Directional Control: Not Just for Working Dogs

Written by Robin Gruebel

Moses leaps into action, darting across the field and vaulting onto a platform located 25 yards away. Happily holding there, he waits for the next cue, then runs to the next target.

A total stranger is directing him while I stand out of the picture. I spent two minutes teaching the South Korean Army soldier the cues. He asks Moses to do things outside the normal “rules” of this station. Moses’ clear understanding of this task and our long hours of training allow him to adapt and complete the job with ease.

Moses and I have been certified as a Canine Search Specialist Live Find team three times in his working life through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). There are approximately 300 of these K9 teams in the nation; the teams respond to disasters to search for survivors. All are associated with the 28 FEMA Task Forces throughout the nation. Moses and I are with Nebraska Task Force 1.

Urban Search & Rescue Certification GraphicAll of the FEMA K9 teams, both live-find and human-remains detection, recertify every three years in a two-step process. The first step is a fundamental skills assessment, which includes five specific components. All must be completed successfully to pass the actual certification exam. The skills we must demonstrate are valuable, not only for our mission of saving lives and bringing closure, but also in other working dog, service dog, and pet dog situations.

Off-leash heeling, figure 8s, and acceptance of a stranger are common skills practiced across all canine obedience, sports, and service disciplines. Accepting a stranger is a little different in my world:  We sometimes fly to a training or deployment, and on the plane the dogs lie quietly for hours like a carry-on bag underneath the human passengers’ feet.  Next to an unfamiliar dog.  In addition, I may ask someone on my 80-person task force, who has never met my dog, to retrieve him from his crate while I receive orders.  During the Hurricane Irma deployment, we rode in a van for 16 hours with people Moses had never met.  This was pure bliss for Moses, who has a love of people typical of a Labrador/golden retriever mix.  For other dogs this could be highly stressful.

Off-leash direction and control is one of the fundamental skills we demonstrate during certification. Commonly seen in the hunt dog world to direct the dog to a fallen bird, the skills needed can also be used to direct a dog to a certain area of a rubble pile or down a ravine to search for the missing. This type of skill is also used by special forces to direct dogs into hostile territory to detect potential explosive devices before humans enter the area. Or, an owner can use it to tire out their pet dog in the back yard or living room. The applications are endless!

Directional control means being able to cue the animal to go in a specific direction from a “home base” starting point. It doesn’t matter the size of the animal (dog, cat, goat, horse, or bird), directional control has many different applications. Whether you are asking your dog to vault across a rubble pile to search a specific location, navigate 100 meters ahead of you to check for explosive devices, or sit next to the couch while you answer the door because the neighbor is bringing a pie, this is a useful skill. It is also a great crowd pleaser at demonstrations.

Using force to teach this behavior is not necessary. Creating enough reinforcement history for the desired behavior takes time, but can go quickly if the training plan and appropriate motivators are in play. If my dog, or my student’s dog, is struggling, it is my job as the animal with the larger brain to figure it out and make it clear.

At its core, directional control combines two fundamental skills.

  • Place (go to your bed, go to your mat, go to the cone—we call all of these a “base.”)
  • Stay

For my purposes, the dog starts at home base, and is cued to move to a different base by the handler. We need to be able to cue the dog to go to one of a variety of different bases, located at different angles from home base.  The bases are set as followed for the finished behavior during our fundamental skills assessment. The pattern of bases we must send our dogs to is given to us the day of the test. We must complete the pattern within three minutes, with no errors on the initial send-out. Bases must be completed in the correct sequence.

Canine Directability Diagram

Finer points of teaching this behavior

First and foremost, creating enough reinforcement history for being on the base is the key to this behavior. Your animal should be obsessive about getting to the base, because that is where reinforcement happens. This may be a little difficult if you are working with a horse and a traffic cone, but the key is to start quite close to the base and build distance gradually. We tend to get impatient and add distance before the animal is truly ready. In this case, “distance” could mean how far away we start from any base before sending the dog there, or the distance between bases we can send the dog to. Either way, it’s critical to remember: consistency before distance.

Be clear in your own mind about what the contingency for reinforcement is. Starting out, it might be that the animal has two feet on the base (or a nose touch to a cone). Adding another base once the dog is demonstrating they have a very strong understanding of staying on the first base will result in less frustration on your part. A few of my personal tests for whether I’m ready to add distance or another base is if I can do jumping jacks or sing while my dog is on the base. If I can do weird body movements, including rolling on the floor, reaching for a toy or into my treat bag and the dog remains until I release them, then I can raise my criteria.

There are a large number of behaviors the dog actually does while completing a full directional pattern. The words you use to cue these behaviors are not magic. The magic happens in the hard work you put into your training plan and working your dog. Here are the cues I use:

  • Right here – sit at my left side (make sure your toes are pointed at the base you want them to go to)
  • Mark – that is the base I want you to target (make sure they are looking at it before you release them)
  • Go out – go away from me (we are both facing in the same direction)
  • Hup – jump up
  • Sit (or down)
  • Stay (until given the next cue)
  • Go back – turn around and run away from me
  • Over – while looking at me, follow the direction of my hand and body, and move in that direction
  • Here – move in my direction, expect another cue
  • Come – run as fast as you can back to me

I teach and train to proficiency the “go out” to the first base from 360 degrees around the base and a distance of 2 or 3 yards prior to adding the second base.  Ideally, I will take the dog and the base to several different locations and train the “go out,” because I need my dog to generalize this behavior as quickly as possible.

