Friday, June 4, 2010

Go out! Go back! Go away! Just go!

I’ve gotten enough comments and e-mails about go-outs to warrant exploring how to teach them (preferably without cats involved, but to each his own). Today’s post is an overview of the exercise, what has worked for me in the past and what hasn't.

Teaching go-outs is fun! Some people would argue that it is fun like a root canal but go-outs are one of those exercises that fascinate me. Maybe it’s because there are so many different ways to teach them and every trainer swears by her successful method. The beauty of training obedience is that there really aren’t any “wrong” methods, it’s just a matter of finding the right fit for you and your dog.

Over the years, I’ve seen people use food, toys, retrieving sticks, target boxes, treat bags, long-lines, broad jump boards, long dowel rods, a pulley system and even a bungee cord chase toy to get their dogs to perform go-outs. (The bungee cord toy — courtesy of Linda Koutsky — was the coolest thing ever and Phoenix really, really wants one but given my history with bungee cords, that’s probably not going to happen. I do not need to be on a first name basis with the folks in the local emergency room any more than I already am.)

Using a food target has been an enduring method over the years, as well as having the dog retrieve dowels off center stanchion. Some trainers teach the dog to run out and sit on a target platform box or on a mouse pad or whatever. “Destination behaviors” also currently enjoy a lot of popularity around here, with the dog touching or even biting the stanchion.

Keep in mind, here in the Midwest, 99 percent of the time, go-outs are done in rings formed by baby gates with a center stanchion in the smack dab dead center of the go-out end of the ring. Occasionally you’ll end up going to a blank wall but most clubs are accommodating enough to throw some baby gates across that, too. I know the folks in California and other crazy places where they actually hold trials outdoors with ropes on metal poles for ring barriers don’t have this advantage and I don’t know how in doG’s name they teach go-outs.

So anyway, my shelties Jess and Connor ate pounds of squeeze cheese and hotdogs stuck to the gates. With Jamie, I turned the go-out into a retrieve. Jamie had to go get a stick off the stanchion and bring it back. It was stuck on with that sticky tacky putty stuff to keep it off the ground. (The only go-out method I really don’t like is putting food on the ground, which can lead to a lot of sniffing and searching by the dog who is frantic to find his cookie. If you use food, make it easily visible at the dog’s eye level.)

Anyway, if Jamie pulled up short on a go-out, I could give him a failure-to-retrieve correction — taking him by the collar and walking him out to the go-out spot and pointing out his stick and reminding him that 40 feet earlier, I’d told him to fetch that stick and he hadn’t and I was so terribly disappointed that I could just cry. (Yes, that’s a correction.)

He very rarely pulled up short. He loved his stick. The stick equaled food. Return the stick, get the food. Remember, Jamie was raised in a house with two shelties. He is not a normal tervuren.

So he got his OTCh. doing lovely go-outs that I cued by asking him “Where’s your stick?” and he would get a target lock on that center stanchion because he always believed there was a stick out there and he knew how important it was to get it and exchange it for food. He also knew how important it was to sit when he was told and figured his crazy mom had just changed her mind and now she didn’t want the stick. It was a great system and it worked.

So of course I didn’t do it with Phoenix.

He did some baby dog go-outs to cheese on the gate as a puppy but I didn’t think I wanted to use the food method again because — and I admit it — that method lends itself to random sniffies if you get sloppy with your training and don’t fade the food so the dog doesn’t get obsessed with getting his cookie off the gate EVERY SINGLE TIME before he sits. I played around with a few other things and actually taught Phoenix to bite the stanchion at one point but decided the only thing that was going to get me was a pile of splintered stanchions.

I finally decided to teach Phoenix to go to a target box, which he learned easily. It was a fun thing to teach and I’m glad I did it, although I’m going to revert to training the go-outs with food and pay closer attention to preventing the sniffies. (More on that later, I promise.)

Here’s why the switch: Phoenix understands what to do when he gets to his go-out spot (sit in the box). But he’s a little vague on how to GET to his go-out spot in the first place. In other words, although he totally gets the sit-in-a-box idea, he doesn’t get the “where” idea. He doesn’t mark the center stanchion on cue (yet) because it currently has no intrinsic value for him. In his little malinois mind, he has not connected the stanchion (going) with the target box (sitting). So when I line him up and try marking his spot, he may or may not pay any attention to it . . . which leads to some really funky go-outs. Of course it’s taken me HOW LONG to figure this out? Bad trainer. Bad.

But he loves his cookies. So teaching him —at least initially — that food grows wild on the center stanchion should help him focus on WHERE to go, as well as WHAT to do when he gets there. Plus it should give him a speedier “go,” since he’ll have a definite destination in mind with a definite reward when he gets there.

Bear with with me. Next week I’ll get around to the initial steps of teaching go-outs. I have to give a lot of credit (like, ALL the credit) to my friend Renee because she was OCD enough to write down all her steps for me. Sure, I’ve taught go-outs with food before but I didn’t give the why’s and wherefore’s a lot of thought. Which is why my shelties occasionally did massive power-sniffs up and down the gate, looking for non-existent cookies, before they sat in the ring. It's a problem I see a lot with Utility A dogs and not a few Utility B dogs, as well. Following her steps should prevent this and I’ll be happy to share her ideas, Phoenix's progress and my own observations in general with you as we go along.

This weekend, we’re off to play agility at Ames. This is one of few outdoor trials we do each summer and the weather does not sound promising. Much rain gear has been packed.


  1. Hmmm... must find a stick and teach Vin a go out.

    Not only is my rain gear packed for this weekend, but I even bought a new raincoat!! (guar-an-teed to prevent rain since it's pretty and new and I want to wear it!!)

  2. All you Ames folks - run fast and clean. Thanks for the lesson. My current go out involves not letting Coach in the house until he does the "go pee" exercise. He has turned this into a run out the back door, halt about ten feet away, wait a few seconds (not peeing) and run back inside. It's magic! A go out! How many ways can this go drastically wrong? I'll let you know.

  3. I like the sound of go outs, even though we're nowhere near ready to train for those yet. My current favorite thing to train are recalls. I just love the gigantic smile coming full speed at me.

    Good luck at agility this weekend! I'll trade you some heat for some rain.

  4. Thank you so much for all the go-out info! And I am really looking forward to reading more. I am still a total obedience newbie and teaching a go-out is skeery for me because I don't even know where to start.

    Good luck in Ames this weekend!!

  5. Sadly, I suspect the key to consistent go-outs is practicing them in a wide variety of settings. Which requires (gasp) effort on the part of the trainer, and explains why Taz does perfectly nice go outs in the front yard and the dog club building, but is vague on the concept elsewhere. Sigh. I do so much better at things that don't require actual work.

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