The goal of this exercise is to teach the dog to back away without any forward motion from the handler into the dog’s space. This skill is extremely useful to add into other exercises where the dog has to perform at a distance. If the dog starts to expect going backward after performing (ex: down signal followed by backing up) it will lessen the dog’s natural tendency to want to creep forward. In TEAM, this skill will show up in more advanced levels to proof the dog’s ability to think instead of anticipating what is coming next.
Training with a Back Foot Target
The most common way to teach an independent backup is through the use of a target behind the dog. A target gives the dog something to aim for and naturally encourages the dog to reach with their back feet to find it. Common targets include the dog’s platform he’s used to putting all 4 feet on, or a foot target the dog is used to targeting his back feet to (the 2 on, 2 off position for agility handlers).
If you haven’t taught your dog to immediately offer whatever position you chose on their target, then first spend some time teaching the position. You want this position to be a strong automatic behavior for the dog.
While many dogs will use 4 feet on their platform for this exercise, here is a clip of me teaching a back foot target to Molly. Some dogs have an easier time learning backing to a back foot target as it emphasizes the importance of moving their back legs.
Step 1: Lure the dog off their target.
Get the dog in their target position and then use a treat to lure the dog just barely off their target. If using 4 feet on the platform, then just lure so 1 or both of the dog’s front feet comes off the platform.
If you’re using a back foot target then it might be easier to focus on just stretching your dog out from the target so that both back feet remain on their target and the dog only gets to eat the cookie as long as they remain in their position. This pre-step towards step 1 can be crucial in teaching some dogs that their position is important. Once your dog tries hard to stretch out in order to keep contact with the target, then you can just barely move the treat past that point so ideally only 1 foot comes off the target.
You can see in this video how with a back foot target, teaching the dog the concept of stretching is already getting some backing up:
With either method, once the dog is lured off from their position, you will pause and wait. Let the dog think! If the dog backs up the 1 inch required to get back into position, then reward!!! If the dog moves forward and circles around back to their target you can reward this in the beginning but soon only reward for actual backing up. Do not add in your backup cue at this stage as the dog is focusing more on their target than what they are actually doing to get there.
Here is Zumi who does already know how to backup but has never done it to a platform. Without my verbal cue to backup this is just a shaping session. She has a very strong rear feet on a target behavior and is stuck on offering that. Zumi is kinda similar to how it might look when shaping a new dog to backup to a platform:
And here is Vito who also already knows how to backup and understands a rear foot target. In his first shaping session with a platform criteria, he is a bit flaily!
Step 2: Distance of Backing
At this stage, the goal is to increase the distance your dog can back up to their target until you reach about 3 feet. For many dogs, this is a difficult step. Increase distance very slowly and always mix in easier repetitions so that it is not always getting more and more difficult for the dog to perform. A verbal cue and/or hand signal can be used once the dog is consistently backing up, not turning around, and some distance is worked through.
Here Cougar is starting to get pretty consistent with a distance of 3 feet. Note that the movement is still very awkward for her and not at all fluid!
Alternative Method: Channel
Some dogs will also benefit from learning with a channel to help guide their body and create a more fluid backing-up motion than a target method can train. For this method, the goal is still to create an independent backup without the handler having to move into the dog. You will need to create a channel for the dog to walk into but one that has a small enough width that turning around is difficult.
Get the dog in the channel (and possibly stand in it with them) and then show the dog you have treats on the other side. To get the treats the dog will have to back out. Mark while the dog is backing up and move to toss the treat to the dog. You may need to start with a 1-foot backup distance before progressing the length of the entire channel.
Here is Molly’s first session with the channel. She takes to it easily. Some dogs may first try experimenting with jumping on the channel before attempting to back up!
Here is Zumi being setup in a channel for the first time and struggling to get what I might want. She figured it out, but you might have to try a shorter channel, setting the food in a bowl on the ground, or having a helper call the dog out to them if your dog is too polite to experiment with getting the food from your hand!
Note that while this method can work independently of any other method, I still strongly recommend trying a foot target method as well. The channel is great for getting the concept of backing across but you have to very slowly fade its presence.