In this blog I discuss the most common dock diving performance issues and ways that you can help your dog overcome them!
Dock Diving is a dogsport like all others, where we will frequently have things that dogs need to work on in order to improve their game. Here are three common issues along with some ideas on possible solutions.
1. Hesitating or Refusing to Jump
There are multiple reasons that a dog might hesitate before jumping, or refuse to jump at all. I could never say for sure based only on your description or a picture, but as your dog's owner, you'll have a good grasp on their background and training history which might help you sort it out based on the clues below. The fix depends on the reason the problem is happening in the first place!
Most commonly, a dog who hesitates or refuses to jump lacks in confidence. This might not be a dog that you would consider insecure in any other aspect of life, but it can show up here. And that is common because most dogs learn dock diving 'on the job' rather than by getting taught foundation skills first. Confidence issues can come from dogs who just lack experience/foundations in general, from having had a bad experience at the pool (like a slip, or jumping into water that was much colder than expected), or from experiencing ongoing changes on the dock like different starting positions, different throwing techniques, or other changes that make the game unpredictable. Almost all of these confidence-related causes can be addressed by going back to the foundation exercises on dryland, building patterns and repetitions that your dog can build on, and then transferring them back up onto the dock in a progressive manner.
Another potential cause is throw timing as it relates to motivation. If your throws are too late, some dogs will not jump in on speculation of where the toy will go in. For them, the fun part is seeing the toy and planning to chase it or land on it in the water- they don't want to risk jumping if the toy isn't where they expect it to be! For dogs like this, it's usually better to throw earlier than later- and never try to fake them out. I've seen handlers that pretend to throw the toy to see if their dog will jump in - and of course they don't, because the dog in turn is waiting to see where the toy will go before jumping! "Testing" the dog in this way with fakeouts also cause the dog to be much less likely to jump on their next turn because now they are even less sure that the handler is going to throw it. We want our dogs to trust that when we give them their release cue, that we WILL throw the toy, and that trust is what allows dogs to plan for a powerful jump with enough striding and speeding to reach their potential. Throwing late or waiting for some sign that your dog will commit to jumping before you've even thrown it does the opposite- it teaches the dogs to be slow, thoughtful, and hesitant- because they don't want to get tricked into jumping without the toy, without knowing where the toy will land, or without the chance of being able to catch the toy (depending on the dog!)
The other reason we may see hesitation or refusals is because the dog is hurting in some way. A minor injury might not be enough to dampen your dog's enthusiasm to get on the dock or change their movement- ie you might not see obvious limping- but it might be enough to prevent them from feeling powerful and courageous for jumping. You'll need to investigate this if you've had a strong jumping dog who suddenly starts to hesitate or refuse- and you need to take this seriously. Don't keep asking for jumps in a dog who has the confidence and experience to jump but is choosing not to. Always be on the look out for the potential of injury or soreness because addressing it earlier almost always means there is a better chance at solving it and healing sooner, and avoids having the dog make painful associations with their favorite game- and thus improves the odds of returning to sport in full force.
2. Jumping Too Early
I usually see early take-offs as symptom of one of two problems. Either the striding that the dog is allowed on the dock is incorrect- meaning that in order to get a big powerful jump on the dock, the dog must jump early or be forced to throw in a smaller partial stride- or the dog is jumping early on purpose because they don't know where exactly the edge is from turn to turn.
The first category is usually an easy fix- slightly adjust your dog's starting position- this might not be intuitive but if your dog is leaving the dock 3 feet early, don't necessarily move them up a full three feet- but move them up one foot. Using the full 40 feet on the dock is not helpful if your dog can't actually make use of it due to their stride length- so don't feel like you are giving up an advantage by moving your dog up- it's more of an advantage to use the exact length of dock that gives your dog the full, powerful, consistent strides. After making a change in your dog's starting position, give them many opportunities to jump from this new starting position and video from the side to watch for improvement. You won't know if this is the magic new starting position in the first turn after a change- your dog needs a chance to be able to know how many strides they have, and be able to predict that this is how many they have to work with- before they will get comfortable enough to make full use of that space. For some dogs this might be 3-4 repetitions, but for other dogs, it takes more time than that to adjust to new striding spacing and really get the confidence to put their full power into the new striding pattern.
