Train Your Dog to Scale

The working trials ‘scale’ is a contact jump. Using specially designed training apparatus, I can begin to prepare my dog for this demanding exercise when he is just a few weeks old – yes, I did say weeks! You can start this work as soon as your puppy or dog knows how to work a clicker (if you are not a clicker trainer – why not? It is 2017 – keep up!) As puppies, healthy young working breeds are inquisitive and adventurous so I use this phase to introduce the concept of clambering over an obstacle, making contact with both his front and hind feet, as he transverses the obstacle. Properly managed this early proprioception work will enhance the puppy’s mental and physical development. From the age of 8weeks to 6 months focus should be on proprioception, flexibility and balance. You should avoid jumping any higher than the carpus (wrist) joint. *You can start with a doormat sized piece of carpet and click the dog for placing his front feet on the mat. Repeat this exercise until he understands that it’s the foot contact that makes you click. This should only take a few minutes if he is clicker savvy. Next, I place a short piece of plank on the floor and put his carpet over it. Now click the puppy for stepping up onto the carpet. Now I will begin luring him across the plank with the carpet on it and separately click and treat him for, a) front feet on and, b) hind feet on the contact. If your puppy is small you may need to cut your mat down or you will always get all four feet on it. You can have fun with this exercise. Teach him to back onto the mat/plank hind feet first. To do this teach the ‘walk back’ with a food lure and then lure him back and click when his hind feet step up onto the mat. You will also be able to move him forward and click front feet on the mat, reward and then move him forward a little more and click and treat with just the hind feet on the mat. When he ‘gets it’, you might find it useful to name the feet. Popular labels are; ‘hands’ for front feet and ‘feet’ for hind ones, or ‘boots’ and ‘wellies’. HTM trainers amongst you will of course have four different labels, one for each of the four feet. My dogs do not do HTM and I find being able to name either front or hind feet sufficient for my needs. 

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When my dog understands the exercises of placing either his front or hind feet on the raised mat on cue I can raise the platform. I use an old aerobics step box. Simply place his piece of carpet on the step and you will quickly transfer the previous exercises to the aerobic step. Before long I can dispose of the carpet and just use the aerobic step. I have stuck rubber matting on top my step to avoid him slipping. 

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Now I can train a multitude of fitness exercises with my dog in addition to the two I need for teaching him to scale; front feet on the step, hind feet on the step. He is of course only about 2 inches off the floor. You can have fun teaching him to; ‘stand’, ‘sit’, and ‘down’ (a great aid for ‘wait’ training). You can teach ‘tuck sits’ and ‘sit-ups’, moving front feet to the floor and back up onto the step keeping his bum sitting. ‘Press-ups’ from the stand to the down and back up to strand; the list goes on and on. Have fun with your dog on the aerobic step. From the age of 6 months –14 months you can build jumps up to his elbow height. *Meanwhile you have taught your dog to use his feet on cue and now he knows how to transverse an object, using full body awareness, without leaping over it.To move this exercise onto the training scale (see photos) remove the boards from the training jump until the height is less than the length of your dog’s legs so that, if he straddles the jump he will not hurt his body. 

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Now ask him to place his front feet on the board. 

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Click and treat returning him back to the floor same side (his back feet should not have moved) we do not want him to jump it yet. Repeat this exercise until he is happy to approach from a distance and stop with his front feet on the jump.  After a few of these take him round the other side of the jump and lure him backwards to place his hind feet on the jump (just as he did on the aerobic step). 

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 Click and treat as usual. Now you have the beginning of a scale jump and the end of the jump (going one way). Repeat frequently to instil these two pictures into his mind and muscle memory. Next, when he has his front feet up lure him over the jump with the titbit on his nose and the cue for hind feet contacts and click and treat for hind feet contact as before. 

