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More Articles

Where Obedience Leaves Off and Freestyle Starts
A Rose Is A Rose Is A Rose
The Freestyle Challenge
Getting Started With Freestyle
Definition of Freestyle and Structure of a Freestyle Performance
More Than Just Heeling
Creative Development of Movement
Music, Rhythm and Freestyle
Understanding Required Moves
Do I Have to Dance?
Freestyle - A Point of View
Training: a New Mindset
My Introduction to Training a Freestyle Dog
It Takes Three - The Audience
Choreography: How to Begin
40x50 Feet: The Empty Canvas
Rhythm: The Great Organizer
What is a Guild

Front and Finish Articles

Issue One - Teaching Side Steps
Judges' Comments
Commands: Getting Personal
New Steps for Old Bones
How to Plan a Demo
Presentation Elements

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Backing, from beside, in front of, or at almost any other position relative to the handler, is a required move on the part of the dog in CFF-style freestyle at levels III and IV and should be a maneuver a freestyle dog at any level should know. Through its execution and duration, good backing can showcase the technical skills, athleticism and precison of the dog. Creative placement of backsteps in the ring space and to the music emphasizes the beat of the music, and adds texture and directional changes to enhance the artistry of the routine. For some dogs (including my sometimes distracted Cajun), switching from forward or in-place movements to backing up, particularly from front position, is a way to immediately grab his attention. Backing up can be not only an interesting way to transition into changes of directions or movement but can also add moments to collect one's (and one's dog's) breath. It should be an integral part of each performance but if not taught correctly, and with sensitivity to the dog's conditioning, could result in a cramped, crooked and/or painful activity for the dog.

So, how to teach? Let me start our discussion by describing how Ann Fox Melchior, an obedience instructor colleague, presents trick training to basic obedience class students. She asks them to tell her the difference between training good "manners" or obedience commands and training tricks. Most students ponder and give variations of "tricks are more for fun," "you don't have to wean off food for trick training," "audiences are more impressed by tricks": thoughtful responses but not quite on the mark. The answer to the difference between obedience and trick training is, of course: "nothing"! Training is training, no matter what the end product or how the audience perceives it. With that in mind, Ann then briefly outlines some learning theory and gives the class the assignment to present in four weeks' time a trick each has taught her dog, at home, based on classwork and principles of learning. During Ann's own presentation of tricks, she discusses how one of the best ways to choose a trick to train is to observe your dog, discover an action the dog offers on its own, and put a name to it! Serendipity! Cause or wait for the behavior to happen, reward and name it, and chances are, the dog will repeat it. It is far easier, she advises, to perfect a trick based on behavior the dog already offers, than to start from scratch and train an action perhaps foreign to your dog's personality and repertoire.

In keeping with Ann's good advice and with teaching backsteps as a goal, watch your dog to see when it backs on its own. When your dog is watching and wanting to play, try picking up an object to throw and see if your dog backs up at all, in anticipation of the throw. Crouch and pretend to stalk your dog head-on, if this doesn't make him uncomfortable. He may back up. The fastest and easiest way I have taught all my dogs and most of my students' dogs to back from in front is to pick up the (hungry) dog's filled food bowl and walk a step or two toward the dog. Invariably, and maybe in addition to a few leaps and spins (name them, too!) and drool, the dog takes a step or two backwards to keep its gaze locked on the progress of the upheld food bowl. As soon as a backstep occurs, I mark and and name it with a "yes! Good BACK!" and then reward the dog with the meal. Don't aim for numerous steps or chances are the dog will veer from one side to the other or offer something else after backing. Reward small increments and only gradually ask for more.

If your dog seems never to back, or at least not when you can catch him, try placing him between a large piece of furniture (bed, sofa, etc.) and a wall. Position him so he is facing you with his hind end pointed toward the only way out. Slowly walk toward him, perhaps with food closed in your hand at his head level, and urge him to back out. If he smells the food in your hand but can't immediately get it, you will keep his head and focus at a level to prevent jumping up or on the bed, but he will be gently forced to find his way backwards, as long as you have made the channel narrow enough to prevent his turning around to escape. Again, reward AS SOON AS you get even one small step back. Sometimes, I actually place the morsel of food against the dog's teeth while gently walking into him, so that he is forced to back up to give himself space to free his teeth and grasp the food. (If your dog continually sits, even before you can get the the food in position near his mouth, YOU back up a few steps to get him up and moving toward you and then suddenly lower the food to his mouth or even his chest and try to surprise him into a backstep.) Once you get a reliable straight response with a few steps, gradually ask for more and more steps but quit before the dog goes crooked. At this point, I can't urge enough (although by now you may think so) to proceed slowly--not only for accurate results--but to insure that the dog does not incur discomfort from too much backing, before he is conditioned to it.

