Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Ball Obsessed Dog

Since all nine of my dogs are either playing flyball, training to play flyball, or retired from flyball, I've seen my share of quirks over the years. I've trained dogs that don't like balls, dogs that don't like tugging, dogs that spit balls during racing, and dogs that chase other dogs (actually, I have one dog who does all of those things!).

The one quirk that's really driving me nuts right now, more than anything else, is my border collie Rooster's obsession with balls (here he is with -- what else -- a nasty old ball he found in the yard during this photo shoot).

Rooster's breeder watched him race in January and made the following observation: "Rooster has two speeds." It's true. Rooster hauls ass down to the box. He's a flying little red tornado. Then he hits the box (in sort of a 3-footed awkward crunch turn) and comes back with his ears up and his speed down. 

He actually used to run right past me and circle around the runback area before eventually making his way over to see what I was up to. I'd be screeching and dancing around the runback like an idiot, trying to make the tug the most exciting thing in the world, and you could see the wheels in his head turning while he watched me. Finally something would click (you could see it happen, like he was thinking "Oh, fine, I'll take the damn tug") and he'd drop the ball for the tug and then tug like a crazy dog, growling and twisting. He really does love to tug. He just loves balls more.

He has always always always loved balls. I recognized it very early on and stopped playing with balls with him, in fact stopped acknowledging balls altogether. He didn't care. He was never one to bring it back, anyway. He would take his ball waaaay out in the yard, far away from me, and toss it around like a cat does with a mouse, making crazy little noises the whole time.

He has gradually gotten better. I switched to squishy balls (he doesn't like those as much as regular tennis balls) and to a big pink and green floppy frisbee as a reward (he likes that even better than the tug), and he is now coming back to me and spitting the ball, but it's a delayed reaction. He's not running TO the frisbee and spitting the ball along the way in his quest to get to it. He's coming back, staring at the frisbee with ball firmly grasped in jaws, then making the decision ("Oh fine, I'll take the damn frisbee") and spitting the ball.

Very frustrating. Not so much the stuff in the runback, because I'm dealing with that and I've seen improvement every tournament. No, the part that really gets me is his box turn. It looks nothing like what I trained. Once the ball went in, the whole turn changed completely.

Here is what Rooster looked like when I was first training him on the wall about a year and a half ago (he turned 2 in January) -- what a nice snappy boy (here's the whole video:

I don't have any photos of what his box turn looks like now with the ball in there, but take my word for it -- it sucks.

Right now he's running around 4.4 with this turn, with a best time of 4.2. I know he can be 4.0, probably sub-4, if I fix the turn. He's a quick little bugger.

I'm just making it worse by running him over and over again with the bad turn in a tournament setting. Although we try to work his box with a prop during warmups, then run him only the first 2 or 3 heats, he's still dropping his back legs on the box and doing his back-archy-crunch thing during actual racing, so that's the muscle memory I'm really building in the dog.

What I really need to do is stop competing with him and start over. I need to rework his priorities and make the tug/frisbee the most important thing in his life. It's hard to do that, isn't it? Remove a "solid" dog from competition and start over? 

I'd be interested in your comments and suggestions. 


Kim said...

I know you so don't want another dog running for a ball but have you tried to using the tennis ball as an award? Sometimes trying to force the motivator you want only makes it worse. I tried for a year to get Riot to tug on the lanes and finally gave up. It made us all much happier.

Pulling a solid dog to fix a turn is ok as long as you really are gonna sit the dog for awhile. We tried on our club with a dog and the owner couldn't handle not running her dog as that was her only flyball dog. The dog has a turn that sounds very much like Rooster's. Check out the video on my facebook page that has Tempe in it. Check out the first bc running.

With Rooster maybe try - a couple hit its which are probably awesome looking, then add a ball, then back to hit its and just increase the amount the ball is in loaded. Props in even if there is tons down there.

I know the feeling about a good dog whose turn goes bad.

Anonymous said...

Typing a suggestion is much more difficult than actually telling/showing someone, so here goes....i think that this can be broken down into seperate training exercises. first, the box, i agree with the above post. try going to basics and target the box for a couple hits, then add the ball for one, but remember to do the same language with your body. people tend to change their body language when they add the ball. then do a couple hits with no ball agian. try not to set him up in a formal position when sending him to the box. play tug, then tell him hit it and back onto the tug, same thing when the ball is added. this will help to keep the momentum and excitment from both dog and handler, with no pause in between.
in the meantime, with the recall, agian, the matress is great. try teaching him to target to the matress, drive past you to the matress, where after touching he will get his reward, maybe a tug or maybe a ball directly from you, not off the floor or from the box, but an interaction from/with you. the dogs do learn that the matress is great fun and they can drive right into it. just remember to have a sturdy matress holder;)

ZebsterBC said...