The second category is a trickier fix because it involves repairing damaged trust and confidence. If your dog is leaving early on purpose to ensure they don't over run the dock, you have a couple of angles of attack. On the dock itself you want to change your strategy to become a pillar of consistency. Choose a starting spot for your dog (less room to run is actually better when you are working to solve an early take off issue, I usually go back to basics and give the dog only one stride before they jump which in turns make that take off soon very familiar and comfortable)- and stick with it! Be really precise. If you are setting them up at the 10 foot mark on the dock, then make it exactly 10 feet every time. Find a way to make this repeatable, such as lining your dog's front feet up with the 10 foot marker. Give your dog a chance to really learn to trust that each jump will be the same striding as the last one. Add an extra stride back in to the run- one at a time. These changes occur over weeks, not over the course of the same training session- because we are really trying to give our dog the chance to feel the routine and safety of consistency and it takes time to achieve that.
You'll also want to work on their confidence on surface changes away from the dock. Why does the dog struggle with knowing where the edge is? Maybe they don't really trust their own rear foot placement. Maybe they feel like they have to visually see the edge while they are jumping. These issues are perfect candidates for dryland training surface change exercises, body awareness exercises, and set point jumping drills. When you attack the problem from all of these avenues, your dog comes out with much better skills and then, coupled with your new strategy of consistency in handling, they willl feel much more comfortable at choosing a take off point that is closer to the edge of the dock.
While we're on the topic of early take-offs though... please don't think that your dog should be taking off at the tip of the dock edge with their toes curled over in order to avoid wasting any dock. Anywhere in the last 6 inches of the dock would be considered a very efficient and safe take off zone and ideally, your dog is giving themselves a bit of room for error. A dog does need their entire foot on the top surface of the dock- no toes curling over- in order to get the most power for a big jump, so don't try to adjust your dog to the point where they don't have that space to work with. If you scroll back up to see the picture at the very top of this blog post, you'll see a dog who's actually TOO far forward on the dock and is losing power because his toes curl over the edge. If this toe -curling happens consistently, it's a sign of insecurity and you'll need some of the tips from the confidence category above to correct it- but if it happens only once in a while, you'll want to follow these consistency suggestions to give your dog a better chance and routinely picking a safer take off spot.
3. Arousal Issues
Most dock divers don't even know this is a thing, but if you've ever said 'he doesn't do that in training' or 'he only does this at dock diving and not at our other sports' after your dog did something particularly annoying at a trial or practice- perhaps in regards to breaking their stay, refusing to let go of a toy, barking his fool head off in the waiting line, or refusing to get out of the water- those are arousal issues! Dogs can get over-aroused to the point where their brain shuts off and any behaviors that would be automatic under lower arousal become impossible. They aren't being jerks on purpose- it's the biochemical status of their brain in this condition that reduces their ability to respond as expected. Over-arousal can be caused by extreme excitement/anticipation, or by stress, or both combined!
It's a common misconception in dock diving that you need to make your dog crazily frantic to get the best jumps. You do want your dog excited- but there is a limit where getting too excited (over-aroused) goes beyond being helpful to their performance. This is a scientific principle of arousal that has been studied in high level athletes and it's known as the Yerkes-Dodson Law:
Working on elements of your dog's skills - like toy play, stays, and recalls- away from the dock to the point of fluency, and then gradually adding in the distractions they'll see on trial day can be super helpful to keeping your dog in an excited, but not over-aroused, state of mind when it's time to jump. Think about things that you can introduce to your dryland training to mimic trial day. Youtube sound tracks for crowd-cheering noises and dogs barking. Flags attached to your backyard fence to mimic flapping banners. Practice your dog's toy skills in various environments so that they aren't distracted or over-aroused in new locations.
Additionally, consider an 'on the dock' set up routine that you can do within the allotted time for your competitive organization. If you have a predictable pattern of getting up on the dock, hanging your leash, and then playing with your dog before you set them up to stay or be held by your helper- which is efficient and predictable- your dog will be able to keep their head on much easier- and that translates to more predictable, consistently powerful jumps and less time and energy wasted by broken stays or wrestling your dog to get the toy back!
Want to learn more about ways that you can improve your dog's dock diving performance through dryland training? My ONLINE class "Dryland Dock Diving Training: Foundations, Fitness and Fixes" is open for registration now- with the 6 week class beginning April first. For more information, to register, or view testimonials from last year's students, click here: https://www.fenzidogsportsacad...
Author: Erin Lynes KPA-CTP, FDM, CCL is the owner and trainer at Eromit AIRcademy, a sanctioned dock diving pool in Quesnel, BC, Canada. She has been competing in dock diving since 2013 and has trained national champions and record setting dogs in several leagues. Online and in-person student teams have earned regional and national championships and best of breed rankings in multiple dock diving disciplines. Erin uses positive reinforcement for training both her human and canine students and believes in providing strong foundations to build skills and confidence.