Archive for the ‘dog training’ Category

Go ahead, have some fun out there

(This first hit me years ago, but with this being hunt test season, I thought it might help someone else besides me and Flick!)

I’ll bet you never did your best work for a cranky, grouchy boss. That’s how your dog might feel if your training is all negative.

Bosses have to give us money to do jobs we don’t like. But dogs can’t open a bank account, so that strategy just won’t work. Instead, the paycheck has to be more subtle. (And, more frequent.)

I don’t mean jumping-up-and-down, tail-wagging fun all the time. I mean satisfaction, affection and appreciation, your dog knowing that his good work is recognized.

For a recent hunt test Buddy and I had been training – hard – for quite a while. I was stressed, so he was too. The pressure was on, and I wasn’t showing my confidence in him – just the opposite. And his work was, let’s face it, less than stellar. You’d think we’d just met, rather than worked together for five months.

I arrived a day before the trial to explore the grounds, and by sheer luck, got grounded myself. Like a pheasant flushing at my feet it hit me: no dog will do his best work for a grumpy owner … it’s just not fun! And when we affect the balance of correction and praise, a dog can shut down.

So we warmed up with lots of praise and an upbeat attitude. It was more fun than work, full of positive reinforcement and plenty of play time. We spent extra time on the things Buddy does well. When he did well, he knew it. We both got psyched, and the next day, he took the highest score possible.

Good luck everyone!

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DSCF2472Flick’s NAVHDA Natural Ability test is Sunday and there’s no doubt he has all the skills and “natural abilities” required. But that doesn’t mean he’ll pass. As I’ve learned the hard way, a rock-star-of-a-dog can go off the rails any time. In Manny’s case, wet weather meant birds that didn’t fly and the one he caught ended up in pieces. Based on the forecast, that will be the least of my worries.

A good trainer would have anticipated that scenario. “Hope for the best, plan for the worst” may have started as a war-time strategy but it’s relevant in dog testing as well. As me and my crew learn on every trip shooting every episode, other dogs, birds, livestock, camera-shy or camera-hogging guests, unusual terrain … any or all of these variables will affect a dog’s performance. Bearing in mind the axiom, I’m confident Flick could ace this test on any given day … or not. Why?

1. I’m a better trainer and have been guided by many gurus from the Smith cousins to Larry Mueller to Bob Farris and the Monks of New Skete. Remember, Flick is my “by the books” dog.

2. Flick is the result of decades of genetic refinement, the sine qua non of wirehairs from Three Devils Kennels. Buddy was good. Manny is great. Flick could be phenomenal.

3. As in my music career, I am adhering to one adage over all others: perfect practice makes perfect. Training is strategic, stage-managed and orchestrated to ensure, as Delmar Smith first said, that I “never give a dog a chance to fail.”

4. My pigeon inventory is at its peak, and being used generously. As George Hickox said, “no birds, no bird dog.” The corollary is “more birds, better bird dog.” Nothing builds desire, hones skills, and wakens instinct like the smell of birds.

Make no mistake, the natural ability test requires training and practice. Sure, much of the “testing” is of instincts including pointing, prey drive, water love and use of nose. But it’s the getting from one to the other where cooperation and obedience are critical (remember Manny’s bird deconstruction). These things you must train, period.

And even though the “natural” abilities are supposedly baked into a good pup, careful training awakens them. I saw this again at our club’s final training day prior to the test. The dogs that excelled had been exposed to a ton of birds, acre-feet of water, many other dogs and people. There were no surprises when the lead was unclipped, so the pup could focus on the important stuff.

He’s ready. So as in most other dog-related activities, if Flick doesn’t score well, it will likely be due “operator error” … me.

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B.B. King sang “the thrill is gone,” lamenting a love lost to indifference. Luckily, Flick isn’t howling the same tune – but his thrill has changed.

I’m a big believer in food treats, especially for a pup. Virtually anything elementary is possible with hot dog bits, from “here” to “fetch” to “kennel.” But nobody I know carries a vest-full of doggie delectables on a hunt and some commands simply don’t lend themselves to food bribes. Mainly those where you want a pup to do something away from you, such as “whoa.” It’s counterproductive to expect a dog to slam on the brakes 50 feet from you, then wait patiently as you trot over to deliver a liver tidbit.

So, what to do?