Once your dog is backing reliably from the front position you can vary it by starting the dog at an angled front, perpendicular to your body, at a distant front, or as you also back away. The training is the same: you have the action (backing) on verbal and perhaps hand cue, you reward when the dog is actually performing the move, you up the requirements (more steps, more distance away, etc.) before rewarding, etc. You might also try adding a spin, drop, or sit--or even just a pause--between backsteps for drama, punctuation, or interest. In my newest routine, I am experimenting with backs and comefores to reflect a recurring "backward and forward" phrase in my music. Backs can be graceful and flowing, or (particularly in the case of long-backed, short-legged dogs like corgis and dachshunds) bouncy and staccato-like punctuation marks. Both types, performed well, are eye-catching additions to any routine.

Backing in heel (right or left) position seems to be harder for many dogs than backing from in front. It is a maneuver not required much even in advanced obedience training, except for perhaps the turn preceding the send-out to gloves in utility. Many advanced obedience dogs do know a "scoot-back," which I chose to describe a dog scooting back on its rear end in a sit to better achieve a straight sit or heel position. In freestyle, there may be times you want a scoot-back, but the majority of the time you will probably want a backing-at-heel in a standing position.

To teach this, certainly reward and name it any time you catch the dog doing it on his own, although this is far less likely to occur naturally than is backing from in front. I have to confess, that although I believe in giving every little move its own name for clarity, I use some version of "back" or "get back" for both front backs and side backs. The dog is doing the same maneuver, just in different positions relative to my body. (My dog has become so attuned to my body language, I'm not certain how seriously he listens to what I SAY, anyway!)

Probably the easiest way to start teaching a back in the heel position is to place the dog in heel position in a stand between your body and an empty wall (such as in a hallway, against a building, etc.), so that he is in a narrow channel. Assuming he is in traditional (left) heel position, hold his buckle collar with your left hand, place food in your right hand, and gently press the food against his teeth at slightly LOWER than his head level. Using your left leg as a gentle guide to keep him close to the wall, step backward with the left leg, press with the food and tug backward slightly on the collar, just enough to get him to take one step back in response to the collar tug and to create enough space between your hand and his mouth to enable his taking the food. Work just for one backward step and reward. Don't ask for long series of steps, because he will probably try to swing away from the wall with his rear--not what you want and the beginning of crooked backs! Slowly, as he gets the idea, ask for more steps and occasionally tell him to heel and step forward a few steps (still against the wall), to relieve any muscle and/or brain stress. Again, if the dog continually tries to sit, try holding the food lower or even against his chest, so he HAS to back away to even locate the food.

Once the dog performs well in your "channel," try it in heel position away from the wall, asking for only one or two steps back in the beginning, to insure he is straight. A command to mean "get your butt in, dog-gone it" is a valuable tool in the transition from channel to just heel position.--one I continually use in the performance of backing-at-heel even more than the actual "back" command! I guarantee that your dog will at some point start backing crookedly and a good "get in!" at this point is well worth training. You can't say "no," because crooked or not, the dog is still backing. Be proactive and supportive and use your "get in" (or "get out," as the case may be) command instead.

When your dog is performing well on one side of your body, it is time for the dreaded switch to the other side of your body--usually the weaker (in terms of training) side. I would advocate starting over against the wall and progressing the same way as on the original heeling side. I do use the same command to back, but my command for being on that side (the right) is "side" versus "heel."

As I am a trainer from the Dark Ages in some respects, I am still not handy with a clicker. I do know, however, that using a clicker to train backs would probably speed up the process considerably. Give it a try.

Backs are fun. Cajun loves to back. Perhaps too much. He backs if I look at him from in front, if I hold a ball or treat and say nothing, if I say "do something." If I am holding his food bowl, he can back literally around the whole kitchen table. I have to be extra careful in my handling of him in front position, because of this, and now he is enthusiastically backing and grinning (bowing and scraping?) if I pause during heeling and glance at him, particularly if my gaze travels to his rear. In a Belgian's mind, there is no such thing as "too much." I guess if "too much" means extra spirit, enthusiasm, and a willingness to please (thus eat), I can't have gone "too much" too wrong.

Do take the time to train backs and train them slowly, allowing the dog time to get his body conditioned to what may be a new maneuver. Experiment with positioning and number of backsteps, combinations with other movements, and use of backing as a reflection of your music or as a transition between phrases of music and movement. Your dog may come to enjoy it as much as mine does, and it will become a valuable element in your routine.

Upcoming Events

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Pun N Iron - Canine Fitness & Learning Center
Stafford, VIrginia
November 10-11 2007
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