Disc Dog Training is not a Race

Disc Dog Reverse Chest VaultAt Pawsitive Vybe we train disc dogs. That’s what’s special about us. Our philosophy and training techniques work on dogs with drive ranges from low to high.

Almost all disc doggers start playing the game because they have a dog that just jams, right out of the blocks, the dog is jamming. Many of us don’t realize that there is a need for training until we have a need to train. I speak of this from personal experience.

Kimo was jamming at 12 weeks. He jumped over the back of the couch at 16 weeks. When we’d play disc in the yard he always wanted to play with the Ultimate Disc, a 175g monster that he tripped over on the retrieve. And speaking of a retrieve, I don’t remember ever having to teach him one.

Fast forward nearly 14 years and take Prima for example. She’s just now turning on at 3 years old – just starting to jam. Kiva? Same thing.

You might know 2009 Skyhoundz World Champions, Mark Muir and Gipper, but what you might not know is that Mark had a devil of a time getting Gipper to play. Mark told me that Gipper didn’t really turn on as a disc dog until he was 2.5 years old. If you’re a member of K9Disc.com, you can do a search on “Gipper” and get a good idea of how slow disc dog development can frustrate the best of handlers.

Some dogs come out of the whelping box jamming and some need to be taught. That’s the way it is. The point is that disc dog development is not a race and the sooner you stop looking at rapid development and comparing your pups development with that of another dog, the sooner you’ll be on the right page and working with your dog.

Instead of asking,”Why isn’t my 16 week old pup doing this?” Start doing other things with your 16 week old pup that your pup does well. This will lead to a quality disc game.

Learning vs Being Taught

Our first disc dog learns it all. They learn to catch our crappy throws – left, right, in the dirt, 30 feet in the air falling like a stone. They learn how to deal with the rudimentary communication that a new dog trainer gives. They learn how to read our cues, even though those cues are not constant, they’re developing. Our first dog is learning at the same time his or her handler is learning. The team learns together.

The second and third disc dog we train are taught. They are taught how to play the game. The handler knows (kind of…? 😉 )what we are doing. Disc placement is better because we know where to put it (for our first dog) and our throwing skills are better so we can put it there. Set up moves are taught quickly then used to play Frisbee.

Our skills as a handler on our second and third dog are much better so we’re able to muscle the learning process, to make things happen far more efficiently than our first dog. Our second and third dog may wind up surpassing our first dog’s capabilities in many ways, but there seems to be more frustration and roadblocks galore.

Why is this?

Because our first dog learned with us, they have a deep and wide understanding of the game. “Hups, he threw another crappy throw, better run it down.” “Oh, I know what she means here, it’s kind of like that go around thingy…” They wind up with a good foundation because they’ve literally seen it all.

Our second and third dogs wind up with a shallow foundation because we as handlers make so much of the game happen. They do so much more, so many more skills, so many more tricks, but the foundation is lacking. They can’t handle the crappy throws because they don’t have the experience handling them. They can’t decipher poor communication because our communication is so much more standardized. They literally do more with less.

Our second and third dogs are often not capable of learning as well because they expect to be taught. If we don’t have the training skills to effectively teach, we’re going to wind up with problems. Which is where much of the developmental roadblocks in puppies begin. The trainer does not have sufficient skill to teach the dog the complex behavior chains that are Dog Frisbee. If one link is weak or broken and the trainer doesn’t have the chops to break it down, isolate and strengthen or develop that particular piece of behavior, the whole game can break down.

Help, He’s 16 Weeks Old and Won’t Retrieve!

Someone recently contacted me with this problem. It reminds me of Mark “Oh, I don’t know about Gipper…” Muir… lol.

As Mark now knows, it doesn’t matter. There are many other things to work on in the game other than a retrieve.

I could play an entire game of freestyle with a dog that doesn’t retrieve. We can teach set up moves. We can build drive. We can work on socializing the pup to the rigors of disc dog competition and making them a good stable dog in public.

I contacted Mark and asked when Gipper started to really play. Here is part of his response:
[testimonial featured=”true” img=”http://profile.ak.fbcdn.net/hprofile-ak-snc4/hs346.snc4/41466_1476922826_6994118_q.jpg” company=”Georgia Irish Disc Dogs” url=”http://georgiairishdiscdogs.com”]It might have been when he was around 2 and half. I think Chuck Middleton told one of his dogs did not start until they were five. Once I quit putting pressure on Gipper is when he changed. I focused on his positive things and built off of that instead of stressing me and him out on the negatives. It is a lot more fun now training Irish and thunder now as I don’t stress out on the small things and I am content on small small, short fun and short successful steps now.[/testimonial]
Well if that doesn’t just about say it all…

If your 16 week old pup is catching but not retrieving, who cares!? Keep catching.

