Canine Disc: Converting Prey to Play
Currently, the popular appeal of herding breeds, most notably the Border Collie and Australian Shepherd, presents an ever increasing need to redirect the strong prey drive of dogs that were bred to work stock - dogs who have ended up living in a city or subdivision devoid of any true necessity for their special talents. Like fish out of water, these extremely intelligent animals flail about often times creating work where none is available. It is not uncommon to hear stories of dogs chasing cats, kids and cars, racing up and down fence lines wearing bear spots in sodded backyards and barking incessantly while their owners are away. These aberrations of the stock dogs' natural drive are the same reasons many of them are misunderstood and, in turn, abandoned or given up for adoption. The challenge for the owner of an urban herding dog is to understand the needs of the animal and, in turn, appropriately focus the drive that is such an integral part of the dog's heritage.
The first issue is one of management. As strange as it might sound an urban herding dog is more akin to a tool than a pet. This is a simple truth that will help anyone understand the behavior of the urban herding dog. These dogs were bred to help farmers or shepherds in the daily work of running a farm or livestock operation. They save time and considerable effort as do many valuable farm implements and like good tools, these animals should not be left out lest they get lost, broken or misused. Until trained, avoiding the inherent pitfalls of owning a dog that is high in drive requires the owner to confine the animal or "put the dog up" when left unattended. A crate or kennel becomes, in essence, the urban herding dog's tool box. If the owner can get past the erroneous notion that confining the dog is cruel and is not used as a form of punishment, they will reduce the opportunities for their "tool" to find its way into work considered unnecessary - work many people would just assume was left undone.
The "tool" analogy applies to the care of the urban herding dog as well. Fuel, and maintenance equate to proper nutrition and veterinary health care. These are the key ingredients to keeping that "chain saw" running smoothly around your house.
Along with the inherently strong prey drive, these breeds, when properly cared for, have abundant reserves of energy and endurance necessary for their work. The physical requirements of the urban herding dog are demanding. The owner must meet the challenges of giving their dog the regular exercise it truly needs. If left to their own devices, the energy these dogs possess will work in concert with the high drive and create a nightmare for the unsuspecting owner of the urban herding dog. If properly channeled and given an appropriate release, these same traits can create a bond and relationship between dog and owner that can be enjoyed for a lifetime.
The task of harnessing the dog's drive or channeling that drive toward an activity that is acceptable quickly becomes the fundamental responsibility for the owner of an urban herding dog. Before undertaking this process, a basic understanding of these dogs' primary drive is helpful.
What is commonly considered "herding instinct" is, in reality, a function of the dogs' prey drive. Simply stated, prey drive is a dog's desire to pursue anything moving. The behaviors resulting from this type of drive include the pursuit, catching and carrying of a moving object. The prey drive is initiated by the flight (as in fleeing) of the object and is measurable in terms of the dog's intensity. Left unchecked, the presence of this drive quickly becomes evident in the urban herding dog through undesirable manifestations such as car, children, cat, squirrel and bicycle chasing. Unfortunately for the dog, these activities are not acceptable behaviors in our society and, at best, result in an unmanageable animal and, in the worst case scenario, can lead to the untimely death of the family pet.
To date, the best outlet for prey drive that I have found (aside from taking the dog to stock on a regular basis which can be incredibly time consuming and expensive) is turning the dog onto the Frisbee or flying disc - replacing the stock with the plastic so to speak. It is a rather simple process for a truly driven dog and relatively accessible with very few material requirements. Other outlets include agility and flyball, but neither of these activities offer such easy access as tossing your dog the Frisbee. Some people prefer a tennis ball, and while this activity is easily accessible and will give your dog an opportunity to focus its prey drive and expend pent up energy, it lacks the variety and interest of the flying disc. In addition, it is a little known fact that the colored dye used on tennis balls is indeed toxic. With these facts in mind, the remainder of this article will be devoted to converting the prey drive of an urban herding dog into a desire to play disc.
In essence, disc play with your dog is just an elaborate game of retrieval. Retrieval can be taught with any number of objects and many times it is appropriate to begin training with something less intimidating than a hard plastic disc. Many people actually turn their dogs off to the disc in the early stages of training because the animal is struck by the disc due to the owners over exuberance and lack of forethought. Don't make this mistake. Start out with something soft and easy for the dog to sink its teeth into. Rope, rubber and faux fleece toys serve this purpose quite well. Regardless of what you choose, be certain it is something both you and your dog will be comfortable using. The object must be easy to throw and pick up.
Before you begin, choose your retrieval object and make sure you have at least two that are very similar or identical. Being able to exchange one item for another of equal or better value is a crucial element in converting prey drive to play and will help you avoid accidentally training the dog to play keep away.
Once you have decided on the appropriate retrieval object you can begin to incite your dog to play tug-o-war through agitation. Offer one of the objects to your dog without being intimidating and encourage the dog to take hold. If he takes the object in his mouth, praise him verbally and let him win a brief game of tug. Actually let the dog pluck it from your hand. Letting him win will be contrary to the his expectations (he will expect you to want to win) and the driven dog should rejoice in the victory. Again, contrary to the dog's expectations that you will want to regain control of the object, back away. Most dogs, when confronted by your retreat, will follow. Stop as the dog begins to follow and positively reinforce your dog with verbal praise and display the second retrieval object. As soon as he drops the first object in exchange for the second, release the second object and repeat the exercise from the beginning.
