Updated: Apr 14, 2020
Having a behavior on a purely verbal cue can be helpful when our physical cues can't support the behavior...like when your dog is faster than you are and you physically can't get there to cue it, or you thought you could get there but something happened and now you're behind, or there is a visual challenge that might confuse the dog.
Verbal cues are trained behaviors, which means you actually have to spend time dog training. A lot of physical cues are natural to the dog (like acceleration and deceleration), but verbal cues are not natural, they don't speak English ;) That means we have to do some repetition showing them the verbal cues and rewarding them.
Two of the verbal cues I like to start with are wraps and backsides.
We want to set the dog up in a position that will help them be successful. The starting position for a wrap will be the dog lined up to the center of the bar, and the handler faces the wing. Make sure to use a consistent verbal word for your wrap cue, and it sounds different from anything else you use.
Start close to the jump. Keep the jump low. I like to hold the dog in the collar and use excitement building words ("ready, steady"), this opposition reflex can help them move forward to the jump when you let go.
Let go and say your wrap verbal cue. Repeat the verbal cue until the dog commits to the wrap. Try to not move your feet or hands. The dog take the jump, comes back to you and gets rewarded.
If the dog doesn't take the wrap, hold them in the collar and try one more time. If they still don't do it, try to point towards the jump with the hand closest to them. We want to help them with minimal physical cues, because we need to wean those out to make this purely a verbal skill.
As they are successful move your starting position one step backwards from where you were the previous time. It is very important to move in small increments, don't rush. Increasing the challenge too quickly at a time can lead to being unsuccessful. You are trying to build up to at least 20ft of distance.
As a rule of thumb for dealing with unsuccessful attempts - if the dog has a failure, repeat the same thing one more time. If they are successful - jackpot reward! If they are still unsuccessful, make it easier the next time.
As you build distance, sometimes I will toss the reward close to the jump to reward.
You do want to train this with dog on your left side and dog on your right side. But only work on one side at a time in the beginning. Once they become fluent in these behaviors we will talk about mixing the cues up, but in the beginning work on one side and one behavior at a time.
Work on different angles. Move to the side of the jump - the 3:00 or 9:00 position. Work on the same steps as listed above. This angle is a much harder turn for the dog, so your reward placement is important. You can drop the reward sometimes to support the dog taking a nice turn. Start with the jump low, but build height as the dog is successful.
Make sure you are using a consistent backside word, and it sounds different from your wrap verbal. The starting position is important to help set the dog up for success. The handler should be facing the wing, the dog should be lined up to face the plane of the jump. In competition you will only see backsides on winged jumps. Backsides are physically hard for the dog to do on wingless jumps, try to use a winged jump if you have one.
These steps are very similar to the wrap. Start close to a low jump. Hold the dog in the collar, let go and repeat your backside verbal cue. Reward the dog as they take the jump and come back towards you.
As the dog is successful, build distance away from the jump in small increments.
If you need to help them - try to make as small of a signal as you can and wean it out asap.
Build up to at least 20 feet of distance.
Remember to work this with the dog on both sides of you. But start only doing one side a training session.
Once you've built distance, then work on making the angle harder. The more straight you line them up on the jump bar, the harder it is. Make sure to move in very small increments.
If you get a failure, repeat the same thing one more time. If they are successful, jackpot! If they fail again, make it easier the next time.
You will start to see frustration behaviors if you get too many non-reward attempts in a row. Remember to mix in some reset behaviors you can reward - like sits, downs, spins etc.
Mix and Match
Once the dog has a good understanding of verbal wraps and verbal backside on both sides of the handler, you can start to mix and match them to test the dog's listening skills. We are testing to see if they are actually listening to our verbal cue and not just patterning to the last thing they did.
Don't start this too soon, you need to be confident in your dogs individual skills before combining them.
At the beginning of the session, I start by setting them up in the starting position for the wrap, about 10-12ft away from the jump, and asking for the wrap. Then go to the starting position for the backside and ask for the backside. As a handler, start working towards standing at the center of bar (6:00).
Be random about asking for wraps and backsides - dogs are good at recognizing patterns!
If the dog picks the wrong cue, don't reward and try again. If they fail twice in a row, make it easier the next time.
Your goal is to keep changing angles or distances to make this harder.
Keep these session short, you'll see in the video that my session was too long - Chip started making more errors and getting frustrated. Quit before you get to that point!
As they get proficient in these skills you can do my favorite variation - sit down training ;)