Training Tips: A Toy Motivated Sport

Tom Dropik of SportMutt has been a long time competitor, contributor, and 2004 DockDogs® Hall of Fame inductee. We felt that with all of his experience he would be a great handler to start with for our DockDogs® Training Tips series as a regular feature of the Latest From the Dock. 

A Toy Motivated Sport – Learning Extreme Vertical™ and Speed Retrieve™

Tom Dropik - SportMuttIt’s been a very exciting time for DockDogs® and the Sport of dock jumping. There have been so many new and exciting changes. Ever since I started my dock jumping ventures in 2001, DockDogs® has always been dedicated to building an environment that is safe, fun for everyone, and promotes growth and sportsmanship. The changes that DockDogs® have put in place over the last year are doing just that.

One of the more exciting changes is the Iron Dog™ divisions. Implementing the Titan and Warrior divisions really opens up an entirely new opportunity for teams that just can’t compete with the Big Dogs. The number of Iron Dog™ competitors has already increased this year and we have not even hit the bulk of the season. What the increase in Iron Dog™ competitors did was, not only increase the number of Big Air competitors, it really increased the number of competitors in Extreme Vertical™ (EV) and Speed Retrieve™ (SR).Tom Dropik of SportMutt Motivate Distance in Extreme Vertical

I thought this would be the Perfect opportunity to help all those teams out there that are interested in competing in Extreme Vertical™ and Speed Retrieve™ and ultimately Iron Dog™. So I’m going to talk about the basics on how to teach your dog these disciplines.

If you haven’t already, take a moment and read the SportMutt article “A Toy Motivated Sport” I talk about toy motivation in general and how to condition our dogs to perceive the toy as the reward; thus teaching them to perform in anticipation of receiving that reward. In the SportMutt article “Motivate the Distance” I talk about using that toy motivation to teach our dogs to run faster and jump harder and hopefully increase their distance in Big Air®. In this article I’d like to discuss how you utilize that toy motivation through proper marking techniques and dock work to help you and your dog achieve maximum results in EV and SR.

It starts with understanding the simple differences between Big Air®, Extreme Vertical™, and Speed Retrieve™. I say the “simple differences” because they really are simple. In Big Air® SPEED comes first and HEIGHT is secondary. In EV HEIGHT comes first and SPEED is secondary. In SR it’s ALL About SPEED. Also, in Big Air®, the toy has been, or is being tossed by you and the dog sees that. In EV or SR, the toy is NOT tossed by you. In EV and SR the toy is suspended a certain distance out from the dock and a certain distance off the surface of the water.

Now that we’ve identified the differences the training for each discipline becomes much more simple.
At SportMutt, we always start with the ‘toy being suspended challenge’ and work the SPEED and HEIGHT after that. The question really becomes “How do I get my dog to see the toy if he didn’t see me throw it and he didn’t see someone else throw it?”.

As in all dog training we always start short and close and progress from there. We start by setting the toy on the ground and not letting the dog see us do that. So we’ll put the toy on the ground while the dog is in the kennel or in a place where he can’t see us do that. Once the toy is on the ground we’ll go get the dog. We’ll keep him on a leash and walk him toward the toy. We’ll walk him slow until he is able to see the toy. At the same time we’ll use some verbal’s like “Where’s the bird?” or “Where’s the toy?”. This helps him associate those verbal’s to him looking for the toy. That way when we get on the dock we use those same verbal’s and he knows to start looking for the toy. Once your dog sees the toy you stop. Now, using some sort of motivated verbal like “Gonna Get It? Gonna Get It?”, and holding him back, let him get it. This entire routine has just taught your dog to get a visual on the toy when it wasn’t thrown by you or someone else. At the same time it’s using Toy Motivation to get him to go after it hard. From there it is a simple progression of putting distance between the dog and the toy.

Once you feel comfortable with this routine it’s time to suspend the toy off the ground. At SportMutt we’ll use an agility hurdle to accomplish this, but really it can be any creative method. We’ll hang 2 strings from the cross bar of the hurdle and clip the bumper to the strings, very similar to DockDogs® method of suspending the toy. We start with suspending the toy at eye level and keep it at eye level. For safety reasons, we don’t like to restrain from doing any jumping on dry land higher than that. Once the toy is suspended the routine becomes the same as before and progress from there.

Congratulations, you’ve just taught your dog to see a suspended toy. It’s now time to take it to the water. If you have access to a dock, that’s great. If you don’t have access to a dock, you’re going to have to work this at practice time during a DockDogs® event. Your dog has been trained to mark the toy at eye level, you’re going to want start on the dock with the toy as close to eye level as you can.

With EV, we start thinking about the speed and increasing the height. The important thing to remember with EV is simple; produce, as much HEIGHT as you can and use the necessary SPEED required getting your dog to the suspended toy. Since the toy is only 8’ feet out from the end of the dock, it doesn’t require near the speed that Big Air does. The dog needs to be slowed down. And we want to accomplish this without teaching him to run slow. The last thing we want to do in this game is to teach our dog to run slow, right? The right way to do this is to simply shorten his run on the dock. After years of studying other dogs, working with other dogs, and working with our own dogs, we at SportMutt have determined that a good rule of thumb is 3 strides. Start your dog back far enough for them to produce 3 strides to get them to the end. However, we’ve also learned that every dog is different and there are always exceptions to the rules.
When you get to the dock, see if you can get the toy to be suspended at eye level or as close to it as possible. When you get up on the dock go through the same routine you taught your dog on dry land. Keep him on leash, use the same verbal’s, and walk him to the end of the dock. If your training was successful on dry land, your dog will see the suspended toy. Now take him back 3 strides and use the same verbal’s “Gonna get it? Gonna get it?” Let him GO!

Congratulations, you now have an EXTREME VERTICAL jumper!

With SR, we start thinking about the Speed and not so much the Height. The important thing to remember with SR is simple, produce as much SPEED as you can. If you’ve read the “A Toy Motivated Sport” article on SportMutt you should have a good understanding about how the toy motivates the drive and it’s the drive that produces the SPEED. SR is a very simple game, in your dog’s mind anyway. Once he’s got an understanding of where that toy is and he’s been motivated to drive towards it, it’s up to us to clear his path and let him go at it. It’s important to use the same routine in practice that you’re going to use in competition. This teaches the dog it’s time to let loose. The start in SR is extremely important, Not only for timing the start clock, but also for getting a strong sprint up to speed. I suggest a sit at the starting line. The dogs rear legs are spring loaded and that gives them a much better push at the start than a stand would. Learn to get the dog excited while in that sit to get the toy using verbal commands. When you’re at the starting line and you’ve got your hands around the front of his chest, and he begins to push forward in to your hands, you KNOW he’s ready to go . . .

Congratulations, you now have a SPEED RETRIEVE racer!

From the DockDogs® Woldwide Headquarters we would like to thank Tom Dropik for his contributions to the sport, this article, and just for being part of the DockDogs® community.

What tips do you use when training for Speed Retrieve™ and Extreme Vertical™? Share your thoughts in the comments below.