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From 14 months onwards the growth plates should finally be closed and you can begin jump training above elbow height. *Now your dog has the basic knowledge of the contact jump and should be using full body awareness without any stress, either physically or mentally. Over the coming months (as your puppy develops) you will be able to gradually increase the height as his fitness improves and he learns to pull himself up. 

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 Bear in mind that he should not jump higher than his own elbow until he is 14 months old. If progressing to the full six-foot scale specialists advise leaving this until the dog is fully fit and matured at around 2 - 2 ½ years (varying between breeds).

You will get to the stage that the dog cannot pull himself over from the stationary position with his front feet up, or he cannot reach the top of the jump to make his contacts. At this point you will need to allow a short run-up and the exercise can no longer be done in two parts. He will need to approach with speed, clamber up using two front feet and place his hind feet as he comes down the other side. 

If the dog is allowed to take off from too far away he may leap at the jump and hit it with his shoulder. Keep him in quite close to encourage the use of his front feet to grab on to the top and pull himself up as you have taught him. Ideally, he should then use his hind feet to stabilise his body as his front feet begin the descent on the boards. Be observant and do not allow your dog to become tired. Just get the action you require and finish while you are both having fun. Give him a couple of days for his muscles to recover before repeating the exercise. Do not rush to increase height, work to build skill and confidence.

Remember, always warm your dog up thoroughly before asking him to jump

When competing, the dog is required to go over the scale and wait in an elected position; and then return to you over the scale. Of the ten marks allocated to the scale jump, half of these marks are given to the return, with just three for going over and two for the wait. So, with most marks on the return I like to teach the dog to jump over and return without waiting. The dog’s early learning is always strong so if he is going to make a mistake in competition I would rather him not wait, than not return. If he goes over and comes straight back in a competition I should get eight points, but if he does not return the maximum points he can earn is five. I will add control when the dog wants to jump over and back.

As he gains confidence, on a low scale I allow him to jump over and back, over and back. This becomes a great game with me standing on one side to encourage him whichever way he is going. For this I keep the scale as low as I can without him clearing it. Before long I will be able to stand anywhere near the scale while my dog is put through his paces. He will not be dependent on me being in just the right place to get him over the jump. An added bonus of not having the jump too high is that I can see over the jump to see what he is doing. I might put him in a sit facing the scale and go around the far side and call him back to me, or I might simply reward him for sitting on the far side by throwing a treat over the top of the scale for him to catch (only do this with your dog if you have previously taught him to sit and catch – this is a separate exercise). Throwing a treat over the scale is a great way of teaching the dog to look at the top of the jump ready for the return, just make sure the treat is large enough for him to easily see it coming. My dog will enjoy being around the scale jump and will be confident in scaling either or both ways irrespective of where I am standing and he will be relaxed to sit on either side awaiting a command or reward from me before I consider increasing the height of the scale.Over the following weeks and months, I will occasionally add an extra board. The dog should be jumping confidently and enjoying his work as he develops strong musculature.

On days when he does not do any jump training, I might practise some heelwork and walk him up to the scale about turn and continue heelwork away from the scale. I prefer not to combine the approach with the jump in early training; instead I teach one or the other, to keep my dog focused on that task, not anticipating the next.When working to increase the height of the jump, I begin each session at the highest level my dog attained at the previous session. If he has been successful at this height for some time and I think he is ready to go higher I will add a board. After a few successful jumps, I will remove one or two boards and continue his fitness and attitude training over the lowered scale as above. This way he gets to do the higher jump when he is fresh and lower jumps later in the session. When the dog can do a full height scale I will start any training session with a full height jump and then lower it for the fun and fitness training. By doing a full sized formal jump first, not only are you maximising on his energy levels but also, when he approaches the full-size scale at a trial he will expect to do this and then have the fun stuff afterwards. Hey presto; he does the full height jumps with accuracy and enthusiasm!

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Anne Bussey
*Ref Dr Chris Zink: ‘Sports Conditioning for the Canine Athlete’