The foundation behaviour we first need to teach out dogs is to catch, is it the behaviour the entire game is built around. We need to teach our dogs to control movement of the ball, by catching the ball or blocking the ball by jumping at it and stopping it from rolling.
What we don't want is our dog running in and stealing the ball before we kick it,
we need for them to learn to stay out, and get ready to catch the ball coming towards them. Our kicks and movements need to be predictable, consistent and accurate; I highly recommend working on tour kicking skills before even playing with the dog. The kicks should be no higher than the dogs face height and kick directly at them, if it is too high they could injure themselves and if we don’t kick it out to meet them we could encourage them to move inwards. Every dog is different, so the first few sessions have a play around with your dog, and get a feel for their ideal distance for keeping your dog in a state of anticipation and focus. As we get playing the game the dog should learn to position themselves at the "Catching" distance, as you begin the game. They should maintain this space, remain relatively still and focused as we place the first ball into play.
Using specific toys for this game, such as special soft balls, so that your dog learns the context of the game and learns to only watch your feet, rather than hands as they normally would with toy play.
This Ball, Not That Ball
The next step is that we teach our dog which ball (Sheep) to work. The dog needs to learn that the only important sheep, is the one that we, the handler, are focused on. This is a game we play together, and they shouldn’t go off to work the sheep alone. Sheepdog work is all about partnership and working together as a well oiled team.
throughout this game it is important that you focus on the ball that you are working on all the time. Because what you focus on, your dog will be focusing on, think about this in everyday life as well!
To start, take your balls out to play, we would recommend a minimum of 3-4 balls. Be sure that your dog is actually disengaging from the other ball rather than just switching. Take your balls out to play, drop one ball at a time, bringing it into play. Begin by warming up the dog with a few catches, making sure they remain in the hot zone, keeping distance and stopping the ball from escaping. Once the ball is kicked and the dog stops the movement, that ball is out of play and you can drop another ball.
We want to teach our dog to stay out, and not creep in and steal the ball. Using a minimum of 3 frisbees, use them to teach our dog to stay out in the catch zone and remain ready to catch. if your dog automatically runs in, you can uses a few “Fake” tosses to get them to move back a little, toss your frisbee to your dog, aim for just next to
their head to allow them to catch; as soon as they catch one drop the other, which shouldnt allow time for them to move forward and decrease distance.
If you don’t have frisbees you can also do this with balls, modifying the original catch game!
Going for a walk
We should hopefully have our dogs working quite well at the moment, however please resist the temptation to just work on the stuff your dog is good at, make sure you are playing the whole game, not just the bit your dog is good at! The way we play, make the game and shapes the way our dog will play in future.
We are building a reinforcer completely built around their natural abilities and instincts, which make it that much more powerful, and giving them an appropriate outlet for their stress.
By using very small and controlled movements- Sorry no dribbling for you lads!- we are going to take the ball for a walk. Start by slowly moving the ball backwards, away from the dog and towards yourself. The dog may not know what to do at first, but keep slowly moving the ball backwards, the dog should hopefully start to move forward and begin to stalk the ball. Reinforce this by kicking the ball to your dog.
If you notice your dog getting a little sticky moving the ball sideways, slowly or taking the ball for a walk can sometimes prompt movement. Every time your dog does something right, kick the ball to them, and give them an opportunity to have their winning party with the ball when they stop the movement. Let them have their party, then switch to the next ball.
Flanking: Learning to Balance
Orientation; getting our dogs into the hot zone. This can sometimes get a little bit harder for some dogs especially if they’re sticky?”, have lots of eye or only like to move in one direction. Start by making a quarter turn, keeping your dog off your shoulder, so you can see them out of your peripheral vision. Your dog should move around to the new Hot spot.
If they do kick the ball for them to catch.
If your dog doesn’t get into the right spot, do a fake kick, and ask “are you ready?” and if they don’t move to block the sheep, then they’re leaving it wide open, so the sheep (ball) will escape. So kick the ball to where your dog SHOULD have been.
After you kick the ball and swap to the next sheep, if your dog starts to offer the lovely circling and flanking motion, mirror the dog to encourage them with this movement, as they stop kicking the ball to them.