Teaching the Down and Article Indication

Indicating articles seems like a very small part of the tracking test, but in the AKC TD, missing the one and only article at the end of the track will cause you to fail. In schutzhund, each article has a point value, and at the schutzhund 3 competition level, missing one article can mean the difference between an excellent (V) score and an "also ran" performance. Added to the overall total, it can knock a competitor out of the running no matter how good the rest of the track.

I like to teach article indication off the track as a separate exercise and then integrate it with the tracking performance, making finding the articles the purpose of the hunt.

Article indication can be taught easily, even to very young puppies, using positive reinforcement/shaping techniques. I learned the basic idea from a Danish police officer, when I visited him in Denmark. I had bought my police dog from him, and when I tried to do article (evidence) searching with my dog, I wasn't having much luck. My friend, Peter Finne, taught me that the dog has to want to show it to me, not have me tell him what to do. Using the Danish techniques, my K9, Bolo developed into one of the best evidence searching dogs around. When I started schutzhund training, I listened to what old timers did to teach articles, but it never seemed to be as good or reliable as what Bolo did.

The standard approach was to put a bunch of articles down on the ground, take your dog to them, make him platz, using compulsion, and then praise him.

I titled a couple of dogs this way with fair success, but it wasn't until I put Peter's idea together with the schutzhund tracking articles that I really got somewhere.

In the mean time, I started to learn about operant conditioning and clicker training, and the idea of letting the dog offer behavior that was then rewarded, rather than just making him do something. I made many trials and observations trying to learn to break down the responses into individual parts, and to understand each increment of a behavior.In using this method, it is important to know what exactly you are asking for and what the dog is giving you or what he thinks you want. This is called identifying the criteria.

First, teach an inductive down. Choose a quiet area without outside stimulation. The floor of the living room is fine, as long as there are not other pets or people in the way to distract the puppy. A leash is not needed, but the puppy should be hungry, and you should have some soft, small treats in a dish within reach (yours, not the puppy's.) Treats could be BilJack, Rollover, bits of cheese, hot dog, or cooked meat-anything the puppy really likes. The pieces should be small and aromatic.

Put some food in your hand, let the puppy smell it, but not get it, and close your hand around it, bringing your palm to the floor. A hungry puppy with drive will try to figure out how to get it. Some will paw at it, bite at your hand, bark, sit, and some will even lie down right away. Ignore all the unwanted behaviors, and reward the only one you want. If yours is a dominant puppy, you may have to start with rewarding a sit or a crouch toward a down. This is called an approximation or an increment. You must "mark" the increment, either with a click, or a "Yes!" or whatever sound you like, but it must be consistent and always mean "you are right."

So, if the puppy crouches toward a down, you say "Yes!" then open your hand and give the food. Next time, you will raise the criterion a tiny bit, and wait until he crouches lower before you say "Yes!"

You should be getting a down pretty quickly. Be sure to stay quiet. Don't tell the puppy to down. Let him figure out what is going to work. The command, or more accurately, the "cue," comes later.

Make sure he knows you have the food in your hand, and keep your hand on the floor. You might need to move it up to his nose once or twice for a "teaser" smell, but put it right back down, palm down, and wait. Just stare at your hand, not at the puppy.

Keep sessions short, maybe 5 or 6 repetitions per session, and always when he is hungry.

When he is consistently giving you a down as soon as you put your hand on the floor, and in fact starts to offer the down even before you do it, you can give this behavior a name: "Down" (or "platz".)

Now, start to gradually increase the distance from your hand to the floor, keeping everything else the same. Start with your hand one inch off the floor, say "down" and look at your hand. As soon as the puppy lies down, say "Yes," open your hand and feed. Next time, go for two inches off the ground, then four, then six, etc.

You'll reach a point, usually at about the height of your knee, where the puppy will have to make a critical decision. He has to resolve to lie down, moving away from the hand which contains the food, in order to get the "yes!" which signals that he will get his reward. This is a critical point, and the essence of real active learning which distinguishes this method from bribing, or luring.

Patience is essential. Wait him out, and just stare at your hand and don't be tempted to lower it. He will test you,a nd try to get you to bring your hand down for him, but stand by. If you have not moved ahead too fast, he will be able to make this leap of understanding,. Remember: Don't lower a criterion once you have gained it. Letting him figure it out for himself is the most powerful learning.

Your goal is to eventually stand straight up and have the puppy drop and wait for his food. Key: Do not let the puppy pop up to get the food. Feed him in the down position and praise him there.

Anyway, once you have the puppy doing the down - and it won't take very long -then get some articles out and get ready to play.Use simple squares of leather about the size of a wallet which you have scented by keeping them next to your body. You can even cut up an old wallet or purse. Put one on the floor in front of the puppy, and touch it with your hand with the food in it.

Look at the article as though it holds the key to the universe. The moment the puppy looks at it too, use your mark word (yes!) and feed him. Increase the requirement for looking, so that he will actually dip his nose toward the article to indicate it to you. Encourage the natural follow up of this dipping which will be to lie down and dip his nose. You should be getting a display from him that looks like " Hey! Dummy. Look here. Pay up!"

Once he is consistently poking his nose at the article and lying down, start to tell him "Find it."

The most common stumbling block with this technique is that handlers unwittingly cue their dogs to down, with the "Find It" command, and don't give them a chance to understand that it is the article that brings the reward.

Test as you go along, moving the article to one side or another. Look for behavior that indicates the dog is drawn to the article itself, rather than just doing a "down."

Try this: Place (don't toss) an article several feet away from the puppy, and stay close to him. Tap the floor and tell him " Find it." If he downs where you tap, he believes "find it" means the same as down, and you have cued him incorrectly. If he goes toward the article, you know you have taught him right.

As the pup shows you he understands this game, you can start going outside to play " find the article" in the yard. Keep the area fairly small at first, depending on the size and age of the puppy. Around 15 x 20 feet is fine for a youngster. Keep him in a crate or have someone hold him so he can watch you walk around and place articles , then get him out and tell him " find it."

You aren't looking for tracking per se here, just the searching for the articles. When he gets to one and does his down, immediately tell him "Yes!" and go to him and feed him. Do not let him pop up and come back to you. If he does, stop where you are and wait until he goes back to the article before you start forward. You want what I term "article loyalty." The pup should regard this article as a winning lottery ticket found stuck to the sidewalk. He's not about to leave it to go ask to cash it in! He should wait for you to deliver his reward to him, as he remains with his prize. Reward him, pick it up and ask him to find another one. Make the sessions short and fun and build on each one. Later when you place an article at the end of his puppy track, don't be surprised if he just plops right down and gives you a full points indication.

This is just the foundation of teaching the indication. There are more skills to a polished performance, but this will go a long way toward making articles the prize worth tracking for.

Copyright 2003 Julia Priest

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