By Scott Linden
Do dogs get bored? Boy howdy, they do! Howling, digging, whining, fighting, barking are all indicators of a dog with too much mental free time.
But boredom isn’t limited to lying around in the yard, waiting for the paperboy to ride by. Disobedience, unsteadiness, inattentiveness are more subtle evidence of a dog that has lost its motivation.
How do you get it back? Maybe a dog that backslides on his training is like the underachiever in class: he needs more challenges than his teacher is giving him.
I’ve watched my dogs go off the rails as if we’d never worked on retrieving, whoa, or simple obedience skills. Usually it’s me who’s gotten stuck in a rut – relentless repetition of the same skills at the same level that we both end up phoning it in.
Back to the class underachiever: your dog might resort to canine spitballs, resisting your commands, or worse, if you aren’t fully engaging his mind. And all of a sudden, you’re back to square one on skills you’d thought were mastered. Instead, why not bump him up a grade level?
Yes, there is risk in raising the bar. Dogs that are asked to go too far, too soon beyond their abilities may fail. Whenever possible you want to avoid that. But it’s worth the risk – when you see him losing interest – to help your dog reach for the stars.
Example: we were working on the NAVHDA Utility-level “duck search.” Ultimately, Manny would be required to swim and wade a brushy pond for ten minutes, trying to find a wing-shackled duck that is trying hard not to be found. The most valuable skill for this test is using his nose to suss out faint duck scent lingering in the air and on the water, sometimes on the water plants. It’s easy for Manny entering a small pond downwind of the duck – that’s his comfort zone at this time. But every once in a while, I’ll put him on the upwind side of the pond so he has to expand his search before hitting duck scent. It’s a stretch, literally, but when motivated he’s up for the challenge.
Wherever you are in your training, there are ways to take it up a notch. Has he mastered retrieving from the whoa table? Go somewhere else, or have him fetch something different. Working on “heel?” Have someone – or someone with a dog on a leash – stand nearby while you reinforce your command. The simplest way to up the ante is to practice previously mastered skills in new locations or with added distractions.
In field skills, often the challenge becomes proximity. My young dog holds a point well when birds flush at a distance of 15 feet or more. When shot birds drop at a distance, he’s also nice and steady. Putting dog and bird closer together increases the challenge to the point it might require a firmer hand. But eventually your dog will probably rise to it, if you’ve prepared him, one baby step at a time.
In the marsh, there are analogs: steady in the blind is easy without gunshots. Maybe you introduce the “big bang” from a distance, closely monitoring his reaction. When he’s rock-solid, bring that gun closer. He might be steady to one shot mallard splashing in front of the blind, to the point of ho-hum. Next chance you get, throw two.
Make a list of skills you think you have down pat. Then add a column next to it with ways to make them harder – in increments – and you’ll keep your dog firing on all eight cylinders.