If your 16 week old pup is playing with discs but can’t catch, Who Cares!? Play with that disc.

If your 16 week old pup won’t bite and tug but is killing rollers, Who Cares!? Have fun with those rollers.

I had a monster swing as a pee-wee baseball player, but couldn’t hit. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I started to hit well. .450 is not a bad batting average. During my pee-wee years, I wasn’t a great hitter, but I could field like nobody’s business and was a heck of a pitcher. When I started playing baseball in College I could run, throw and hit. Funny how things work out that way, isn’t it?

As a ballplayer, I was allowed and encouraged to do the things that I did well and I kept playing the game. All of the tools came together in the end because I loved to play the game.

When we get all caught up in one small aspect of the game, especially when we’re talking about puppies – effectively toddlers or kindergarteners – we’re going to take a good deal of the fun out of the game and we might lose out on the love of the game helping to bring all the pieces together.

Foundation, Foundation, Foundation!

Disc Dog Puppy Training“That’s all well and good, but what do I do if my pup is not jamming?”

If your puppy doesn’t have the whole game of disc dialed in there are many things you can do.

Work on set up moves and flatwork. Set up moves and flatwork enable dog and handler to move as a team. Once your dog is jamming you (and possibly your dog) won’t want to take time out from full on play to work on set up moves. Count yourself blessed that you have the opportunity to teach these skills with a little learning machine.

You can acclimate your puppy to playing (any kind of game) in as many environments as possible. The back yard, the front yard, the park, around food, around people, on the beach. Knocking these distractions out of the way early can ensure that when your pup is ready to jam in a contest that he or she is not going to be distracted and check out during your jam. Socialization is key, a disc dog contest is only 5 minutes on the field and 8 hours around the field. If your dog is bulletproof around the field, odds are you’ll have a better performance in your 5 minutes on the field.

You can play the game of disc with tennis balls, tugs, squeaky toys, whatever your dog likes. So what if he’s not doing it with frisbees at 16 weeks. If you can build a love of biting, dropping and retrieving toys at a young age, it won’t be hard to adapt that game to discs as the dog is older.

You can work on rear end awareness and general kinesthetics. Cavaletti’s, ladderwork, and ballwork are all important foundation. These things can be worked at any time.

Teach your dog to learn. Taking time to shape behaviors and develop a strong communication method is an invaluable piece of any sport foundation. If your dog knows how to learn and you and your dog can communicate, then you can teach them anything.


  1. Tania

    A hard lesson, but an important one. Thanks Ron!

    1. Ron Watson Post author

      We’ve got so much to work on over here, lots of dogs, Tania, that the lesson is pretty easy.

      It’s much harder to do with one or two disc dogs.

      Thanks for reading!

  2. Jason

    I went thru a really frustrating month with my dogs where I was off and so they were off and we were not having fun. I stopped playing and started introspecting-I learned right then that I needed to focus on having fun with my dogs right where they were. I was too focused on results – and I wasn’t getting them and my frustration was confusing my dogs. As soon as my mindset changed , all the sudden the dogs and I had fun and the learning accelerated. And then at camp this summer Ron you reminded us that it is a process. It’s easy to go to a competition and see so many great teams and want to emulate their style and success. The past month or two I can really see how like many things – canine disc is a game that you can learn quickly but take a lifetime to master. Just playing with a few different dogs expands the skill set required. I still get caught up in thinking i should be better, then I just think how cool it is that we do what we do already 😉

  3. Tracy

    Thanks for a great article! I can remember many years ago when I first adopted RaccoonJack. He was about 1.5 yrs old. I had been competing with Five for a couple years with some good success. I so wanted and expected Jack to ‘get it’ just like Five did. But instead, I had this crazy jumping, super high drive dog who couldn’t catch a cold, much less a disc. I admit, I was really hard on him those first few months. And then at some point, I just came to the conclusion that he was never going to be a “Five”, and we would just be happy with Jack being Jack. That was the year he started to get it. It’s like Mark said – as soon as you remove the pressure to perform, your relationship with your dog begins to flourish, and then the magic happens.