I have a ball obsessed BC too. He loves a frisbee and has learned to love a tug, but the ball always has more value to him. He has a fast go out and runback. He skids past me on the runback, then spits the ball for the tug. He tugs well now because I've worked on it, but he will sometimes stop tugging early so that he can go line up. This is a clue to the motivation for his fast runback. He comes back fast because he's eager for the next run to the box and the ball. I stopped playing fetch only while we were working on teaching him to exchange the ball for the tug. It wasn't easy, but we persisted and he is now very reliable at the exchange. I play fetch or frisbee with him every day. It doesn't interfere with his flyball training now and it reinforces the motivation to come back fast for the next round.

Anonymous said...

I think you need to decide what you will be happy with. Set your goal and work to get it. Training is half the fun in flyball. You are a great flyball trainer. Dont settle.

Anonymous said...

if a real ball is his most favorite thing, why don't you give him one as his reward instead of the frisbee or tug?

Lisa Pignetti Murnan said...

You guys rock. I think I'm going to try a combination of the following: 1) Work the frisbee/tug more to make it the most exciting thing on earth, 2) Buy a crib mattress and get him to target that (we've been wanting to do that with Punk anyway), and 3) do the on/off box drills, with and without the ball, to get him used to hitting it the same way whether the ball is there or not. I'll update the blog with the progress.

Tanya said...

I have a border collie who had a great turn but after a few collisions lost confidence in all things flyball related. As a result her turn degraded to something quite unsafe that I called the smash and grab. She was still running 4.2-4.4 with this less than great turn and we needed her speed on the team, so she kept racing. I made the hard decision to pull her from competition to try and fix her turn. My goal was for her to play safely, allowing her to play longer versus keep running her and tempt fate that she didn't seriously injure herself in the short term. It was a loooooong 1.5 seasons sitting her out. But it was worth it in the long run - she started back racing last season and her turn has held up, she can make it through an entire tourney without losing much of her turn. Her speed has also improved to consistent 4.0's - bonus. Prior to pulling her I was working the turn in practice on a weekly basis (and it was great in practice), but it really took removing her from competition to retrain the turn reliably during a tourney.

Laura said...

I re-trained a box turn on my first dog. I'm amazed it work since I didn't pull him from competition at the time (he'd been running three and a half years when I'd decided the turn needed re-training). Pretty much, all he and I do is run lots and lots and lots of box work drills with props (sometimes a ball, sometimes not) when we aren't competing. Even at tournaments, I warmup him up with box turns. The new turn sticks about 75% of the time, but it is a whole better than his previous turn. Just keep at it!

Tammy said...

Can you explain more about the mattress thing? Not sure how that aids motivation if the tug is the reward anyway? thx.

Lisa Pignetti Murnan said...

Hopefully somebody from Slammers will write back and give you more info, but when I saw them using the mattress a year or two ago up in Michigan, it was clear that the dogs loved it. They were running back and doing these flying leaps so they could bank off the mattress - they drove hard just to get to it. Added bonus was that it was like a big target, AND it kept them from running into the wall or other people/dogs. The mattress was even covered it with this cute little Winnie the Pooh crib sheet - funny.

Shawna Fryia said...

have you heard of a ball-ball exchange? It's a game you play outside of flyball, and then transfer it to the ring. Essentially you throw one ball, as he gets it call and show you have another. As he runs you toss the new one up and grab the one he drops to toss etc etc. until he's tired or catches up to you. then start again. Then you can start faking him out but having a ball and a tuggy, so you ball ball exchange then, show the ball and as he spits the other one you throw the tuggy out and play tug, then go back to the ball ball exchange. Essentially he gets the ball ball for tugging once in a while. Then you increase this. or just stick to the ball as the reinforcer.
I would pull him to fix his turn though. and I agree, throw a ball in at odd times and not back to back so he never knows when it's in.

nickelsmum said...

My Borderjack's littermate was born ball obsessed too (seems to be genetic) and her runback speed was "fixed" by putting boxes at both ends of a long hallway. In competition, she returns to another ball, and that's what I'll be doing with her brother even though I hate that, in theory. :) She runs sub-4 at 8" - great little dog - and you would never notice that she had ever had those ball-obsession-related performance issues as a pupster.


Anonymous said...

Can someone help with my ball obsessed dog? I was searching the web for tips and came across this blog.

I have a mix that can run the flyball pattern perfectly, has a good box, and great speed to/from the box (usually runs consistent 3.8's) but he cannot run in competition because he chases the balls in the run back - thus interfering with the other team. We have only been able to run him when our two division 1 teams raced against each other and even then he was in the way of our A team being able to re-run their dogs. He likely won't compete again because he chases every ball in motion. Once the ball is "dead" we can catch him - but there are no "dead" balls at tournaments.

At home in the back yard, I can take 2-3 balls out in the yard and the floppy frisbees. He ignores the balls. I can even kick one past him and he stays fixated on the frisbee. For whatever reason, this does NOT translate over to our flyball practices.

Please help - it is heartbreaking to have a dog with this much potential and not be able to run him. Just to give you an idea of how long we've been dealing with this issue - he's 3 1/2 now.


Lisa Pignetti Murnan said...

Wendy - in case you missed it:

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