To begin the “go back,” I stand next to the dog on base 1 and encourage noticing and going to base 2, for example by placing treats and toys on the second base when introducing it. Some dogs just offer the behavior.  Again, reinforce when the dog is on the desired base.  Start with one stride between the bases, so that the dog jumps off, and takes a small stride, and then you can cue the jump on.  You then work “go back” (turn around and go away from me) ad nauseum before you introduce going to the side.  This is where a “dance” begins to take place.  The flow between the criteria that you set depends on how clear you can make it for the animal.  Reinforce one criterion at a time. It might be smoothly turning around, jumping on the second base, you standing beside them and cuing or you standing slightly closer to home base and cuing.  Have a plan, and work the plan.  Keep data on what works and what doesn’t.

Another tip: When the animal is moving from base 1 to base 2, you can then move opposite of where you started and base 2 turns into base 1!  You then ask for a “go back” to the new base 2.  This has the added benefit of strengthening the animal’s stay.  Once you can stand with base 1 equidistant between base 2 and where you’re standing on home plate, then you can add more distance between the bases.  At the point where my “go back” is solid in several locations with a distance of approximately 3 yards between all bases, I add my “over” to first or third base.

When introducing the “over,” use the same starting distance you identified when you first taught “go back,” and orient the dog to the new location of the base.  Again, the dance begins.  The goal is a straight dash to the correct base.  Reinforce on base.

It will be much easier if you use a high-value motivator.  Moses wants a flying disc.  Niko, my cadaver dog in training, works for a tug toy.  The goats like chicken feed.

Use as a teaching tool

Directional control is a great way to gauge the handler/dog relationship. When taught off leash, it will be very apparent whether the animal finds the human reinforcing. I travel with large galvanized tubs I can use as bases. I can pull them out at a moment’s notice whether it be a training site or the local park. I have also used various other items, but these tubs have proven the most useful. They are stackable and cheap!

You have to be more fun than dirt to teach these skills off leash. Having a valuable enough reinforcer to maintain the animal’s interest is also crucial. If you do not, the animal will signal this very clearly by choosing to do other things. Removing the leash allows for the animal to give very specific and immediate feedback to the handler. It is very frustrating when your dog chooses to investigate every other nook and cranny in a training room instead of running to a carpet square. I have often found myself digging out a toy or higher-value treat to up my game.

Training solid directional control is very tedious for the human end of the leash. The hundreds of repetitions needed create value in the behavior of going to and remaining on the base is extremely boring for us. This is a benefit because through this basic exercise that involves lots of repetition, you can provide small tidbits of information about basic behavior and learning theory—things like, why might the dog have stopped responding as quickly after ten repetitions? Why is it important to train in different locations? In essence, we train the people, the people are supposed to train (or maintain) the animal.

A versatile exercise

You are only limited by your imagination. This skill can be practiced in a small space or in a park. Whether you have an 800-square-foot apartment or access to a football field, students can work on this skill at any time or place. I’ve done work with my dogs in a hotel room using washcloths as the bases.

Here are a few examples to stretch your imagination:

  • Change what you use for a base. Traffic cones, wire spools, furniture, carpet squares, milk crates, power tool cases, kitchen chairs, towels, big round hay bales, pallets, pause tables, picnic tables, tires, or large rocks can be used for bases. I’ve used every one of these things and more. The dog just needs a target to orient to.
  • Change the pattern or location, or add bases. You do not have to use the traditional baseball diamond. Set out a pattern that challenges you and your dog, plus runs off some of that excess energy! Take bases to the middle of the campus of your local university. Use students walking through your setup as a distraction.
  • Get creative: Teach your animal to discriminate between bases! If chickens can discriminate a shape, so can other animals. Teach your animal (dog, gerbil, cat) to only go to the yellow circles and not the orange squares. Or challenge your horse to go to the traffic cones and not the tires.
  • Throw additional obedience cues into the mix. As the animal moves from base to base, ask them for additional behaviors. Insert a stop, a spin, or an emergency down.

There are a few important things to remember as you train this skill. Make sure the animal is enjoying the process. Also, make sure the animal recognizes the base as a base. In tall grass, a carpet square may not be the best choice for a base.

Keep your imagination open and try new things as you explore the use of this exercise!


Robin Greubel, MCRP, MBA, has been training working dogs since 2001 and educating working dog trainers all over the nation since 2008. She is the CEO of the K9Sensus Foundation, an organization that focuses on coaching the human end of the leash. While working in corporate America, Robin managed relationships and people using the same behavior principles she honed training dogs. Not only can these principles transform your ability to work at an elite level with your dog, but apply to every animal you work with (humans too!).