    I find I still have to keep my expectations in check, and I really think it is due to performing with my dogs as a career. I don’t just want my dogs to play, I need them to play. I know many other performers who struggle with dogs that shut down, and I honestly think it is due to those larger-than-life expectations. Great topic, hope many will read it and take something positive away from it!


  4. Kirby

    This advice is very timely on my end! I have an almost 6 month old Hungarian Mudi who is an awesome, spit fire of a little dude. I love him, sometimes he drives me nuts, but 99% of the time, he is awesome. He loves to learn, has a TON of energy is so much fun to work with. He is my first “true” herding dog, but certainly not the first dog I’ve trained or the first one that I will compete with… but in just the three months that he has been with me, I have already become a better handler and trainer. I am always teaching him and he is always teaching me. I LITERALLY just got off the phone with my dog trainer friend and was complaining about Griff (the pup) “Well, he is getting better at rollers, and he is wicked at retrieving and bringing EVERYTHING back to me… but WHEN he is going to be able to catch stuff out of the air?” I am training Griff man to do agility and some herding.. maybe fly ball. But I really think he would LOVE (I know I would) the disc dog thing. So… on that note… what exactly is “jamming” and when will I know that we’re doing it?! I LOVE the points about learning vs being taught… you have given me lots to think about! Thank you!

  5. Andrea

    thanx for posting this ron. it’s helping me alot with my little synner. 🙂

  6. M Doremus

    So right on and true! With the first dog, we are so amazed, appreciative and celebrate anything and everything they do. We didn’t get the first dog for the sport, we got them for a pet, to be our friend, they didn’t feel the pressure to play and especially to win. The first dogs are the ones who get us in the sport, they are the ones who make it seem so easy. The expectations and pressure on the second dog is tremendous, but it is the second dog who teaches us the most!

  7. Mary M

    Love this post, oh sooooo true…..as you know I am learning, and BTW now preaching this to the class I am assisting with teaching.

    And this post can be applied to all dog sports, I would say as well.

    FYI – Tala impressed me today in class about three different ways:

    1) On her contact she performed incorrect criteria, so no reward, went back asked for the behavior again, and she nailed it, I could almost see her wheels turning regarding what she did incorrectly and what she executed (better than normal) the second time. [In my head I thought success – I have a dog in high-drive who is thinking through the situation.]

    2) She handled another dog on the sideline, who was screaming when anyone of us would run our dogs, really well….totally ignored the whining and screaming (in the same ring) and performed perfectly [Again in my mind success – I have a dog who is so into the work that the craziness of the environment doesn’t phase her]

    3) She worked through a handling mistake (I made), yes she barked at me for a minute, but she gave it her all to perform well when I screwed up…..and did not seek out reinforcement from the environment when this went down (a huge feat for her!)….typically she would blow me off and seek out something more fun for her [Okay one more smile on my face success – Tala is able to move through a frustrating moment and continue to try]

    So while, yes, the other dogs might have ran a cleaner course tonight my little girl stuck with me through some mistakes I made in handling, corrected her mistakes when asked, and overall worked through her typical environmental stressors super well…..we both learned more about one another as a team today, and we both had a blast….she is something special, she has created a better trainer in me, and I hope she would say I have helped to create a thinking, more relaxed dog along the way for her.

    We are at one of those training cross roads again where I need to maintain letting go of the long term goals and continue to highly reinforce the moments of brilliance in our teamwork, more difficult now then in the beginning I think, because I have a pretty spectacular athlete who is so close to putting it all together….however this is a lesson I have learned with her already, and will heed throughout my time with her (as well as other dogs I have and work with).

    It is great to love your dog, but even greater to see more in your dog then you thought you could get from them, only through foundation (no matter the sport) can this be experienced 🙂

  8. Ann Wolo

    I swear you’re talking about me and Chance. Our chat a couple of weeks ago helped me tremendously with this. Janko & I did learn together and I was initially frustrated with Chance’s learning pace. But honestly, I probably have selective memory with Janko. Both Chance and I are making progress. He’s fully committed to being a puppy and I’m fully committed to accepting that. We have fun every day. I’m far less concerned about when things click. I pledge to re-read this post every month to keep me in check!

    But I was pumped yesterday when he got some small air leaping for a disc!


    1. Ron Watson Post author

      Talking about a lot of us, really, Apryl and I included.

      Glad you got something out of it.

  9. Ron Watson Post author

    Thanks for the comments everybody!
    Been a bit busy at the farm and have not been able to keep up with the comments here.

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