Training Swimmer's Turns Using a Shoot

First, let me say that there are a lot of dog trainers with more flyball experience than I have and that have trained faster teams than ours so this is for sure not the final word on this subject.  I have developed this method to fit my own style of training from ideas I read on the flyball email list.   I have heard Jacqueline Parkin is the originator of the shoot in flyball training, although I have seen no mention of it in her highly recommended book.

It has been my experience that most trainers do a lot of things in similar ways but no two trainers do everything completely the same.  I don't even do everything I do the same every time.  You may use different techniques and I'd enjoy hearing about them.  

Take a look at the picture to the right.  This is an example of a body stressing box technique.  Why?  The dog goes to the box over 75 to 100 or so feet, running full tilt.  It slows a bit (maybe) before hitting the box with those two front paws and comes to a full stop with the dog's front end taking the shock.  Imagine running full speed at a wall and stopping yourself with your hands.  Ouch, that's gotta hurt.  Over time this may cause injuries and will certainly cause excessive wear on the joints.  This is the box work many teams (including ours) start out teaching.

Take a look at the pictures below.  The top two are the same dog performing a swimmer's turn off a two hole box after being retrained using a shoot.  What happens now is that Hale comes down the course full tilt and makes a slight alteration in her line of travel after the last jump, just a foot or fourteen inches to the right.  That allows her to approach the box at a small angle, and instead of 'hitting' the box, she actually jumps onto the box pedal, catching the ball as her front feet land and then pushing off with her rear.  Instead of dissipating her forward momentum she converts it to motion in a different direction.  The bottom two pictures are of Pepper doing the turn.  Note that both dogs are getting all four paws up on the box pedal.


If the health issues aren't enough to persuade you to retrain for a swimmer's turn let me tell you what happened to our team after we did.  We gained an average of 0.25 seconds per dog, and our average speed is now more than a second faster than it was before retraining the turn, and we are bettering our times every time we go out. 


Here's how we did it.  First we needed a shoot, so I made one, and a pair of two hole boxes.  (for info on this check the links to those pages from our index page)

There are four ball stations on the shoot, shown right.  Keela is just coming off with a ball from the top right station.  Its black velcro, but you can see it just above her rear towards the side. 

The box turn I wanted to shape in the dogs is as illustrated above, jump on, jump off with little wasted momentum.  To do this, I first had to place the ball high enough on the Shoot that the dog had to climb the shoot to get it otherwise they might just reach up and take it while stopped facing the shoot.  Still, the dog might just run up the shoot, so I placed a jump in front.  No problem, they know how to handle jumps, so over they went, landing on the shoot ramp.  It was natural for them to turn their head towards the ball that was at the side of the shoot because they have to pick it up, and where the head goes, the body follows.  So began the first stage of shaping the turn.  Also, since this was new for the dogs I made it easy for them to stay on the shoot by setting it at a 15 degree angle the first week and for the first couple of jumps the second week, when I changed the angle to 30 degrees.  The dogs performed the jump take turn jump at 30 degrees that week and part of the third week, when I moved the angle to 45 degrees.  None of the dogs had any problems transitioning from angle to angle in this manner. 


On the fifth week we did a couple of runs with the jump in place and then removed it and placed the cardboard corner supports in place to remind the dogs to still jump.  They did.  Weeks five and six were like that, upper ball stations and the white cardboard reminders. (Thanks Brenda)  Each week the dogs were doing about 20 reps, almost 100 a month.

On week seven we started with the balls in the upper ball stations and then changed to the lower ball stations.  The behavior held!  The dogs automatically adjusted their landing point but if they hadn't, I would have brought the ball stations down very gradually, perhaps 2 inches a week.  The lower ball stations are in the approximate position they are on the two hole boxes, so at this point we are setting the dogs up for the box, working reps to build muscle memory and cement the jumping style in their minds.  I find it takes three weeks to a month of working an exercise to be able to say it is trained, then repeating it regularly will make it part of the dog's life.  


Weeks eight and nine we worked the shoot in that configuration as well.  On week 10 we did some runs on the shoot, then shifted to the two hole box with the same physical barriers as the shoot.  (see the picture at the right)  We went a month like this, a little shoot work and then change to a box set up the same.  We spent the last couple of weeks practicing the box alone.  We were successful with five out of six of the dogs we worked with, the exception was Hans, a large male Doberman, and I have the feeling he is just not physically comfortable doing it.  But we're not finished with him yet, the pictures supplied by Jayne McQuillen and her team have given us a method that Hans is responding to.


One of the things I have heard often is that retraining a turn won't hold.  Under tournament conditions the dog will revert to its former box style.  This is not so.  If the retraining is complete and done correctly that will not happen - if the dog reverts to his old style the training was not complete.  It took us from January to April to retrain the turn on our dogs, about 400 reps for dogs that had probably done 1500 reps of the hit and turn style over a period of 15 months.

During the process I'm sure my teammates must have thought I'd lost it - doing all this shoot work with trained dogs - what has a shoot to do with training swimmer's turns anyhow? but they never said a word, just kept doing as I asked and I thank them for their patience and trust.