Teaching A Dog to Back Up

Would you like to see how to teach a dog to back up without walking into them? Today I’m featuring a video I made about that in 2011 that is quite popular on YouTube, but that I have never shown here.

A brown and white rat terrier is looking eagerly up at her human
Rat terrier Kaci says, “Train me!”

The video features the “channel” technique to teach backing up. You build a little channel out of furniture or household items, get your dog to go to the front of it by throwing a treat up there, then capture (click/treat) their backing up when they back out. This is only a good technique if your dog doesn’t mind small spaces. (Wait until you see my little demo dog! Kaci the rat terrier is fearless and very “in the game.”)

I made the video because almost all the “How To Teach Your Dog To Back Up” videos on YouTube feature some kind of body pressure. Leaning over the dog, stepping into their space, even waving a hand in their face or dragging them backward. This is using an aversive/avoidance technique and generally employs negative reinforcement. I avoid using it.

That’s not some kind of theoretical objection on my part. If you want to see an example of the effects of using body pressure vs positive reinforcement, I have a video that demos it with my own dogs: Negative vs Positive Reinforcement. It will be very clear why I avoid body pressure as a training technique. Some dogs are more sensitive than others of course, but if they move away it is aversive by definition.

One lovely exception to the plethora of pressure-based backing up methods on YouTube is one Susan Friedman showed in her class this year. It is by über-trainer Laura Monaco Torelli, who has a video where she teaches her great ridgeback Santino four different behaviors, including backing up. She doesn’t have to throw a treat forward for this experienced dog; she shapes it but sets him up for success by using a narrow passageway to give him a clue which direction is most available for movement.

A brown and white rat terrier is standing by a channel made of crates and boxes, looking expectantly up at her person
Kaci by the channel, ready for action

I did not invent the channel method. I think I first read about it in a post by Greta Kaplan in the old ClickerSolutions Yahoo group. But I looked and looked, and couldn’t find an example of it on YouTube, so I made one.

The beauty of it is that it can give a beginning dog/trainer team a jump start on capturing the behavior, rather than using pure shaping. I think shaping this behavior is difficult for beginners. And I’ve noticed that even when free shaping, it is devilishly easy to start using body pressure unconsciously to hurry things along.

In the video I refer to a Part 2. As of September 2015, I haven’t made it yet. But I still plan to.

Brown and white rat terrier backing up
Is this it?

The second half will show where to go with the behavior once you get the basics using the channel, and some tricks for treat placement.

I did make one trial with Clara, to see whether the channel method would work with her. Silly me, brilliant her.  I didn’t notice there was a step in her way, but she sure did. She’s a great problem solver. This should be interesting!

Copyright 2013 Eileen Anderson

25 thoughts on “Teaching A Dog to Back Up

  1. Clara is so smart! I’ve loved your original video on this since you first made it available. I’m so glad you added it here.

    Dilly had a natural backing up behaviour even when he was a puppy because he tends to be so focused on people. In fact our first Go to Mat sessions were hysterically funny because he would glance over at the mat, stare back at the person, and then scooch backwards on his belly until he got to the mat, tail wagging all the way. Even today, if I ask him to move with a hand gesture most of the time he backs up by choice. So it was easy to put on cue.

    My son’s dog, Tulip, however, doesn’t have this. Maybe I’ll try the channel method with her and see if it comes easy to her. Thanks for the reminder!

    Robin J.

    1. Thanks, Robin! When I taught Summer and Zani to back up, I spent too long on duration, or rather, I didn’t make my cues distinct enough that that was what we were working on. So for a very long time they defaulted into backing up all over the place whenever I tried to shape. I couldn’t get them to go forward! I finally had to rehabilitate both of them, and Summer still slips back now and then! And she also has that inchworm backup crawling thing down pat as well.

  2. Loved the idea – without the video, I had not understood the setup. We had used fence panels to teach backup in herding, so I assumed you meant the same setup – this is way nicer. Thank you for sharing!

  3. Oh that was cute! Clara, thanks for the laugh! I’ve watched that about 10 times and chuckle every time. You’re well on your way to becoming a hand-stand champion (or paw stand, I suppose…).

  4. eileen,
    i wonder if this is any easier for some dogs if they are taught rear-end awareness first?
    any suggestions for exercises to teach this?

    1. Hi Diana, I don’t have any very original ideas. With my dogs I did the standard agility type things for rear end awareness, like walking along a ladder on the ground and perch work. Here’s a perch work video for those who aren’t familiar. There’s the “going up stairs backwards” thing but I think it can be problematic at times. Don’t want to do anything too physically challenging with a young dog. I was lucky with Clara, who is naturally athletic, and has always seemed to know where her back legs are. I actually shaped a rear paw touch onto a mat with her, now that I think of it. Sorry I don’t have better suggestions. I think you have a point, though. Backing up is a coordinated physical skill, more so than many of the things we teach our dogs to do on cue.

  5. Ever since doing the first Recallers class with Susan Garrett, I have taught backing up her way 🙂 Throw a treat between the front paws through the back paws and the dog’s head goes down follows it forcing it to back up. Your aim has to be pretty good, but they learn it quick.

  6. One dog I know tends to back up when someone raises a hand holding a frisbee, apparently she anticipated the throw but could not turn her eyes off the toy. I only had to use the frisbee as a reward and increase the criteria: one step backwards turned into a few meters. After naming the trick I could fade out the frisbee.

    My own dog Alva got backing up a step or two while heeling as side effect of practicing left turns and front-to-finish/heeling position. These two I taught using method that resembles that perch-pivot method. I just need to work on duration and distance.

    1. What a cool way to capture backing up, with the frisbee! Clara is my first dog who likes to play ball, and I have been amazed at all the things she does so easily at a distance. She associates lots of reinforcement with being “out there”!I still haven’t chosen what method to use for her for backing up. Your pivot method sounds good. My dogs have all done varying degrees of perch work. Thanks for writing!

  7. Kip learned using a channel, but slightly different. I created a channel open at both ends. I was at one end and had food out in front of him. He already knew leave it – so started by reinforcing the leave it. (Which is a mini back up if you think of it). Food placement was back under his chest to encourage further backing up.
    No need to loom over a dog to get this behaviour at all. Thanks for pointing that out!

  8. I found your video on YouTube when I had trouble shaping this behaviour….great solution, thank you! Now I’m pretty much obsessed with your blog, so thanks for that too

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