Updated: Jun 29, 2022
Utility Go Outs are one of the most difficult skills for trainers to explain to their dogs. I think what makes them so difficult is that it is deceptively easy to describe what you want your dog to do; when I ask my students to describe their image of the perfect go out to me, the description is usually along the lines of this: “Run across the ring and sit on command.” Eight words. You can probably see it in your mind right now. Doesn’t that read like a perfectly succinct description?
Why, then, is this so much more complicated to explain to the dog? How do you get your dog to DO those eight words?
Well, I think we take a lot for granted with our simple description. My experience is that my dogs want and need a lot information in order to perform confident, accurate, and consistent Go Outs. My dogs have to have ready answers to these questions:
Where am I going?
How do I get there?
How will I know I’ve arrived?
What do I do when I get there? (How do I let you know I’ve arrived?)
What do I do if I can’t see my destination or if I’m not sure I’ve gone far enough?
What do I do if I can’t find my destination? Are you going to help me? (YES, but then the next question is HOW will you help me so I can find it the next time without help?)
When do I stop?
Do you remember the first time you drove out to the training center? How did you navigate the trip — did you use a paper map? Written instructions? GoogleMaps? A friend/co-pilot who knew the way? Was it stressful, driving an unknown route to a location you might not recognize on sight? Were you relieved and happy when you arrived at our front door?
If you’ve been coming to the training center for a while, how do you navigate the trip now? Do you still use your original navigation tools, or are you able to “auto-pilot” the trip? What is your emotional state during the drive? Now that you’re very experienced traveling to the training center, how would you handle a detour or a different route? Are you happy to arrive at the training center?
Now put yourself in your dog’s position learning Go Outs. Let’s set up GoogleMaps for your dog:
What is the destination? The center stanchion at the back of the ring.
How do I get there? Starting from heel position, “drive” straight ahead until you arrive at your destination.
What do I do when I arrive? “Park” at the center stanchion.
Are there any stops along the way? I’ll let you know. Otherwise, keep going!
I am my dog’s navigator on Go Outs for a long time. I pick the destination and show her how to get there. Once we arrive we have a great party and hang out for a while. My dog and I make this trip a lot, and we always have a great time when we park at the stanchion. My dog loves to make this trip, so I teach her how to make the “drive” by herself: face the end of the ring, focus straight ahead, put one paw in front of the other, and keep going straight until voilá! — she’s arrived at the party! Sometimes we stop along the way and do other things (just like sometimes we stop to pick up the mail on the way home), but otherwise she is focused on arriving at the center stanchion.
So, that’s what we are trying to communicate to our dogs, and it’s a lot more nuanced than “run across the ring and sit on command”. Now that we know what we want to accomplish, we can break it into a collection of skills that are simple to teach to our dogs. Here is the list of essential skills that I teach to navigate a Go Out:
Sit straight in heel position
Attention to handler in heel position
Look straight ahead and maintain gaze in that direction
Run straight ahead
Maintain position at a designated target/location
Turn and sit (straight) at distance from handler without traveling towards handler
Interrupt travel towards/away from handler
If you’re like me, my confidence is directly proportional to the amount of trusted information and experience I have before I hit the road. I’ve learned that my dogs are very much the same; my dogs do hundreds of Go Outs in as many venues as possible until they have enough experience and confidence that they don’t need Google Maps to help them anymore. Go Outs can be some of the most environmentally contextual skills we teach our dogs for competitive obedience. Which is a fancy way of saying that the background matters! But we can reduce the complexity of the task and make it less contextual by thoroughly teaching not just what happens at the end, but what to do literally every step along the way. And eventually, just like driving to the training center, we become so experienced with the route that we don’t need an app to direct us anymore.
I know some of you are going to toss out everything I just wrote because I use the center stanchion as a target for my dogs. I think it’s very important to use a destination that my dog can identify and will predictably be there for my dog to “park” on. Using a target that you will take away when you show or might/not be there for the dog doesn’t work for many dogs; how would you feel on your second trip to the training center to “arrive” and discover that we had moved and left no forwarding address? Would you drive out a third time? Would you be so trusting of your navigator in the future?
If you’re one of my students, you’ve probably heard me say, “If your dog understood what you wanted, your dog would do it”. And the corollary, “if you’re dog isn’t doing it, it’s probably because your dog doesn’t understand what you want.” So, if your dog isn’t doing Go Outs the way you want them, take a big step back and assess if you are giving your dog the best information and training. It’s your responsibility to be the best co-pilot for your dog if you want the team to succeed.