Jump Training

For many people who are new to trials, the thought of teaching their dog a six foot scale, a nine foot long jump and a three foot hurdle puts the fear of god into them! Often, because of this they avoid training the jumps for as long as possible. This is not a good policy.

Notwithstanding the recently introduced and optional ‘Introductory stake,’ the first time a dog is asked to jump at a trial it has to do a six foot scale, a nine foot long jump and a three foot hurdle. Competing puts the fear of god into many, so now add the fear of jumping to the fear of competing and what do you have? I would say a recipe for putting the newcomer and his dog off of competing in trials!

When we ask a dog to jump we want him to be fired up with enthusiasm, however when chasing a ball, many dogs forget about self-preservation and hurl themselves forward with scant regard for their own well-being. For this reason we need to separate our ‘drive’ training from our ‘performance’ training. What I mean by this is, if we throw a ball over a long jump many enthusiastic dogs will knock the back element in their eagerness to get the ball. This discomfort of the knock (repeated many times through a dog’s career) may have one or more negative effects; the obvious one – he could injure himself; he could learn to run around the jump; or he could form an unpleasant association with jumping – this will be compounded by the owner getting on at the dog who is now not performing as well as he previously did. For this reason I like to use food rewards rather than toys in early jump training. That is not to say I do not use toy rewards once the dog has learnt how to jump properly. I do, but only after the dog has learnt how to control his body over a jump.

Some dogs are be put off jumping by having harsh control training whilst facing the jump – or worse being chastised for anticipating the jump! Think about it – if you want your dog to be an enthusiastic jumper, why would you discipline him for jumping? Often, in the heat of the moment during a training session, I hear handlers shout at their dog to "wait-wait-WAIT!" when surely the purpose of jump training is to get the dog to want to jump – not to stop him! If you have a control issue – if the dog will not ‘wait’ on a single command, take him away from the jumps and teach him to wait. This is a separate exercise. Ok they might come together on the competition field, but they should be taught separately - unless you want to dampen your dog’s desire to jump. If my dog jumps when I have asked him to wait I don’t tell him off. I simply don’t praise him for the jump. I will then set him up again and reward the wait. I make a note to self, ‘need to spend more time training the wait’. It is my job (as his trainer) to help him to get it right. By rewarding the dog for waiting he will become more inclined to wait.

Let’s face it there is much controversy questioning the safety of working trials jumps, but if you want to compete in trials your dog must be capable of doing them. We should acknowledge the importance of this part of trials training; not only is it twenty points at every trial, it is your dog’s health and well-being that are at stake. We need to be aware that there are many different components that need to be considered and I think it is important to have a structured training programme that focuses on the many isolated aspects that require training.

They include;

Control or obedience around the jumps

Knowledge of the exercise – what we want him to do

  • Desire to jump
  • Fitness - building the different muscle groups required for the different jumps
  • Skill - developing technique

This is not like swimming – you don’t just throw them in and see if they can do it!

Many years ago I taught one of my dogs to swim by throwing him into a lake. I was rewarded by seeing him swimming perfectly well, what fun - but do you know that dog disliked water the rest of his life. He never wanted to swim. Maybe if I have used an incentive to get him in the water he would have grown to enjoy swimming.

Jump training, for me, is all about attitude. I want my dog to want to jump. It takes many months for the dog to develop the strength, the knowledge and the skills needed to jump competently. It does not happen overnight. For this purpose, I start jump training with young puppies, or, with a new adult, fairly soon after acquiring it.

Before you jump up and down, telling me that jumping will damage a young puppy, we will not actually be jumping him! Young dogs, I am talking anything from about twelve weeks here, benefit from exercises that draw their awareness to all of their feet. Remember they have twice as many as us to think about. A ladder laid flat on the floor can be used to get the dog to pick up his feet as he steps between the rungs to recover pieces of food. Never play fast action games here as he could knock his legs in his exuberance, just make a trail of food to encourage him to calmly walk into the spaces between the rungs. Other obstacles can be used in this way, an old hosepipe spread on the floor (before you cut it into pieces for tuggy track articles) or a heap of tracking poles laid in an irregular line like a miniature cavalletti lane. Just stand around these obstacles dropping food to entice him to step in and allow him to teach himself where his back feet are.

When my young dog has his first lesson in jumping he already knows where all his feet are and he knows to follow a hand, with or without a piece of food in it (see WTM June 2012). I always teach the hurdle first. To do this I reduce the jump to its lowest setting, this should be less than the height of the kerbstone your puppy has to negotiate every time you cross a road. If your jump will not go low enough, you can improvise with two tracking poles placed at the same width as your jump and place the pole on the floor (or a broomstick if you do not have a jump). Now stand inside the jump with one leg either side of the pole and your back against an upright. There will just be enough room for your youngster to come into the jump with you. If we avoid the jump they follow our lead and avoid it too, but by actually starting inside the jump yourself, your puppy should want to join you. Now lure your puppy across the pole. He will not have to jump – just step over it. Reward him for his effort no matter how clumsy that was. Give him time to swallow the treat and then lure him back to the other side. Again reward him. As he gets the idea that crossing the pole brings a treat, he will start to bounce across from side to side with enthusiasm. He may only be a few months old, but already he is beginning to form a pleasant association with the jumps.

If you have an older dog that dislikes the jumps, the above exercise will help to rebuild his attitude. In this case you might set to the jump about six inches, straddle it as above and encourage your dog to join you for some tasty treats. Never try to increase the height of the jump when working in close like this as the dog may not have enough space to jump correctly.

This simple exercise is designed to familiarise your young dog with the equipment and to develop a good association with jumping over the pole. This early training can be repeated many times over the months, it only takes a few minutes but it will create a good foundation for future jump training.

Anne Bussey