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More on position changes

Edited version of an email I wrote to a list.

A trainer wrote in with an issue about teaching positions at a distance.

Hand signals

Interesting what you say about the raised hand signal for drop.
That’s the way the Volhards in the US teach drop. They start with raising the arm and bringing it down, then the dogs start to anticipate on the raised arm, and the step of bringing the arm down can be phased out. This has the advantage that the handler is not “pointing” to a spot on the ground.
A lot of dogs, especially when taught with lure/reward think that
drop means “lower yourself to the spot I am pointing at on the
ground”, and even if you abbreviate the downward signal, they still
seem to think they have to come to that spot, which is why so many
people have trouble when they try to introduce distance. They give the dog a signal to drop on recall and the dog keeps coming because he or she thinks the drop signal means “drop on this spot” The raised
arm is also useful for distance work because it is very visible.

I used to like teaching an animated “hit the deck quickly” drop, and
I did this by using an upward (palm up) signal for sit, with a bit of
a pause to build anticipation and attention, followed by a quick palm
down signal. I told my clients to imagine they were standing in a
swimming pool with the water at about waist height, then quickly slap
the surface of the water with your palm and bounce your hand straight
up again. The dog throws herself down, and your hand is already up
again, and you reward instantly (preferably from your other hand –
this no longer a food-lure movement).

Teaching positions at a distance

Then of course distance is always taught as a separate training task
(incrementally). So my suggestion is teach close up position changes
before introducing distance. The dog’s physical technique of doing
the position changes should be well established before you add
distance. Ian Dunbar taught the concept of position changes way back
in the early 1990s. He started with lure-reward of puppies. Note it
is position *changes*, not just positions. There are three positions,
but six position changes (e.g. from a stand: sit-drop-sit-stand-drop-
stand). Then he would pick a random position to start with, and do
the position changes in different orders). I prefer this to doing a
set routine for the ring (but that’s me all over…). He taught a
distance emergency sit in puppy class, by giving the verbal “sit” at
a moderate distance, then having the handlers move in towards their
puppies and gently take them by the collar and give the palm upward
sit signal. It only took a few repetitions before the puppies were
breaking from their play and sitting on voice alone from a distance.
Obviously you can vary this technique if you want to work on hand
signal alone.

You need to be aware that the dog has to learn the physical task of
each position change, as well as the end position, so sit from a
stand is different from sit from a down. Make sure the dog is
physically conditioned to the process of leveraging herself up into a
stand from a drop (for example). The muscles have to learn, as well
as the brain.

The general methods I am talking about here, of course, are lure-
reward, with the lure being phased out, the lure hand movement
becoming a hand signal, and the food given only as a reward after the
correct behaviour. It is a system that works if you follow the steps.
You will all have your own preferences for how to transition to using
intermittent reinforcement and/or conditioned reinforcers, which I
don’t need to go into here. Some people may prefer clicker, which is
perfectly fine, as long as you realise it is a precision instrument,
and you have to break each exercise into training steps, and be aware
of what exactly you are clicking. For example, in this specific step
along the way, are you clicking your dog for *how* she stands up, or
for ending up in a stand position? And if you don’t know, how can to
teach your dog?

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