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Working our dogs at a distance Part 1

On the Working Trail Competition Circuit there was one constant competitor called Terry Hadley who was a professional dog trainer and handler. I do not know if, because he was Irish, he had some special way with dogs, but if he was competing then he was often the man to beat if you were to stand any chance of winning.

I was talking to him one day about the way he would talk to his dogs when giving out commands in the same volume, whether they were a long way away or next to him. Never a man to give information away, he just said if you teach your dogs to listen, the distance does not matter. For me, that seemed easier said than done.

He is though correct. If you have your dog’s attention with their excellent hearing, shouting is unnecessary, so if they have a good reason to carry out your commands, they will do this willingly.

I am sure we would all wish we could have our dogs do as we command at any distance from us. Though most often, when a dog is further away they seem to become deaf to any of our commands. Some people feel sure their dogs are stubborn but the reason is easy to understand when viewed from a dog’s perspective.

When we start training our dogs, it is nearly all close proximity work. On the other hand, when it is playtime we let our dogs off their leads and off they go having a great play. They are enjoying themselves and obviously do not wish to stop. This means that we teach our dogs there are no restrictions when they are playing.

Even if you have taught your dog well to go into a down when it is near you, there is little chance of giving the same command whilst your dog is chasing about after another in play. If you do try, the command quickly becomes one of anger, and it is not until you get closer does your dog realise that you are within striking distance does it take notice. Only then does it start to show submission and look guilty at not doing as commanded.

Again looking at one man and his dog on the television, we see it is possible if only with Border Collies. Handlers then assume that their own dog is just not the sort to work at a distance. So where is the problem?

The simple answer is because training starts with our dogs always being close to us except in play, when they can then please themselves. This they obviously enjoy. Teaching them something close to you does not train them to do the same at a distance. Handlers must teach their dogs to work away from them whilst you maintain control.

For instance for the beginners retrieve, I allow the handler to throw the toy, ball or what ever as far as they wish so that the dog enjoys the exercise. It is only later that I expect the handler to start to include restrictions, like having to wait after throwing the item before it can go and retrieve it. Only on the command, can it go and fetch and when it comes back, it must sit and wait for the handler to take it. Only after a moments wait does the handler finish with the dog going round and sitting in the heel position. Placing too many controls in too early can make the dog lack interest, as there is no fun.

If a dog is enjoying itself then it will rush to fetch the item because it wishes the handler to throw it again. Once the dog is enjoying this exercise then we can slowly introduce the restrictions as a tease, which only excites the dog more. Because of this, the dog is working at a distance in a way it sees as fun. Most dogs love to fetch sticks or balls and we can incorporate this drive in them to make other distance commands just as enjoyable.

This is why it is so important to find out what our dogs main drive is. Some dogs love toys, whilst others love food.

You may hear of professionals saying their dog is very ball conscious. Most drug and explosive dogs are toy conscious but only because the authorities first assess the pups to see if that is their preference. A dog that prefers food may give positive indications for drugs when it has only found some morsel of food that it likes. If such a dog were on the streets then its indication could well invalidate a police search based on probable cause for illegal substances. In addition, professional handlers cannot rely on any dog that detects both weapons and drugs to create a probable cause to search for drugs, as it is legal to carry licensed weapons and ammunition.

Civilian owners do not have that problem, yet there are many people, including dog trainers, who shy away from food treats in the fear that the dog will then beg for food or even become a food stealer. Most owners do not assess a puppy for what drives it, so if you have one that likes food, then use it to your advantage. If it likes toys, then all much the better.

There is nothing wrong with treats. You and I work for money, why should a dog not get something as a reward for working for us. We must learn how to improve our dogs drive to please us if we are to have any success of our dogs responding to our commands.

The next most important exercise is how we can make our dog go away from us without actually throwing a ball for it. This is the send away and often it seems this is one of the hardest exercises, but it is not.

There are many ways of teaching this but it does depend on which competition the dog will be entering. In obedience competitions, handlers may have to send their dog to a BOX usually marked out with four cones, posts, or even toy ducks. The dog has to rush out into the box turn round to face the handler and go into the down position waiting for the recall back to the handler.

The method to teach this AWAY command was to run with your dog, whilst it was on the lead, up to the box. Once inside the box the handler must get their dog to turn round and go into the down giving it lots of praise or a treat, but not a toy. Gradually as the dog learns to know what is happening, it will start to run ahead of the handler whilst on the lead. Eventually the handler starts to run with the dog off the lead until in time they can stand still whilst the dog rushes away from them into the box.

What this method does again emphasise is that there is no choice for the dog to go wrong, as it goes through the whole exercise on the lead until the handler can see the dog knows what to do. The one thing the handler must not do is recall the dog. This is because as it is now away from the handler they cannot give treats and praise as these often encourages the dog to come back. What the handler can now do is walk up and using the tease to keep the dog in the down until they throw the item to finish the exercise.

The final part being the recall from the box back to the handler is easy and requires little practice, so is unnecessary. In fact, always calling your dog back from the box, it may anticipate this command and once in the box return before you wish it to.

The send away is the basic building block of all the exercises where the dog must work away from the handler. This is why it is so important for the dog to enjoy going away from you as much as it enjoys coming back but always under your control.

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