Raika - Verbal Discrimination
Raika is contemplating a return to the sport of Schutzhund (now IPO). We never earned her schutzhund three title; mostly because I got distracted with AKC obedience and that became my focus. When I returned a couple of years ago, I found that I didn't have enough time to get in all three phases of work on a regular basis (tracking, obedience and protection). So…it never happened.
Raika is almost eight years old, which means we’re at the point of now or never. She’s incredibly fit and agile – as long as that continues she can comfortably work in a rigorous sport. We’ve been back for about three weeks and she’s happier than I’ve ever seen her, so if she remains injury free I don’t see any reason why she cannot complete the title.
In obedience, our biggest challenge is verbal discrimination. Raika has to go from heeling to a stationary position immediately on command. The exercises are a sit (out of a walk), down (out of a run) and stand (out of a run). This is a verbal exercise so no hand signal is allowed. To receive a high score, Raika’s response time must be immediate; she should be locked up in the position pretty much at the same time as the command leaves my mouth.
This is a challenge for Raika. She runs about 80 – 90% accuracy on her verbal discrimination exercises when she is in drive. That means there is a 50% chance of failing one of the three exercises – not acceptable odds. Improving those figures is the focus on my obedience training with her. As a general rule she has the hardest time with the sit out of motion, though on this day she struggled more with the stand position. When she misses more than one time I help her to be correct. How I help the dog depends on how they were trained. In Raika's case, I usually add a hand signal (for the sit or down) or I reach out and touch her chest or neck for the stand.
The step I find most helpful for increasing accuracy in positions is repetition. Unfortunately, success through repetition tends to come at the cost of drive – most dogs don’t enjoy drills. My job is to find ways to get in the repetition while keeping her engaged in the game. Here are the four ways I’m practicing (the first three are shown on the video).
Practice high hand touches followed by commands. The commands may include “heel, sit, down, or stand”. My “stand” command is “wait”. The reason for the “Heel” command is to prevent Raika from losing her enthusiastic heeling – if you only do position changes the dog will stop heeling properly while waiting to hear your request, so keep that in the mix. This is my favorite method since it most closely resembles what I will need in competition (hitting the correct position while moving).
Practice the verbal commands while backing the dog up from the front of you. This method completely removes the out of motions from heeling and allows you to focus on the position only. With this method, do your best to give the reward behind the dog or at the place where you gave the command. If the dog is allowed to come back to you for the reward you are encouraging movement after the position; a no-no. Practicing out of backing up is my favorite method if I’m focusing on the drop on recall for AKC, since it closely approximates the actual picture.
My third method is to practice the actual exercise. This is the one I do the least, and is mostly to test the behaviors to make sure they have transferred.
My final method is to practice the verbal commands while throwing food (not shown on video). Toss a piece of food and as soon as the dog is done eating it, give a position command. Then toss the food behind the dog to do another one. This is also a great way to get distance from the dog to practice exercises that require distance control, such as the send out for schutzhund (to a down), the go out for AKC (to a sit), the drop on recall and the signal exercise.
Once she’s at a rate of accuracy that I’m comfortable with (I need to be surprised when she is incorrect) then I will reduce the amount of time I spend on this exercise, and I will eliminate the high reward schedule.
Here’s a three minute video of Raika practicing most of the above techniques - this is our third session in a row focusing on these skills. In that time her speed/accuracy combination has improved quite a bit. Note that I alternate between methods and even throw in a couple of retrieves. I do this because dogs are much happier “drilling” if you mix it up. Variety also seems to help them clear their head so that they can maintain a high accuracy rate. I am generous with the rewards; when I drill I try to make it worth the dog’s while.
Some of you might also notice that my hand is at my side. This is the required hand position for IPO, not at my waist.