Why should we bother teaching the dog to “back up”?
It’s an important movement skill, which helps the dog learn to use his body safely and efficiently. It’s a skill that is used in rally directly (the dreaded “3 Steps Back”), but it’s also helpful in strength and conditioning. And it comes in handy for any left pivots, like the one to glove #3 in utility.
Before we get started training it, let’s talk about what happens when the dog backs up. What does the perfect back up look like? If you watch a dog that has a gorgeous, fluent back up behavior, he/she is moving his/her diagonal legs together. The backup is a diagonal gait. That means that the right front and left hind legs move together and the left front and right hind legs move together.
The two most common obstacles are:
1. The dog sits down on his rear. You can’t back up if you are sitting on your own legs; it’s not physically possible. Although some dogs may attempt a weird scooting kind of effort, it’s still not really what we want.
2. The dog does back up, but backs up crooked. This is caused by the dog taking longer steps with the leg on one side than the other. Like paddling a canoe, if you paddle harder on one side than the other, your canoe will tend to turn and not travel straight. Usually this is mostly due to that side dominance thing cropping up again, and so it’s very common. The solution is to make sure that the dog takes the same size steps with both hind legs.
Training Back Up
There are many ways to teach a dog to move backwards. You can certainly just capture it, dogs back up on their own as a natural action frequently. But just in case that’s not convenient for you, I thought I’d include my favorite recipe for teaching a back up that I can put on cue.
I strongly prefer the “back up to a target” types of methods over others that involve either some kind of barrier and particularly anything that involves the owner pushing into the dog’s space. Both of these types of techniques involve some kind of spatial pressure that the dog moves away from. That doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily upsetting for every dog, but some dogs can be sensitive to it. And behaviors taught with spatial pressure alone tend to be hard to get without the barriers or pressure in the picture. That category of props/prompts tend to be harder to fade.
What I love about teaching the dog to back up to a target, is that the target pulls the dog backwards instead of pushing. So we’re in the more carrot/less stick realm. I also like that it gives me a clear way to click the hind leg movement, which is frequently the weak link when a dog is not backing straight.
For the target, I like some kind of fairly large non-slip, textured surface. Preferably something with an edge, and a good body-length wide, relative to your dog. Yes that seems really big, but trust me. The objective here is to have something that the dog can clearly see, and feel with his hind feet when he steps on it. I want him to be quickly reinforced with any effort to move backward and pick up his back feet, so using a target as big as a barn door keeps the other criteria easy. I can always shrink the target later, once I have the movement I am looking for. I often use a coir doormat. It’s thick, it won’t slip easily, and the rough texture makes it very easy to feel when you step your paw on it.
1. Start the dog with his hind feet on the doormat or target, in a 2-on-2 off position. Face the dog, with your toes pretty much right in front of his toes. Click and treat multiple times, delivering the treat between your feet, right in front of the dog
2. The dog is likely going to eat the treat off the ground and then glance up at you. Click that glance up, and immediately drop a second treat between your feet. Repeat. The goal here is to drop that treat before the dog has a chance to sit down. We are effectively teaching him to look up and down while maintaining a standing position with his hind feet on the doormat. That means he’s shifting his weight backward, supporting himself with his core muscles and not letting his body fall back into a sit. This is the first step of successful backing!
3. When the dog is confidently looking up at you without sitting and eating treats off the ground, step 2 inches backwards. Continue to click for hind feet on the doormat and deliver the treat on the ground between your feet.
4. Increment your distance backwards in very very small bits, like centimeters. At some point the treat will be dropping just far enough away from the mat that the dog will have to step forward to eat the treats. Ideally, he’ll step forward only with one hindfoot and eat a treat. When that happens wait for him to look up and put his foot back on the mat. Click that moment his back paw contacts the mat again.
5. Continue to gradually increment your distance backward. If at any point, the dog either turns around to go back to the mat, or sits without going back to the mat, decrease your distance by half and try again. Don’t be afraid to decrease your distance is entirely and return to that starting position of hind feet on the mat.
You’ve noticed that this technique uses (and teaches) a rear paw targeting behavior. But if your dog already has a really strong down on a mat, you can actually use that as the end behavior. (I love short cuts!) The same format applies, starting close and gradually backing up away from the mat.
You can decide for your purposes how far you want your dog to back up, but I do recommend emphasizing the quality of the back up over the distance initially. I’m looking for the dog to be confidently moving backward, taking even steps with his hind legs without offering to sit. Once I have two or three steps of the action that I like, then I’ll get serious about adding distance. I work up to a good 10 feet or so of distance for my purposes. That is certainly more than you would need for your three steps back in rally, but some teams may need more depending on their sport.
Of course, the weakness with any technique that involves a prop, is that we must also include a plan to fade that prop to get the performance on cue by itself. I recommend putting the cue on first. Then you can fade the mat by going to a smaller target, and eventually no target at all.
When the dog is confidently backing up in front of you, on cue, you can transfer it to heel position (if desired). Stay tuned for more on that next week!