Why is it that dogs can nail fronts when they aren’t holding something – yet add an object to their mouth and it all goes away?
I have some theories so here we go:
1) We do millions of fronts without objects in our dog’s mouths, so when they are not carrying something they perform on auto pilot. But when you add an object, you change the dog’s feelings about the exercise – either to more or less enthusiastic, depending on the dog. And when you change how the dog feels about an exercise, you change their muscle memory as well. If a dog has learned to nail a front moving at one speed, and then holding a dumbbell they are working at a dramatically different speed, then they will have little to no practice performing correctly. End result? cooked fronts.
Solution: Practice just as many fronts WITH an object in the mouth as without, and use all of the same aids that you used in the first place. If you work on teaching your dog to find front by running around a cone and then coming back – throw a dumbbell into the picture and give it a try. If you practice fronts while pivoting on a spot, try that with a dumbbell too.
Here Raika is working a common ‘front’ exercise (pivots and lateral movement) while holding an object. (If you’re curious about how I deliver food to her….Raika sometimes holds her head at an odd angle so food placement counteracts that and balances her. It looks a bit odd but it works.)
2) Some dogs have to really concentrate to nail a front, and finding front while sitting, walking, or carrying an object at the same time is not easy for them! The issue is one of multitasking, and they struggle to perform with precision.
Solution: Time! Practice! Eventually dogs can do both things without thinking about keeping their mouth closed and then they will have energy left over for thinking about body position. You can make that happen more quickly by teaching your dog to perform a variety of exercises while carrying an object, since the issue isn’t so much the front as the act of carrying and “doing” all at once. Instead of stressing your dog about trying to hold on to the dumbbell while nailing a perfect front, teach them to hold the dumbbell while going to a platform, or while doing signals. What you do won’t matter as much as giving the dog practice with multitasking.
Here’a a video showing Brito’s first lesson carrying a dumbbell while working on other behaviors. He struggles! He munches a bit! None of that matters; he’ll work it out with the confidence that comes with time and practice. We worked on a variety of things including heeling, hand signals, go outs and platforms. As a bonus, I left in the last 10 seconds of the video. I figure someone out there needs to see it.
3) Some dogs are in avoidance of their handlers. To be blunt, they do not want to sit in front position when carrying an object because that experience has been made unpleasant.
Solution: Make the object hold in front an incredibly pleasant experience. If you have a habit of clamping your dog’s mouth shut to create a calm hold in front position you’ll create head tossing, sits that are too far away, or a dog that chews the dumbbell in front. Stop doing that. If you make your dog sit there for a long time while you stare at them, then you’ll create nervous munching. Stop doing that too. Work stationary duration holds (if you think you need it – I don’t teach that) separate from your fronts. The solution is simple – stop making front position unpleasant.
There are many additional reasons why dogs don’t sit straight in front with an object, but most of those are actually about the straight sit and not about the object at all – if a dog sits crooked without an object you’ll see the same issues when you add one to the equation, only magnified.