How Lil learned to throw a Frisbee like a discus

Teaching Lil to toss a Frisbee in a discus-like manner involved stringing together a few rather complex behaviors including: catching a Frisbee, spinning in a 360 degree circle while holding the Frisbee, and whipping her head to the side and releasing the Frisbee at a precise moment so it flies back towards me.

This trick started by capturing a behavior that a lot of puppies do naturally: throwing toys into the air. Over time, Lil learned to flip toys higher and higher in the air, and it was not uncommon to see a toy fly across the living room while we were watching TV (which looks so funny).  The “Flick It” trick is now mostly under stimulus control so she rarely  flips toys across the Living Room anymore.  This is a good thing since Lil considers anything on the floor to be a potential toy and a marrow bone came close to hitting the TV screen once.

Here is how Lil learned this trick:

As I mentioned, she already knew how to flip a toy over her shoulder so I started by throwing the Frisbee just beyond her reach so she had to turn away from me to pick it up, which put her in a perfect position to flip the Frisbee back to me over her shoulder.

The first few times, I clicked and rewarded Lil for just picking up the Frisbee.  When she heard the Click, she’d drop the Frisbee and run to me for a treat.  Little by little, I started delaying the click, so Lil started turning back towards me with the Frisbee still in her mouth, before I clicked.  Her enthusiasm for the game, along with her past experience of flipping toys over her shoulder, made it easy for her to start tossing the Frisbee by whipping her head to the side while she turned.

At that point, my placement of the Frisbee dictated the direction of the toss.  So I refined that position to make it easier and easier for her to throw it back to me vs. in a random direction.  And since Lil was then able to throw the Frisbee 90% of the time,  I started rewarding only “better than average” performances (direction OR velocity).   It looked good, and was fairly consistent, so I left the trick alone for a long time, thinking it was complete.

Somewhere along the line though, the idea occurred to me that it would be super cute if Lil learned to catch the Frisbee before flipping it back to me.  But this would mean that Lil needed to learn how to flip the Frisbee back towards me from any position.

I started this new phase of training by rewarding Lil for just holding the Frisbee in her mouth. I quickly added that behavior to another trick she already knew:  how to do a 360 degree spin.  Once she was able to hold the Frisbee and turn 360 degrees without dropping it, I needed to figure out how to add the “head whip.”   The only way I could think of was to alternate training two separate behaviors:  “360 spins while holding the Frisbee,” and the “head whip” from Lil’s original Frisbee trick.

I figured eventually the two behaviors would start to blend.  Plus I couldn’t come up with a better plan! 🙂   Not surprisingly, the direction of Lil’s tosses went out the window for a while as she often released the Frisbee too early.  But I rewarded any tosses that had good “head whip”/ velocity regardless of the direction, and I also rewarded any full 360 degrees turns while hold the Frisbee, even it she just dropped it after the spin.

I didn’t train this regularly at all, often taking weeks or even months off between sessions. When I did bring the Frisbee out, I just clicked and rewarded “better than average” performances (velocity OR direction).   And as you can see in the video it is slowly coming together.  ps–Some sessions have better Frisbee velocity than what was shown on the video, but I was very happy with the results of that particular session because I thought Lil was really trying to spin AND toss the Frisbee towards me in one motion.

Over time, I think Lil will be able to blend “the catch, the spin and the release” into one fluid motion.   I also anticipate the Frisbee will gain more and more velocity as Lil learns to whip her head to the side at the precise moment necessary to use the momentum of the 360 turn the way a discus thrower does.

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