Fixing a Dog Who Can’t Catch – Part 1 of 2

sometimes dogs learn the funniest things. like Viper here… he thinks the object of the game is to pick up the disc off the ground. unlearning that and teaching a catch can be a tough job. here’s a session from a recent disc dog camp on solving this problem.

Jaimie & Viper came to disc dog camp over the New Year down in Florida. She has a fleet of awesome dogs that do a great job working with their handler. Before camp she told me that she had a dog who couldn’t catch that she wanted me to take a look at. I was pretty excited, as I thought we might get a chance to fix a real common problem live at camp and also on video. Well, here it is…

Viper is a super bright, perhaps too bright, border collie. He pattern trains really, really fast. You can see it here in this video. These dogs are sometimes quite difficult to deal with. Jaimie calls Viper “Special”. Somewhere along the line, Viper got the idea that catching the disc was about picking it up off the ground, so Viper either knocked it down or waited for it to drop.

I wish there was more video to show the problem, it was super obvious that Viper did not understand the criteria of catching a moving target. It must have given Jaimie more than a few grey hairs. Fixing this problem can be maddening. Here’s how I went about solving this issue, it’s a pretty standard method of operation for us here at Pawsitive Vybe.


The problem here with Viper, and it’s a common one, is that he believes that the object is to pick the disc up off the ground. The criteria of teeth on, or bite the disc, while moving is just not installed.

ShapingShaping is a learning technique where successive approximation and a Positive Marker are used to teach behaviors and communicate concepts. Successive approximation essentially means continually closer to the target behavior. So Shaping is a learning technique where you continually get closer and closer to the target behavior using a Positive Marker to tell the dog when she is right. It... More the catch requires breaking down the bite/catch behavior into more component parts and to soften up our criteria so that the dog can hit it. If you split up the catch of a disc up into smaller, bite sized behavioral pieces, you can find some criteria that can be used to shape this catching behavior:
AttentionUnsolicited eye contact or Attention is a great way to hook up with a dog. If you have something the dog wants he should give eye contact in order to get access to it. This quickly becomes akin to asking permission for things that the dog wants. If your dog offers Attention when they see something they want, most dog... More
…or something like that.

Now where is the problem going wrong with the dog? In Viper’s case, he has a problem from tracking the disc to the catch – he readily gives attention to the handler, he totally targets the disc and engages in chase, but he loses track of the disc and has a late arrival on the downed disc and then he bites.

Focusing in on the tracking and biting behavior is a good place to start, so my initial roller at 0:55 of the video was an assessment of how well the dog did on those last three pieces of behavior – track, arrive, bite. He actually tracked the roller, arrived at the target and tried to put a bite on the disc – he missed, but he reflexively captured the disc with the bite on the second attempt. I marked that, that’s the criteria I’m looking for.

Yup, the dog missed initially, and you can hear Jamie chuckle a bit. Well he hit it on the second attempt and clamped those teeth right down on the target for the catch.

I set the criteria at the catch of a moving RollerThe Roller is a great throw for reinforcing a dog with a disc. Instead of flying through the air like a wing, the Roller rolls on the ground like a wheel; a fast, bouncy, super exciting wheel. Dogs really like Rollers as reinforcement. Rollers  make great cookies. Rollers are also great teaching tools for the catch. They stand up and... More right off the bat – I could have used ‘teeth on’ or an attempt at catching but I think that’s what started the problem in the first place. He puts his teeth on and he attempts to catch, but that’s about it, and that’s a learned behavior. It’s super important to step up your criteria when teaching skills, too much time, too much or inadvertant focus on the ‘attempted’ bite can be really troublesome, as Viper is most likely a testament to.

Keep in mind, my criteria is only to catch a moving disc, not ‘catch a moving disc on the first try’, awareness and acceptance of that criteria was probably a big part of solving his catching problem.

Positive Marker

The Positive MarkerA Positive Marker is a signal that is used to communicate the exact instant that a behavior is correct and that predicts a positive consequence. A click of the clicker is a Positive Marker in clicker training. A verbal Positive Marker is also commonly used,”Yes!” being the most popular. Usage of a Positive Marker great speeds up learning and also... More is absolutely critical tool for solving problems in the game of disc. The game moves so fast that without a marker it’s all just a blur – “Who the hell knows what we did back there, but it was cool!”.

The Positive Marker allows you to separate the tipped disc from the caught disc, to reinforce, precisely, the teeth off part of the cued Drop, and it allows you to hop from success to success. In Viper & Jaimie’s case, marking the cued Drop helps the dog seal the deal on the catch because he is not going to let his cookie get away.

If your dog is having problems catching, the very first thing you want to do is to mark both the catch and the cued Drop.

Reinforce with Energy Levels

Once you’ve marked the catch of the disc it’s time to reinforce, and here’s another place where people have issues – practically and philosophically.

I’m reinforcing with Energy Levels of the game and also with NextNext is an important feature in a fast paced game. Everything hinges upon Next. If you like the game, then Next is important to you. When a dog loves to play disc Next, the next trick, opportunity, or movement, is  a great motivator. Next can be a Cookie. Next can be offered consequently, as positive reinforcement for good behavior, and... More. The disc is only a vehicle for that reinforcement.

My criteria for earning a positive marker are: Bite, cued Drop, and Attention. I’ll also mix in some team movement or cues from the handler. Any time the dog Bites the disc, drops on cue, offers Attention, or follows my cue, I’m going to mark and reinforce with more exciting play. This allows me to hop from success to success with the cookie being more success.

When the dog does not comply with a cue, or misses the criteria, I’ll draw down the energy level of the game as negative punishment. You can see a few instances of me drawing down the game or killing it in the video above. Do that consequently and you’ve got a really powerful cookie that you can turn on or turn off at a moment’s notice.

 Check out Part 2

  • Rewarding with Action
  • Roller
  • Bite
  • Next as CookieA Cookie is traditionally thought of as a food treat given as positive reinforcement. In that definition, a cookie is a discrete piece of food reinforcement. In many dog training discussions, the idea of the Cookie is a bit less discrete and encompasses more types of reinforcers than food. The term Cookie is often verbal or metaphorical shorthand for dog... More