dog gather speed as it eventually sees the target and knows there is a reward waiting.

At the start of the training, the dog always sees me go out and place the target. Eventually I show the dog the target and treat, then the team go round the corner where they cannot see what I am doing. Once I am out of the way, the handler then will go to the start and send an already excited dog out using the AWAY command. Though at first it cannot see the target it rushes out because it knows it is out there somewhere.

Eventually the dog never sees the target or the treat, but as the handler goes through the same routine, the dog remembers the exercise, which makes it excited and rearing to go.

Ultimately, there is no target or any food treat. Once the exercise is completed, either the dog will have a thrown toy to it or the handler walks up and gives it a treat. Taking it a step further, the handler can then give the dog another task to perform, for which it will receive a reward.

The most important point to remember is if the dog begins to falter the handler must not be angry. They must go back to teaching it more simply, and then re-build it up again. Anger will only teach the dog to hate the exercise, so any handler’s annoyance it is a big step backwards.

Teaching with this method the dog can see the reward at the beginning of the exercise to encourage it. There is little chance of the dog making mistakes that would cause it confusion. This technique uses repetition, which a dog needs in all its various types of training. It is also adjustable to the dog’s ability.

A properly structured training exercise using any types of rewards or utilises its drives, encourages the dog to enjoy its work whilst remaining eager to listen to your commands.

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