One possible obstacle you might encounter with this technique is a lack of interest in the retrieval object. Building drive is a topic for another article and is rarely an issue for dogs that display high prey drive, but this difficulty can be overcome with patience and proper conditioning. Briefly, some suggestions for building interest and drive include making playful gestures and noise by lightly slapping two objects together; tossing one of the objects in the air for yourself or for someone else; playing catch or monkey in the middle; and, letting your dog watch another trained dog playing retrieval while keeping your dog restrained. If you succeed in putting an apparent value on the object and making it appear interesting to you, it should become interesting to your dog.
Another problem that might occur is the dreaded game of keep away. This problem can be solved with a long line attached to the dog's collar and by enthusiastically presenting the second object while showing no interest in the object the dog currently holds in its mouth. Be sure to release the second object the moment the first one is dropped. You want the dog to think that it is causing you to deliver the second object by dropping the first. With the hard-core keep away artist you must be prepared to hold out and walk away from the game after only one toss. This could go on for several sessions before this undesirable behavior is extinguished. Remember, it takes two to play keep away and, if you refuse to play, the game cannot start. Having accomplished this simple retrieval exercise, you can begin to throw the retrieval object rather than playing tug. Make the throws short and easy for the dog to track. When the first object is securely in the dogs mouth, say the dog's name and show him the second object by waving it in clear sight. Do not release the second object until the first has been dropped. In this way, the second retrieval object becomes the reward for releasing the first. A proper exchange. Ideally, the dog should start to think that it is in control of the process. He'll say to himself, "Look at that! I drop this one and he throws another. I'm getting him pretty well trained."
If you throw the second item in the opposite direction of the first, careful to keep yourself in the middle of the action, this will help build the dog's focus on you as the center of activity. To do this properly you must make sure that as the dog goes for the thrown object you are busy picking up the one it has just dropped. Many people miss this small detail because they are so enthralled with the work their dog is doing. You must maintain the dog's attention by maintaining the momentum of the game. Don't find yourself empty handed and in doing so miss the opportunity to continue the training. Try to make the dog think it needs to hurry back to get another.
When this simple retrieval game becomes reliable you can begin to put the various behaviors on cue. "Get it", "bring it", and "drop it" are common signals or commands for these behaviors, but any appropriate cues will suffice.
All the while you are teaching proper retrieval, you can be conditioning your dog to the presence of the plastic disc. The tried and true method of familiarizing your dog to the Frisbee is to simply turn the disc upside down and use it as a feeding dish. Be sure not to leave it down as the dog might take the opportunity to have the disc for dessert. By feeding the dog in the disc you are creating a positive association with the sight, smell and feel of the disc.
When both of the steps described above have been accomplished, the disc can be used in lieu of the aforementioned retrieval objects. Once again you must have two identical discs. Many people are fond of the Soft Bite Floppy Discs which are made from a durable cloth that is easy on the dog's mouth. Whatever type of disc you opt to use, you will want to lower your standards and go back to the tug-o-war retrieval game until the dog is comfortable with the disc in its mouth.
At this point there is an important transitional technique that is used to build the dog's confidence before asking the dog to catch a disc in flight. This technique requires the thrower to roll the disc instead of simply throwing it. A rolling Frisbee allows the dogs to actually seize the disc while it is spinning without the added difficulty of catching it in the air. Don't skip this step. When the dog is reliably snagging the disc while it is in motion you are ready to start throwing the Frisbee in the air. For the dog's first throw, look for a day with a slight breeze blowing consistently in one direction. After a brief warm-up, roll a disc down wind and, as the dog is coming back for the another, make a very easy throw into the wind. Try to lead the dog. Make it virtually impossible to miss. If the dog catches it or attempts to catch it, praise the dog lavishly and repeat the exercise. If he simply watches it and lets it fall to the ground, go back to building drive and desire by lowering your standards to where the dog is once again successful. Build confidence with success. Work the rollers and then go back to attempting the throw and catch. Remember that a disc that has fallen on the ground, no longer moving, represents very little interest as prey. The disc has to be moving to trigger the prey drive and maintain the dog's interest and enthusiasm.
When you finally have your dog catching and returning the disc with the expectation of getting another one thrown, you have successfully converted prey to play. It may not solve all your prey drive problems, but it will give the dog a job that will satisfy many of its needs.
Converting prey to play in the urban herding dog takes a lot of patience, coordination and management when dealing with a highly driven animal. The commitment required has its price but the rewards are great. As a training tool it is invaluable and the control and attention it develops is priceless. Many people have turned to disc play or some other type of less sophisticated retrieval game as a form of self defense from their urban herding dog. Some people even say that before they started playing disc with their dog they had considered putting the dog up for adoption. And now, after focusing the dog on a job that it can use its natural talents for, the dog is their best friend and neither the owner nor the dog can wait to get to the field on a nice afternoon. This story is quite common and hardly a surprise anymore. It is simply a recurring testament to the fact that canine disc performance is truly the salvation of the urban herding dog.