Ballwork with Sue Ella

Verbal Cue (Top! | Rebound! | Stall!)

The verbal cue Top tells the dog to leap straight off of the obstacle. Rebound tells the dog to flip from the obstacle and Stall tells her to jump up and wait on the obstacle. The verbal cue should happen before any action takes place.

Directional Cue (Target!)

*we don’t actually say,”Target!” – it’s just what we are going to call it…

Once the dog knows what she’s supposed to do, tell her where it is going to happen. This directional cue will draw their attention to the place where the reinforcement is going to happen. Cuing direction like this is a targeting behavior. The dog will target an area, expecting reinforcement, based upon this directional cue.

Toss (or Take)

The dog knows what kind of vault we’re looking to perform and where we are going to perform it. Now all that’s left to do is to put it in the appropriate place, at the appropriate time. No small task, but much easier if the dog already knows where she is supposed to go and how to get there.


The verbal cue, “Top!“, is followed by the directional cue, a physical target, which is followed by the toss of the cookie. This happens in a rhythm. Top…two…Three… This rhythm is an important part of the vaulting skill. Present consistent timing to hook up as a team. Creating a rhythm or a cadence makes everything predictable:

A Linear Vault

  1. What are we doing? Top!
  2. Where are we doing it? Target!
  3. Toss! Let me at it!

Top…Target…Toss! 1…2…3

Reverse Vault

  1. What are we doing? Rebound!
  2. Where are we doing it? Target!
  3. Toss! Let me at it!

Top… Target… Toss!


  1. What are we doing? Stall!
  2. Where are we doing it? Target!
  3. Feed! Let me at it!


Once this rhythm is standard and understood, dog and handler should be able to feel the hook up on vaults and set up moves and develop a successful rhythm.

Reward Placement

Reward Placement is huge in this skill. The dog is going to go where the reward happens. Ideally the reward happens in the area of the directional cue or on that cued path.

In the video notice the difference in Ella’s performance based upon where the cookie was initially placed. A high cookie placement can be used to hold a dog on stalls and the tossed cookie creates the leaping off part of the vault and stalls. As Sue starts to get a better handle on reward placement, her and Ella start to improve.

Manufacturing the Approach

Reward Placement is used to set the approach to the ball. Sue does a great job of that throughout this video. We can mark all kinds of behavior and place the reward where we need the dog to be to start the desired approach. It’s really efficient and takes a lot of pressure off of the training session.

Isolation of Concepts

The vaulting behavior and this ball drill are built upon many concepts, any of which may be weak or overdeveloped. Any of these concepts can be isolated with a positive marker and reinforced to improve or alter performance:

    • Attention
    • Targeting
    • Commitment
    • Collection
    • Front Feet On Obstacle
    • Rear Feet on Obstacle
    • Targeting
    • Leaping Off
    • Catching

In the video, Ella was getting stuck on the “Top!” cue, essentially rocking back and stalling on her way to the ball. As sue starts to mark Ella getting Off, she starts to sail on by the Stall.

Sue and Ella also had some issues with Ella simply performing a Stall and expecting cookies. She was not following the directional cue because the reinforcement frequently happened outside the cued direction and her handler put the cookie where Ella’s face was. Notice on the Rebound section of the video that Ella doesn’t really follow the cookie very well. That can be fixed by marking the moment she looks at the cookie during the skill and making her put her face there to eat it. nom, nom,nom…

The ball is a great place to work on these small, hard to pin down details. It’s easier to pay attention to the details from this perspective than in a live vault.


  1. Marion Paulson

    Hey Ron,

    What size and type of ball would I use for my Aussies for ball work. I went out and got one at work and it is jack sized *laugh*. My Girls are both over 40 lbs and not small aussies. There are the type they call ball chairs so am thinking maybe this would bethe correct size? I also discovered there are Pop ratings on balls so people might want to investigate before purchasing a cheaper ball.


    1. Ron Watson Post author

      Hey Marion!
      I think the smallest we would go is 65cm… I think ours are 70cm.
      The Gold’s Gym balls are pretty solid from our experience. We had a big giant ball, 90 or 100cm that was popped by LaVerne, so pop ratings are important.

  2. Marion Paulson

    Awesome thanks Ron! The one I have is 65 cm and a wee small..Gonna go for a 75 cm if I can find one here locally!

  3. Kirby

    Really helpful to see this video. I took video of my first session doing this with Cricket today and it was a mess! I posted the video, and will link here once it is loaded on youtube. I was having technical difficulties with my ball and stand… had a distracted, checked out dog (between looking for the treats I was throwing on the ground and being interested in the people) and my mechanics were pretty sloppy too! Eeeek! Would love any input on how I can improve off of this… Step one, equipment.

  4. Emily


    Im super stuck on the whole vault thing..

    Ron, would you say that these exercises with the ball are basically required that I do in order to accomplish a great vault?

    Also, for a border collie, what size would you say I should aim for?

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