Good catchers learn from good throwers.
Capturing a moving object needs careful definition. Either the object is moving away and capture is successful by following, overtaking and the dogs a grab-bite to take them down: this I will refer to as chase-capture, or capture by blocking escape where the prey is coming towards the dog, and they move into the path of the prey to block it. Sheepdogs are extremely successful at this, preventing lone sheep breaking away from the flock but they are poor at the chase, and the sight hounds show a high skills for chase-capture but are often poor at catch-capture.
All dogs can succeed to a degree in either field – chase or catch, but as you teach these skills you may find they show a higher skill in one or the other.
Humans are measured by good eye to hand, or foot co-ordination skills. These are the future “ball players”, or perhaps footballers. When we examine these skills we can pin down a closer model of success. Although some of this skill may be innate all of us will have it to some degree and can learn to be very competent throwers.
At a recent workshop the participants all wanted to join in teaching their collies the thrill catch-capture. Catching is a such natural skill for collies and we include it as part of the daily dopamine dose that balances their mental wellness. The catch-capture can be at various heights coming from either our hands or our feet. We see collies show exquisite skills of anticipation and move to block escape – which is how we teach the dogs to move left and right, stop and walk on, the sheep are “arranged” to escape in pre-set directions.
For the hand-throwing I use a different toy to foot kicking which sets up the dog for success. If they are unsure where the escape is launched from it can become very frustrating.
I kick specific types of balls:
And I throw treats or discs (Frisbees) from my hands.
For the dog to be a successful catcher, off either hands or feet, the ability is enhanced by the eye being able to track the incoming path of the object.
At the collie workshop we practise disc catching and throwing. To begin the “I am a real butter fingers” folk set up with some reluctance, probably from our school history of failing on ball sports. Within 10 minutes we have 16 exceptionally good catchers.
To learn the catch skills we need an object that is quite large and easy to see the pathway as it moves. This is why Frisbee became an inclusive and relaxing sport.
I’d like you to watch these experts demonstrating throwing and catching. The two styles to begin with your dog will be the backhand and the pancake catch. Backhand throws seem easier for the dog to anticipate from our body language, but if you do have a collie they will learn all forms I am sure.
The skills demonstrated are straightforward:
Consistent preparation so the receiver recognises the cues and can anticipate the direction.
Horizontal to the ground, and
Point in the direction of the throw
The lovely element of using a disc is the eye can map the path of the large object and it can be “flown” quite slowly without the need for too much momentum.
The skills of the thrower set up the success for the catcher.
As you watch the catcher in this video you will see the pancake catch is about preparing the hands to collect the disc as it moves along its path. There is a sense of “going with it”. The other type of catch is much harder which is a straight block and requires a higher level of eye hand co-ordination.
Use a cloth or soft disc. (If you search “Tuffy Flyer” images you will see a range of soft cloth options).
Do not throw plastic discs at the dog. The risk of damaging their face and teeth is high.
I would not advised you throw to expect the dog to leave the ground or twist in an endeavour to catch. The risks of injury if the dog is unprepared, unfit on unskilled are high.
If you begin with learning to throw with the backhand discs the dog will learn exquisite skills for any type of catching.
Your receiver needs to be far away enough to be able to track the path of the object … and looking at you!
This means the cues that we are about to throw may need to be repeated several times for allow the dog to move to the the right location (facing you are some distance), adopt the “catcher’s stance” (look like they are ready), and watching the relevant hand action.
The hand action is not some much a fake throw, as a small jiggle amongst otherwise non-moving body language. With a disc I will move my hand backwards and forwards an inch or two, and for the foot do some tapping behind the object in preparation. I would also include a verbal cue of asking for readiness and then as the toss occurs … “catch”?
The same basic concepts will apply to food – the right type of food is important where the dog can:
Easily track the path
Throw with a consistent movement
The dog given plenty of time to prepare to catch
Use something like small cheese blocks, or if you use the flat cheese for sandwiches, they will float as well as a disc – but may not the whole slice unless your dog’s waist line can take it.
You can also use unflavoured popcorn or I slice these treats into very thin discs:
As the dogs “eye” develops you will be able to use much small treats, and vary the throwing patterns from underarm, darts action from shoulder height etc. It should be fun!
But. With all the throwing skills and teaching sessions I still have one dog that is never, ever, ever going to catch. It can smack her in the face and drop to the floor before she will eat it. There is no attempt at opening the mouth. If you dog is trying to catch – evidenced by the mouth opening but not succeeding then larger “flying” treats, consistent throwing will make all the difference.
Monitor your skills
Don’t be afraid to practise throwing skills before involving the dog, but maybe not let them see you tossing food into the kitchen sink!
Start with a bucket at approximately the same height as the dog, and if possible tipped towards you. Find a distance you can be successful and then only gradually increase that distance.
Try all techniques, backhands, forehands, underarm, overarm, darts etc to see which is most comfortable and most successful. The dog will learn whichever is most reliable.
Don’t be too biased that you can only throw with one hand, us lefties learn both and you may be more accurate with one hand, but that doesn’t mean the other hand can’t learn a good effort.
Most catching will be “out there” and the dog will be in a position of blocking the movement, but they can learn to catch very close to you.
Merrick is successful catch “out there” if it is a large toy, but cannot track the path of small treats. Surprisingly she does tend to catch the toy with a paw movement at the same time!
If she is at my side she can jump forwards to catch a treat no more than a meter ahead of her and that has proven very successful in building a particularly forward and upward anticipation to the heel position.
Make sure you have practised for the specific application you are anticipating.
Knowledge & Understanding
Stage 1 – Unconsciously unskilled
We don’t know what we don’t know. We are inept and unaware of it.
This is where we all begin. As a trainer the recipe instructs minimally as “treat”. We now look at this and realise delivering a treat is a skill. There are many considerations and motor patterns to practise and develop.
Stage 2 – Consciously unskilled
We know what we don’t know. We start to learn at this level when sudden awareness of how poorly we do something shows us how much we need to learn.
As we progress in our training, we may return to this stage many times as we become aware of skipping pass a skill.
Stage 3 – Consciously skilled
Trying the skill out, experimenting, practising. We now know how to do the skill the right way, but need to think and work hard to do it.
This is where the really hard work sets in. We may need to step away, re-learn our skills, self-checking our progress. Seeking feedback and working past the errors and future-less habits that came from skipping this stage when we first began.
Stage 4 – Unconsciously skilled.
If we continue to practice and apply the new skills, eventually we arrive at a stage where they become easier, and given time, even natural.
This is heaven. This is where we find the flow and rhythm in teaching. This is where it seems natural and unforced, where our confidence comes through and we can lay down a learning pathway that brings pleasure and joy to learner and teacher.
Application & Activities
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