I realized it has been way too long since I last posted part of my Flyball Training Series. If you missed Part 1: What makes a flyball dog or Part 2: Jumps, drills, motivation, and direction, you can go back to read those and catch up.
At this point, you have found a number of things that fully motivate your dog. I prefer tugging as motivation, but you can use anything.
You have also determined which direction your dog turns easiest (remember, turn direction is always referred to as the dog's directions). Both of my dogs turn to the left.
You may have also trained the touch-stick behavior, which will be helpful with this next step.
To start building a box turn, first, you need to know what your end goal is. A good box turn has a number of elements that should all be present. In order, the dog should take off for the box, land high with his front feet, followed immediately by his back feet, with head positioned low and near the ball hole, catch the ball as it is triggered, push off from the box strongly, and land in the lane, facing back toward the handler. The dog's body position on the box is very important. You want the dog landing horizontal on the box, not at an angle or vertical. All four feet need to land on the box, and the back feet need to be high up to maintain proper positioning, not down low. You want each foot to hit the box only once, then push off strongly.
Pallo, showing proper horizontal box positioning
This sounds complicated. It is, sort of. The box turn is the hardest part of training flyball for most people and dogs. But, when trained properly, a good box turn shouldn't be that hard to achieve.
There are probably as many methods for training a box turn as there are for training any other complicated maneuver in any sport. I'm going to share what I know of each method, letting you know which I use (or used, as Koira was originally trained differently), and what I see as the pluses and minuses of each.
A good first step for training any method of a box turn is an over-and-back. Using a touch stick (or a motivator held in your hand), have a helper hold the dog on one side of the jump. Stand right next to the side of the jump your dog should be turning toward (I stand on the left, because my dogs turn left). Reach over the jump, have the helper release the dog, and use your hand/touch stick/motivator to lead the dog over the jump, then quickly back to the side it started.
You want the dog to land-turn-return all in one smooth motion. It will take a few tries to get that smooth motion. This is duplicating the body motions the dog will be using once on the box, working the same muscles. It is a great starting point for any of the methods for training a box turn. (Koira did not start out doing over-and-backs, but Pallo did. I have since taught them to Koira, and work both dogs with them occasionally, just for fun.)
Once your dog is doing over-and-backs smoothly, you can place a turning board on the ground in the area the dog lands. A turning board is just a piece of plywood or similar, covered with the same type of matting found on a flyball box. Some dogs don't like stepping on a new surface, so it helps to get them used to it flat on the ground first.
I have used three methods for teaching a box turn. I recommend using two of them.
Method One (the not recommended method):
(This is the method Koira was originally trained with. It gave poor results, and I am still trying to fix her turn. I am sharing it so you know what NOT to do. Some classes still use this method. I didn't know any better when I started training Koira. I'm hoping by sharing this, it will help someone else avoid the years of retraining I have spent on my dog.)
Start off to the side of the box. Load a ball in the box. With the dog on a lead, run quickly toward the box, using your leg/knee to encourage the dog to place feet onto the box and grab the ball. Once the dog is regularly stepping onto the box without too much encouragement from your knee, add in a cone in the center of the box. With the dog on a lead, encourage your dog to circle the cone, placing feet on the box and grabbing the ball. Start wide, then gradually straighten as the dog gets the picture. You can also add a jump of some kind along with the cone, to encourage the dog to jump onto and off of the box. Some people who train with this method will teach a go-out on the flat, training the dog to circle the cone and return (we didn't).
This method of training is unreliable. It trains a wide, sloppy, slow, and low turn. (If you have questions as to why and how, feel free to ask and I will clarify.)
Koira, with her front feet badly placed on the box, demonstrating a low, wide, slow turn (this is a turn to the right, she now turns left, I changed it as part of our retraining process.)
In any case, why don't we return to what you SHOULD do?
(This is the method Pallo was trained with.)
Move your jump for the over-and-backs closer to a wall, and place the turning board between the jump and the wall. Using a 2x4, multiple 2x4s, or other sturdy blocks, slowly put the turning board at a low angle against the wall. (You can easily practice this part at home, even without owning a box.) Continue doing over-and-backs like this, until the dog is comfortable with the landing side being slanted. Place both jump and turning board in front of your box. Use the box to prop up the training board at increasing angles. Maintain your criteria for a good, fast, four footed turn with all four feet crossing the jump, landing, then returning smoothly. Over time, you will increase the angle of the turning board until it is the same as the angle of the front of the box, at which point you will move the jump in front of the box and take the turning board out.
Once you have a good turn, you add in the ball. It can be added in earlier, on velcro on the turning board, if you want. We normally will jam the box at first so that it doesn't fire at full speed, then let it fire faster once the dog is comfortable and grabbing the ball.
(I haven't used this method much, but want to try it some more. It comes highly recommended by some top teams.)
A touch stick behavior is required for this.
After doing over-and-backs, take the jump out of the way. Have you dog stand against the wall, placing the front feet up on the wall. Mark the wall with a tape line at the dog's elbow height. Use the touch stick to encourage the dog to bounce off the wall above the line.
If the dog just puts up their front feet, move the stick higher or have someone hold the dog back, to get a running start. Have the dog jump up, then whip the stick away straight out. Reward the dog after every turn. Change the positioning of the stick on the wall (higher, lower, farther to one side or the other) to adjust the dog's body position on the wall so that they are bouncing horizontally off the wall above the line.
Doing the opposite of the above method, where you slowly ramp up the angle, you put in a ramp in front of the wall and slowly ramp down the angle before replacing it with the flyball box.
This is supposed to train a very high, straight, fast turn with no lagging, double hitting, or hang time.
I have also used an additional method, similar to Method Two above, but using a specially built adjustable ramp that I made. It is made to be used with a snub-nosed box, like the one I own, and I have found it a really nice way to teach a good box turn. But, since most people don't use snub-nosed boxes, its a little bit silly to share it in detail.