Thursday, March 20, 2014

Training a Low Drive Dog for Flyball

I got very lucky with my first three dogs. Indy was so easy to train for anything and despite having no idea what I was doing...she does everything at top speed and desperately wants to please. Goose isn't quite as easy, but did learn flyball in 3 months and still runs consistent 3.8-3.9 in start. And then Pax was also easy. He came with tons of drive for toys and he loves to be trained. I really had zero problems with any of the dogs and this was because they love to tug. Good tug play in which the dog wants to play with YOU can solve lots of problems.  A super fast/stop everything and run recall and tug drive can solve 95% of problems in flyball. Spy is missing the tug part. Oh no!

Ah Spy.  A beautiful body, but low tug/toy drive. She's fine with just hanging out and sleeping. Most  people love that! She's a great and very easy dog.  But I want her to LEARN STUFF and use that body to do things fast!

I tried all the standard stuff to build tug drive and that all worked to a point. I wasn't getting the kind of tugging I wanted. So I starting trying other things.  I put her in a crate and make her watch me train the other dogs, thinking that would make her want to play. Nah, not too concerning for her. She didn't care either way.

Then I did some variation of NILIF (nothing in life is free) or Ruff Love. My version was one training session per day for her breakfast, no free play by herself or with the other dogs (her favorite thing to do). This helped quite a bit and she began to enjoy working with me. It still wasn't enthusiastic at all and we still didn't have a great relationship with her because I was always putting her away when she didn't feel like working. 

At this point she was doing recalls to a tug 75% of the time and total refusal to work for a tug for anything else and definitely not with food around. She was telling me, "Why should I go fling myself at that wall board for a reward that isn't rewarding?" I would give her food at the end of our session when she did a good job and if she didn't feel like it, I just didn't train her that day. I didn't get too far with this method.

Here is what I did that finally worked:

1. Use the Correct Rewards at the Correct Time.  My goal is to use a tug for flyball 100%.  We still have a long way to go, but we are making huge progress. First I made a mental note of her favorite and least favorite things to do. The favorites are my best tool for getting her to do things on the least favorite list. Flyball (or any) trainers need to accept that we can't ask our dogs to do something they don't really want to do for a reward they don't really want. Your dog may eventually find the tug rewarding, but he doesn't right now.

2. Build Work Ethic. Give your dog a cue for when training is starting. "Do you want to play!!!???" and act really silly and goofy and ridiculously excited.  And then while they are still into training say "That'll do, good dog" to end the session (which should be very short).  The difference in Spy is amazing. When she sees me...she goes nuts and when I end our sessions, she still wants more training.

3. Train behaviors that the dog Enjoys. My daily routine with Spy includes lots of obedience with stay to build excitement, body awareness, recall games with a little bit of flyball built in. Use a high value reward. 100% of Spy's diet comes from me for now. Some of the training is more challenging for her and some is just getting rewards for basic manners.  

4. Using food to get your dog to tug. This has to be done very carefully. The worst thing I see is the someone waggle the tug in the dogs face in suicidal bunny fashion and then when the dog doesn't tug, give food. What did you just do? You rewarded your dog for not tugging. You basically said "hey do you want to tug? No? Ok thats can have food instead! And good job for not tugging!" can use food to improve tugging in a different way. If your dog tugs at all even for a second, mark it with a clicker and then reward with food. Add duration and start clicking for good tugging behavior like rocking back, head shaking and a tight grip. A good shaping dog will respond to this. If you don't want to shape specifically, you can ask your dog to tug before every meal. Also, I've seen success with the tug-it bag filled with nasty squishy meat. And of course try a different tug.  Just remember not to use the tug itself as a reward until it's REWARDING by itself.

5. Using Life Rewards to get your dog to tug. Is your dogs favorite thing to run free? To go outside and play with other dogs? Ask your dog to tug first or do some task and then release to go do that thing. Start a routine at your door. If you want to go outside and have to tug first. Just be careful that it stays fun and the dog doesn't predict the release. Spy loves to zoom around in the woods. I ask her to tug before she can run and when she comes back to check in with me, we play tug and then I release her again. She loves that game.

6. Stop Tugging Before the Dog Stops. In my classes, I usually have to repeat this many times. I'd rather see 5 seconds of engaged tugging that ended with the dog still wanting more than 30 seconds of tugging that slowly fades away. Only tug when you are directly engaged with the dog.  Most of us with good tugging dogs are guilty of this in flyball. Check your dogs times and talk to teammates while the dog is tugging. It's probably find for a dog with a lot of tug drive. But for a dog like Spy. It's no good. I've been consciously trying to stop doing this with all my dogs. It also helps when trying to teach "out/drop it".

7. Off Switch or Go Crazy and Freeze Game. Or even the ready- set- get it game. Play lots of games that switch between high energy craziness and calm behavior. This is great for dogs who have trouble settling down, but I've found that it's great for dogs that have trouble getting excited. It teaches them to quickly change between the two mental states. I play with a bed nearby and get Spy going nuts...playing keep away, chasing her around, acting very goofy and then calmly say "get on your bed". As soon as she is calm and ideally fully relaxed...I say OK!!!! and start going nuts again.  Or  the ready-set-get it game ultimately works up to being able to say ready-set-......GET IT and the dog can't move until you say GET-IT. Try swing the tug around, throwing a ball,  running away to test them.  It also teaches a very solid stay.

To be continued.......


  1. Great information :) I hope your training pays off, it sounds like it will!

  2. Great post! My first pup was a breeze to train. My second lab, has the potential I can see it but he lacks the drive to please/train that my first lab has. Will definitely try some of these things with him :-)

  3. Great springer harry has his first flyball comp yesterday and rand like a pro in all his morning races, in the afternoon he was a different dog I couldnt believe it. He stop after the first jump and jumped over the netting into the crowd, and just refused to go down the lane and retrieve anything : ( we dont use a tuggy at all so will try this as his reward

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