Dear Old Trainer: Rocket, my 2-year Aussie, is a great at catching a Frisbee or ball. I saw a dog on TV that runs out and gets the kicking tee after a kickoff at Boise State football games and races back to the sideline with it. I want to train Rocket to do the same at Fresno State football games. How do I do it?
-- Josh, Fresno
A: Like everything in sports, that job is harder than it looks.
The training part is easy. The hard part is finding a dog so focused on the job that NOTHING can distract him. Only one dog in 500 has that level of concentration.
Serena Williams defined concentration in the context of learning to play tennis on the mean streets of Compton: "If you can keep playing tennis when somebody is shooting a gun down the street, that's concentration."
Good point. They shoot off muskets, howitzers, cannons, and fireworks at football games. Add in deafening crowd noise, bands, smells, whistles, food, dogs and other animal mascots, and players running in every direction. Many schools fire a cannon at the instant the kicker hits the ball, the precise time Rocket has to go into action.
Rocket must ignore all that, race onto the field during live action, find the tee -- it can fly 15 feet in any direction as the ball is kicked -- and get back to the sideline in less than 6 seconds. He has to be perfect every time. He can never be distracted for even a few seconds.
If you are positive Rocket can do that, here is how you train him. Give the command "go" each time you throw a Frisbee for him so he learns the command is part of the act. After a few days, place the Frisbee on the ground 10 yards away. Call him to your side and vary the time until you give the "go" command from a few seconds to a few minutes. Don't allow him to take off until he hears the command.
Sweep your arm forward as you give the command so that he understands the hand signal means the same as the verbal command.
Substitute a kicking tee for the Frisbee and continue to work on the command. Slowly move the tee further away and keep up the training. If he does a perfect job, pet him and praise him. He has to do it hundreds of times without a mistake before he can be trusted in a live game.
Practice at the dog park with other dogs distracting him. Practice in the back yard when you are grilling food and all the neighborhood kids are playing and screaming. Practice at Pee-Wee games and junior high games. If he can do it there, try it at a high school practice, then at games. When Rocket does it in all conditions and never makes a mistake, he is ready for the big time.
The secret to the training is to pet him and praise him every time he does it right, but also correct him if he makes even a slight mistake.
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