Game Classes

Gamblers Class

Start training for gamblers in Beginners class sending the dogs over one jump, then two jumps, then three jumps, then three jumps to a table. When the dogs are doing this well, substitute a tunnel for the middle jump and start with the handler running along with the dog, then working on stopping closer to first jump in progressive steps, until the dogs can be sent over the jump - tunnel - jump - table combination. During these exercises and subsequent work, use a targeting method to motivate the dogs to work ahead with confidence. (Billie Rosen)

Before beginning send-aways work on keeping a reasonable distance from the dog and not crowding. If you use targeting from day one there is simply no need to clutch your dog on the contacts and bend over like a pretzel. Learn to let the DOG learn where to put its feet and to let the dog LOOK AHEAD. Begin sequencing as soon as possible to reinforce the above. This is groundwork for gamblers. You have to start by getting away from your precious pet! Use wings on the jumps as early as possible to create some distance between you and your dog. Set up four jumps- winged, winged, non-winged, winged - and most handlers will run diagonally in at the non-winged jump and then diagonally out for the winged- with the ever so obedient dog following and running around the jump. Don't send to the table TOO often so as not to create table-happy dogs. Another good ploy is to put a tunnel under the dogwalk and turn the end in, as this is not an obstacle discrimination test. It's simply in the way and the handler HAS to stay out and let the dog alone. You can do this with poles too. (Anne Smith)

Start out by introducing lateral distance. Back chain straight aways until you are sequencing well and understand looking ahead. Use a curve to gain lateral distance from the dog.

Set things up in a horse shoe shape. Two jumps out to a tunnel and two jumps back is a good beginner curve. The goal of the handler is to eventually be running a straight line from the start to the finish while the dog is running the arch. The handler is still moving and appears to be still participating in the dog's eyes, which is motivation to keep going. In the beginning, run the arch with the dog and gradually move away from the middle, working both sides of course.

By using jumps & tunnels this can be introduced fairly early in their training. Other obstacles are included into the horse shoe as they become more reliable with them. The number of obstacles is increased, also. Later other obstacles are placed around the horse shoe that are either to be sent out to or called in to. By this time you've been working on get out or come in commands so you should be prepared for this attempt.

Try to preserve sequencing and confidence in the dog while attempting to do gamble work. To push for gambles too soon and too hard can make a dog hesitant and unsure of simple sequencing. Always be ready to back up a step and ALWAYS help the dog out. This will vary among dogs and the emphasis should be on running the course happy, and with confidence. Distance will come with time and experience. Then to do it at a show and not just at home! (Katie Greer)

Gamble training usually separates into 3 different problems, any or all of which may be present in an individual gamble at trial:

  • working at a distance from but parallel to the handler
  • working ahead of the handler
  • obstacle discrimination

If the gamble is of the first type, refer to what's already been described. If the gamble is of the second type, you need to consider what kind of dog is being worked. Many people either don't have a dog that works best trained with verbal commands and to work at a distance *or* have enforced a more intimate handling style where the handler's body language is the primary signal and any verbal commands merely reinforce the body commands.
With the more intimately working dogs, the most common error seen in trial is as follows: the dog and handler move well and quickly around the course. Then the handler enters the gamble area, and the dog performs at most one gamble obstacle and then stops and turns back to the handler.

The problem here is that the dog does not understand he needs to switch mental gears and go into gamble mode. This is generally not a problem with dogs whose normal or best working style is to work well ahead of or away from the handlers on mainly verbal commands; they're nearly always in "gamble mode". But for the more closely working, mainly body-handled, dog this is the sight picture he sees:

There's his handler streaking around with him for 40 to 50 seconds around a Gamblers course saying (with their voice & body) "Do this, do that" and all of a sudden, his handler screeches to a halt and says "Do that". The verbal commands don't mean much to him; here he's been a good dog obeying all his handler's body language for the last 50 seconds & now his handler suddenly wants him to ignore the obvious body command to stop dead and/or turn back. The handler then doesn't understand why it is that the dog does all these really neat gambles in practice yet screeches to a halt in the trial every time. The problem can usually be traced to the fact that the handler begins all their gamble practice from a standstill. This is not useful because the dog's understanding of "gamble mode" is that "when my handler *begins* the run by standing still, then I must be in gamble mode".

So what the handler needs to do is:

  1. in practice always run up to a gamble,
  2. have a setup word or a style of giving commands that tells your dog BEFORE you stop running that he needs to switch into gamble mode.

Then you consciously work on teaching the dog a setup word for the new behavior pattern. Your setup word should come to mean to the dog "OK we're running as usual, but now I'm stopping and you go on without me to your target".

