At Pawsitive Vybe, we work on breaking bad habits like this all the time. Even so, eliminating bad habits can be hard. There is also no ‘one size fits all’ solution, or the solutions may need to be tweaked for the individual team or canine athlete. There are however a few principles that we can leverage towards putting an end to Bad Habits in the game of Disc. Below are some common approaches we can take to mend bad habits, specifically tailored to ending the Head Down Gallop. These solutions are ranked starting with what we believe to be the best approach and finishing with the less desirable solution.
So we’re working on eliminating the Head Down Gallop and trying to replace it with the Step, Step Collect… Jump! concept.
Repetition without Reward
Repeating the delivery of the disc, 7-10 yards at 4 feet high, out of a simple go around is the way to start. Dogs that have made a habit of Head Down Gallop approach to a disc are going to wind up 10 yards downfield before they even look. That’s OK. We’re going to send them around and throw to our Spot is a “go to a place”, or “go to a mat” behavior. This means that the dog seeks out and performs a duration behavior on a spot of the handler’s choosing. A Pedestal is a raised spot. Anything a dog can leap onto and perch upon. Spots and Pedestals are important dog training tools.... anyway.
The dog will not have any chance to catch the disc and the game will stink. The dog will have to pay attention to have a nice game of Disc.
I’ve worked this skill 30+times with dogs before they’ve even shown an inkling of breaking this habit. That’s a lot of reps. Don’t give up on this too early. Remember bad habits die hard.
Something else we could do if Repetition without Reward doesn’t work is to over compensate. We are trying to end the Head Down Gallop, right? What if we can make the head go up? How can we do that? Well, we can throw the disc higher. This is probably the most successful fix for this problem, by the way, but nobody believes it until they see it. It works.
If we send the dog around and throw the disc high, really high – 30 feet into the air – and with a slight curve from right to left and let it drift down, the dog will be forced into a position that is remarkably like collection. At Pawsitive Vybe we call this Permanent Collection, and it looks as if the dog is crab walking towards the disc. Their head is up, their but is down, not unlike the picture of the Collection above, and they are shuffling around trying to track that disc and make the catch.
It isn’t really important that the collection, or an approximation of the collection, is being performed, what is more important is what is not being performed – the Head Down Gallop. The dog can’t put his head down and run like heck if he doesn’t know where the target is going to be.
Overcompensation is a great tool for putting an end to bad habits.
We could also wait for the dog to look at us after the around, mark it and deliver a disc as reinforcement in order to solve this problem. It could work, but it’s bordering on lumping, and doesn’t really solve the approach to the disc problem. It’s more of a band aid for this particular skill.
Paying attention to the handler on an outrun is an important skill in it’s own right though and should be worked as an exercise on it’s own.
We could try to mark and reinforce the dog when their head is up as well as mark and reinforce proper collection when it happens, but it’s very hard to keep the bad habit from happening.
This is the path that most handlers take to try to solve bad habit behavior with their disc dogs. It works, sometimes, but it’s treating the symptoms and not the disease. Also it means that the handler is going to be responsible for managing this behavior probably forever. That’s not the best solution.
Punishment like quitting the game, taking a break, yelling at the dog (not recommending this, by the way…) also work to suppress behavior, but it’s not really fair to give the dog a hard time for not being able to perform a skill that they have never been taught. Negative consequences are best saved for the proofing of behaviors, not teaching them.