Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Trouble Shooting: Box Turns

As I mentioned in a post earlier this week, Koira's box turns are horrible at tournaments. She hits the box, hard, nearly straight on, with just her front feet. A turn like this puts a lot of stress on the ankles, elbows, and shoulders of the dog when slamming into the box, and stress onto the hips, knees, and back of the dog when she then has to wrench herself around to return down the lane. I refer to this kind of turn as a smash-and-grab.

Now, many dogs race their entire career with a smash-and-grab. Some of them are slightly better turns than others. Many dogs avoid injuring themselves even with a smash-and-grab. But, a team member just retired her 10 year old Tervuren, who had a poor box turn, due to back issues. She loves her dog dearly (because he is a total sweetheart), and has pulled him from competitions to prevent him from injuring himself worse. Every time she mentions his box turn causing this problem, and regret at not working to change it years ago, it makes me cringe for Koira's turn.

I don't want to have to retire my dog at 10 due to problems I may be able to prevent with training now. 

So, I am taking a box training journey. It is way easier to train a good turn the first time around than to correct a poor turn. Every time a dog hits the box with a poor turn, it will take at least 2 times hitting the box with a correct turn to fully retrain the dog. For some dogs who have been competing for years, it may simply be not worth it to try to retrain the box turn, especially if the current turn is half-way decent or the dog runs slow and hits the box gently. Unfortunately, Koira doesn't fall into those categories.

My team will be helping me come up with a training plan for Koira's box turn. She currently has a nice turn with a prop in front of the box, but has no turn at all after a few hits without the prop (such as in a tournament setting). So far, we have managed to fade from a full jump board to a pvc jump prop. The goal is to have good, consistent, high, fast turns without any prop at all. To this effect, I will be practicing at home with Koira daily, putting the prop in and taking it out, keeping a high criteria for the turn and only rewarding good ones. Taking the prop out, though, risks building in the muscle memory of the bad turn, so it will have to be done carefully. With the help of my team, I know we will be able to fix the technical aspects of Koira's turn.

In addition, I need to find a way to make Koira believe that doing box turns is the Best Thing Ever. If she enjoys doing them, she will want to do them correct. It will also help improve her speed down to the box. So, I need input on how to motivate my dog to LOVE box turns. Koira's favorite tricks right now are heeling (which she seems to see as free cookies) and "waving", which is her default behavior whenever a treat is brought out. She is very food motivated, toy motivated, and willing to please. Praise makes her prance around looking all proud of herself. But, she can get over-amped easily, making her brain melt a bit, so she will sometimes resort to body-slamming me for her tug or "waving" at me repeatedly (and punching me in the process) for a cookie.

So, I guess I am appealing a bit to my readers, both flyball trainers and dog trainers in general. I want my dog to LOVE box turns. How would you go about doing this?


  1. It sounds like you have a pretty good idea of what to do regarding re-training her turn, so forgive me if I sound redundant.

    Definitely train for the mechanics of the turn first, forget training for speed until her mechanics are default, or you'll run into all sorts of issues.

    For that reason, getting her overexcited for the box turn isn't necessary until you're selectively training for increased speed. She shouldn't view box-training as a punishment, don't get me wrong, but certainly not crazy-I-love-this-so-much... YET.

    I don't know if you do this already: but using her meals as training treats would work wonders, I think, especially since you use such high value food. :) Keep the sessions really short (even if she's super successful), and have a fun crazy tug/heeling/wave-a-thon after it's all over.

    I realize that in order to have a perfect swimmer's turn, you'll need to build her speed so she comes into the turn correctly, but if she does it slowly to make sure to get the mechanics right, reward it anyway. I think you're on the right track with fading the jump/prop. I might start with the pvc jump and fade so that it is simply lying on the ground in front of the box, then replace with a similar looking obstacle (same color fabric? idk be more creative than me lol) and then fade the length of that until it disappears completely and she's still got a great turn!

  2. i look forward to reading about your journey. Sophie's deteriorating turn is driving me nuts. Im not sure if this would help Koira but it is sometime we are trying with Sophie, since she swings her back hips an her back paws rest on the bottom of the box. We are placing two bands on her back legs in an effort to get her to concentrate on the back legs and use them. That and the prop is in more often than not. Trying to build that muscle memory.

    As for building her enjoyment of it. We reward heavily for box turns. Someone releases your dog, you are a few away from the box. The moment before they hit the box you are calling them and getting the reward ready. It builds speed and drive. But it should also help build her enjoyment of the box if she is being rewarded almost immediately after her box turn. Maybe just a few of those so she doesn't cross her excitement threshold.

  3. Ximena- I don't want her to be crazy obsessed with box turns in a way that she gets out of control. But, I do want her to enjoy doing them. They need to move their way up to her favorite trick (or one of them at least). I'm not going to get that enjoyment if I train nothing but the technical aspects, and the technical stuff will likely not mean a whole lot to her if it isn't an activity that she really wants to be doing. She's the type of dog happy to slide by with the minimum.

    Patty- I have been working on rear-end awareness with both of my dogs a bit. The hair ties on the back legs is a common suggestion I've found, but I haven't tried it yet. Hopefully we'll be able to help each other in the journey to build a better box turn.

  4. First I have to commend you for taking this on; it's clear you have your dog's best interests at heart!

    Wish I had more advice to offer but I'm no expert in the technicalities of flyball boxturns or dog training in general. The two things that come to mind are pretty obvious but they are to use her highest value reward, and maybe using that reward *only* for boxturns for the time being, and at the same time keeping sessions very, very short, especially at the beginning so that she's left always wanting more.

    Good luck; looking forward to following along on your boxturn re-training journey.

  5. I have absolutely no idea what is the best approach for you and Koira but I wish you well on your journey. If anyone can do this it's you.

  6. Hello! I was wondering how your efforts have paid off? I spent an entire winter break retraining my Rat Terrier's box turn. We did turn sessions every day and he was close to having consecutive turns without any props but once racing season started up again he lost his turn, on the plus side he gained speed and enthusiasm for the sport but overall the turn never really improved. I was told that to completely fix it I would have to remove him from flyball until it is corrected. He is 5 now I chalk it up to a lesson learned at this point luckily he is not fast or crazy enough that I see it as a danger to him.

  7. Koira was making some amazing progress with her box turn. Then she hurt herself at the park, and has been off of flyball for the past two months. I'm hoping all the work we were doing will stick.

    Her progress was pretty good. If you are interested, there are a number of posts I put up including videos in slow motion of Koira's box turns.

    From what I know, the longer you run a dog on a box in a certain way, the harder it is to change that turn later. Sometimes, for some dogs, in some situations, it is not worth the effort it will take to retrain the turn.