To teach this, you pretty much follow the back-chaining described above. First, pattern the dog to the gamble sequence you want him to perform without you. Then run him into the gamble (in fact it's a good idea to do an obstacle or two before beginning the gamble) and as he is in the process of performing the pattern, say your setup word (for example "Target"). Each successive time, run with him less far or begin to stay farther away, but each time remember to say your setup word *before* you begin to slow down/stop or increase distance between you.

For targets, you can use either fixed targets, thrown toys/balls and/or thrown targets (food tube or food in a plastic salt/pepper shaker a la Sue Waltman). It really depends on what motivates a particular dog best. You can also use secondary targets (2nd person steps in to bait or throw).

Another skill to work on for doing those last-second "saves" of a gamble where your setup word didn't do the job is to teach a "Turn-back" command. If your dog halts in the middle of a gamble to see why you're suddenly not coming with him, you may (providing you haven't been hit with a refusal) be able to save the situation by telling the dog to turn back and resume the gamble (although good luck making time...). This is a nice useful command that can be used more than occasionally in standard course runs so it's quite worth the teaching.

If the gamble is of the third type - obstacle discrimination - generally you need to have worked out or be working out your style on the other two types of gambles. Then physically arrange the discrimination and set up your approach to it such that the dog is likely to succeed the first 2-3 attempts. Then you begin your approach so that the angle suggests that the wrong obstacle is the easier path to the dog. The more verbally oriented dog generally responds the quickest to this training. The less verbally oriented dog will probably require some double handling or physical barrier that will prevent him from taking the wrong obstacle so that he can be repeatedly praised/reinforced for 'selecting' the right one. (Janet Gauntt)

If you maintain the proper attitude, a dog otherwise not really ready for competition can benefit from the Novice Gamblers class. But only if they are conditioned and ready to jump full jump height. The reason is that agility competition dogs have to get used to equipment belonging to other clubs which looks different and feels different. In Gamblers, you can do whatever obstacles you want. Avoid the obstacles the dog is not ready for such as weave poles. You should not be in the class for competition purposes, and do not ask the young dog to do the gamble from a distance. Keep in mind always that you are in the class for seasoning - equipment experience and ring experience.

One thing to keep in mind: do NOT enter a games class "for the experience" unless you have(and are willing to exert) control between obstacles. All too often the runs in the open gamblers class are green dogs choosing their course. And the handlers rationalize "I just wanted him to have a good time." Yes, that's one aspect of experience, but you have to wonder if the dog's safety was being compromised.

Control between obstacles doesn't mean heeling from one obstacle to the next. In a well designed gamblers course you can find several flowing sequences of obstacles that may serve your "for experience" goals well. But those sequences are likely to be fragments that may end in a corner, or require a demanding maneuver to transition to another sequence, or lead into an obstacle your dog isn't ready for yet. So you *must* be prepared and able to get control of your dog and safely move to another section of the course.

Planning a gambler's run "for experience" can require just as much thought as going for a placement and qualification. Plan alternatives for what-ifs. Pay particular attention to knowing where the "danger spots" are for your dog. Are you going to try the gamble or not? At what point will it make sense to go to the table (or finish) with your dog?

Part of the gamblers game is how well the handler thinks on their feet and deals with the unexpected. Be ready for this, and practice for it as a skill. If you are in the ring to compete, yes - moving on and going with the direction the dog takes can be a good strategy. But if you and your dog are there for experience then decide before entering the ring if calling the dog back and insisting that he do what you ask might not be a better strategy for reaching your long term goals. Be intentional with your training, not accidental. (Sally Sheridan)

If the dog is green, don't try more than once on the gamble. Once he loses momentum and turns back toward you, go to help him out and end the run on an up-note. Too many handlers are willing to totally frustrate their beginning dogs trying to do the gamble. Even if they are used to doing distance work at home, it takes some time for them to become comfortable at the same distance at a trial. (Mary Jo Sminkey)

The following method of training for distance work is perhaps not suited to all dogs (such as those whose only reward is their master) and perhaps is not a desirable method depending on your ultimate goals for your dog (Is Gamblers that important in the grand scheme of things?).

The gist of it is simple. There are many good ways to get your dog to work at a distance; simply START with these methods 1st. It works nicely to start with a dog or a puppy that you aren't in a hurry with because it probably would take the older dog longer to get to competition level this way than if you used "traditional" methods.

The basic obstacle training is the same. Then you train the word "go", with either a stationary target such as food (utility go out) or a moving target such as a rolling away ball. Go means move away from me in a straight line. The reward is gradually obtained by the dog quite some distance from the handler. Once learned, an obstacle is then placed between the dog and the reward (a jump starts out as a bar on the ground between the wings) and the dog is told to "go jump" or "go table" or "go tunnel". (Use jumps, weave poles with wires, tunnels and table in this manner, not contacts. Presumably the dog is at least familiar with the obstacle names however the "go" is the important command). You should remain stationary but your position can change relative to the dog once he understands what action produces the reward.

Doing it this way forces the dog to understand that the acting of getting up and going over that jump produces the reward rather than following you in a game of chase that has obstacles in the way. You eventually should be able to set up the dog and target, walk 30 feet away in any direction and get the same response as you did when starting with the dog in heel position. Obviously the next step is to do 2 obstacles in sequence. At the same time, teach directional commands such as get out (move laterally away from you), right, left and go on (continue the direction you are going) away from the obstacles. Once the directionals are learned you can make the sequences more elaborate.

You can do a lot of "gambles" with poles on the ground, a tunnel and a table that are fun but safe for a puppy. The result is a dog that is not *dependent* on your position to guide him and that is not insecure when you are not there. (When the dog is working confidently, you can start doing the same thing on the contacts--usually maintaining distance but paralleling the dog so that he doesn't turn back off the side of the obstacle but continues forward.) The result is a dog that understands verbal directives (and hopefully incorporates the handler's body position cues as well once the handler begins running with the dog.) You need to start the dog this way BEFORE he gets dependent on the handler, then when you start going with the dog they gain confidence and speed and understanding of body cues rapidly. (Linda Mecklenburg)

The ability/willingness of a dog to do gambles depends upon his ability/willingness to leave you and go off and do things on his own. This is a factor of what is sometimes called the "comfort zone", which means how far you can be from your dog before he is uncomfortable.

To determine your dog's comfort zone, stand at the end of the dogwalk and send him up and over. Stand still -- do not move. Notice the dog's behavior -- at some point he will stop and turn his head to look at you. This varies WIDELY from dog to dog. This is the dog's comfort zone. And this is in a "no stress" (no show) situation -- the comfort zone decreases at a trial because of the stress factor.

To be successful at Gamblers you must expand the dog's comfort zone to a range that will encompass the gambles. Teach him that it's okay and in fact, pleasant, to go away from you. You can do this using targeting. Begin with targeting on the table since it is a nice visible object that the dog can get onto. Place the target on the table, show the dog the target (food or whatever works for you and your dog.) and take him back to the edge of his comfort zone. Send the dog for the target and allow him to get it. Repeat at least three times. Then increase the distance your are sending your dog to the target. Continue increasing this distance until you can send your dog at 50 to 60 feet to the target while you stand still.

Now you can begin adding obstacles. Start with one jump. Place the target, take the dog behind the jump and send him. Repeat. Continue adding obstacles, until you can send the dog over at least normally spaced obstacles and to the target.

This should help solve the problem with dogs who will not leave you or who shut down after the second obstacle. That situation is a factor of the comfort zone. Directing your dog at a distance is another situation, which requires some other training techniques.
(JoAnn Mather)

Here are some suggestions for those who are re-training their Velcro dogs for Master Gambles.

  1. Go back and re-train each obstacle individually, working on being able to "send" from a little further away each time. Targets can be a big help here. Lots of people do this with the table, up to 20 feet away. Many have worked on send to a pipe tunnel, from 20 or so feet away. It is helpful to work up to sending to a single jump from 30-40 or more feet away. This teaches the dog that he can look ahead more than 5-10 feet (the way he's been used to running courses) to find the obstacle you're indicating.

  2. For those training alone, clicker train the send to a target. The dog learns to go out & touch the target, you click (to signal the dog that that was exactly right) then run out to deliver treat. This means there are no cookies out there to be stolen by cheating. Another "token" system that works is to use an object that can be sealed for the target such as a Rubbermaid salt or pepper shaker (screw top).The dog goes out to pick it up and brings it back to you so you can unscrew the top & take out the cookie for him. If the dog runs to the container without "earning" it first, simply didn't give them the cookie. Some catch on to this quickly, and seem to understand the "token" concept, so that you can even trade it for a cookie from your pocket, rather than opening the shaker.

  3. Try to run "out there" to deliver treats, rather than stay in place and let the dog come back to you. A Velcro dog already wants to be near you, and since that is where the food comes, he will be constantly thinking "can I go back to mom/dad yet?" In practice, if a dog completed the last obstacle of a gamble sequence, click or the verbal equivalent ("Yes!) to let them know they were right, then run out there. Even if they meet you partway, continue on past them encouraging them to come with you to a spot a little beyond where you clicked.

                   J               J               J
    H            J               J               J       d               x
                   J               J               J

    H= handler's location up until click
    JJJ = jump
    d = where dog is when you click
    x = you run out to here, to reward dog

    Obviously, if you are using a thrown toy (or food canister) as a reward, you can simply aim the toy at spot x (past the dog), to keep their thoughts "out there." BTW, if possible, it really helps to have a second person available to throw the toy (otherwise some dogs will try to watch you, to see you throw it).

    Some clicker trainers point out that if the click is given while the dog is heading away from you, it shouldn't matter where the actual treat is delivered (i.e. if dog comes back to you for it each time). But in practice, it is very easy to get superstitious behaviors based on how/where the food is delivered. Rather than accidentally teach that coming back to you results in a cookie, you want the dog to expect to get a treat "out there" and thinking that he can't wait to head "out there" and will volunteer to go even further "out there" than you asked.

    (Remember, you are focussing on remedial training for Velcro dogs here. Some of this may not be as significant or pertinent to gung-ho dogs introduced to distance work early in training.

  4. Rather than obsess about sending the dog directly away from you, set up a simple circle of obstacles, and gradually increase the diameter of the circle, while keeping the handler in the same smaller handling circle in the middle. Remember to keep moving! This is very important for dogs who are used to having you run with them. Work on increasing distance from you, *or* minimizing handler motion, but not both at the same time.

  5. Some dogs tend to work a little slower when they are farther from the handler. If this is a problem, set up a simple sequence of obstacles (like a jump/tunnel circle) and time the dog each time (a second person makes this much easier). Click and reward only if it is faster than the previous week's average time. Gradually, the time *will* get faster. This is a "limited hold," described in Karen Pryor's book Don't Shoot the Dog.

  6. If your dog goes over the first jump, turns back and stands there barking, teach them a "look back" command. This is an excellent indoor training project for the winter!

    Method A. This is an excellent exercise for those new to clicker training, simply shape the dog to turn their head & look directly away from you.

    Method B. Teach the dog to go to a target (treat on a plate should work fine). Practice from a sit beside you. Then sit the dog facing you, with their back to the target.


    Then get creative with it: Start with the dog near the target, recall them to you but stop the dog halfway & send them back out to the target. Or send the dog on a go-out, stop them halfway, then send them the rest of the way to the target. Guess what -- you're now in great shape for the infamous UKC Utility glove exercise!

    As you progress, you may find that you rarely use "look back" in competition now. It is a *wonderful* training tool for you, both for practice & in the early times in the ring, when you needed to get past that mental block of "stop & bark at mom while she frantically tries to point behind me."

  7. Don't frantically yell and wave at your dog during the gamble. Try putting your hands behind your back for the "look back" so as not to distract the dog. This also becomes another cue to break the pattern and is helpful to break another bad habit you will see in the ring…the habit of waving and pitching your voice higher and higher on the gamble. Try having someone videotape you competing to get a feel of what you need to work on!
    It's all very well to practice sending the dog over various gamble sequences, calmly from a standstill, but don't forget to practice the part that really tends to make it fall apart: the whistle blowing! In that moment, your adrenaline surges, and all your carefully thought out strategy (stay calm, get the dog on your right, keep your voice low, etc) evaporates. Practice helps. Then practice some more. When you practice, take a kitchen timer along and set it to beep after 20, 30 or 40 seconds.

  8. Sometimes carefully walk and time your opening strategy, but sometimes just eyeball a rough plan before you start and then wing it from there, as "creative loitering" is another area where many handlers often feel their composure starting to crumble. This "inadequately prepared" feeling also helps jazz you up nearly to the level of nerves of a trial. And that timer never goes off quite when you expect.

  9. Vow to teach the next dog *before* you reach Masters.

(Susan Waltman)

Planning a gambler's strategy is a topic that one could write volumes about. There are lots of ways to do it.

The most important thing to do it decide what you want to accomplish in the Gamblers run. Is your goal to qualify, or is it to use the class as a sort of familiarization or warmup for your dog. Depending on the answer, your strategy will be different.

Assuming you want to qualify (doesn't everyone, really?) first of all you need to figure out a course that works for you and your dog. Make it as flowing and logical as possible. Many dogs get really annoyed with their handlers who seem to be jumping from obstacle to obstacle with no real plan at all. If you get a written copy of the course, actually draw it out ahead of time and try to fix it in your mind. If you have a timer on your watch, "run" the course during walk-through and time how long it takes you to do your course. That will give you a rough idea of what you can do. Once you have developed an opening sequence strategy, you need to take a look at the gamble and figure out how you should approach it, and where you should plan to be when the whistle blows. Once you have figured this out, try to end your opening sequence in an area where there are a couple of jumps or short obstacles on which you can "kill time" if you end up with more time that you anticipated.

Above all, don't plan on ending your opening sequence on the other side of the ring from where the gamble starts. Nothing is more disconcerting that having your dog just beginning the dogwalk on the opposite side of the ring when the whistle blows. You can just about kiss that gamble goodbye!

Plot your strategy and *try* to stick to it, even if you see somebody else ahead of you doing something that looks much better. If this is your first competition it's pretty hard to improvise on the fly. Try to stay with your original plan.

And, even if your dog doesn't want to leave you and go do the gamble, walk him through it by going with him. It's good practice for both of you.

Good luck and happy gambling!
(Jo Ann Mather)

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