All those other things: verbal praise and touch have been higher on the menu here. I’ve also found that (perhaps) as a dog matures, food has less allure than a pat on the back, literally. Maybe pups’ emotional needs evolve as they grow, and a more “man to man” reward system has value to them.

No matter what we are trying to accomplish, careful observation of Flick before, during, and after the command and it’s execution have guided me. Do a drill, praise with a scratch behind the ears on completion. Do it again a few minutes later, see if he’s complying with gusto. If not, try a firm stroke along the backbone. Or a quiet “good boy” as he rests his chin on my knee. Or a treat – he may simply not be ready to forego the goodies just yet.

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So, my commitment to Flick is to get him to the NAVHDA utility test. And pass. Hopefully with a Prize 1. I also want him to be safe when he pins birds.

To me, that means steady to wing, shot and fall. (Everyone has their own definition of “finished dog,” so I won’t go there today.) Sure, it’s hard. It’s also not what is always appropriate in all hunting situations. But once mastered, it would seem logical that you could always “unlearn” it, adjust to the current conditions … or do nothing and enjoy your version of a “steady” dog. Those who have Invitational Champions do it, “meat hunters” too. But many start with the bar at it’s highest level.

I choose that.

But it’s easier said than done, especially as a one-person training staff. Especially the “fall” part of the equation. But I’ve been experimenting with something that may be of value to you – let me know what you think.

I have two remote-controlled bird launchers, and plenty of pigeons. The basic set-up involves them, a checkcord, and a puppy. Flick is check-corded into the yard and whoa’d. I fly the first bird (ensuring the launcher shoots it away from us to eliminate temptation) while enforcing steadiness with a half-hitch or soothing touch and words. If he behaves, Flick then sees a wing-clipped or dead bird hit the ground (from the other launcher, shooting it toward us a bit). Compliance earns an occasional retrieve and (always) massive praise. Then back into the crate to contemplate his good work. Goofs are downplayed, but as they say on Seinfeld: “No (pigeon) soup for you!”

Add gunshots, different locations, scent cone or wild flushes as cues, and (I hope) we’re on our way to steadiness. And maybe away from it. Eventually. In some cases.

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A 10-month-old and an eight-year-old … you wouldn’t think there are many skills you could “double up” on. But there are. It’s a matter of degree.

My quest is to “be fair” to both dogs so neither goes stir crazy or becomes envious of the attention the other is getting while he sits, bored. But I’m also an efficiency geek, trying to the the most out of my time, effort and gear. The two intersect when teaching new skills to Flick while polishing up Manny’s abilities.

There’s the basic retrieve. Flick is whoa’d, sees the bumper fly and land while he stands. And stands. (Because I’m liking Larry Mueller’s method, where a dog always thinks it will get the retrieve if only he holds still long enough.) On the rare occasions when Flick does get to pick up the bumper, he is check-corded and cajoled into coming into my vicinity for praise.

That’s a pretty good puppy retrieve, but old hat for Manny. If I add complications with the same minimal gear, he’s getting a tune-up: in the field instead of the yard, a bumper flies while he’s searching – his signal to stand still. The bumper lands behind a sage brush. Now, I line him up, give him a mark and send him. No check cord and no cheerleading until the task is accomplished, well.

It’s a matter of degrees, reminds me of what Flick should be advancing toward, and keeps Manny’s head in the game during the off season.

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“At six months old on our first hunt he was steady to wing, shot and fall … and delivered the bird gently to hand. At the end of the day, he mixed the perfect dry martini.”

You’ve all seen or heard this one. I only wish I’d said or written it, but not so lucky, I guess. There probably are versatile dogs that come out of the womb “finished,” but I’ve never met one and likely never will – I own wirehairs.

NAVHDA sees the occasional year-old or younger pup passing a utility test; AKC probably does as well. I doubt American Field or NSTRA have many, either – the demands of preparation for high-level performance are simply not conducive to a pup’s bones and joints, let alone his intellect. What that pup has been through to get to that point, we’ll never know. Maybe it all came naturally, but I’d suspect a lot of pressure and a less-than-ideal puppyhood, where the life-long bond between man and dog is supposed to be created … a connection based on trust, respect, measured tolerance of a young dog’s abilities and human’s expectations.

If you have a savant puppy who does it all, congratulations. You are among the storied few. I can’t wait to read your post and see your test results. If you aren’t in possession of a super-pup, welcome to my world.

I bring this up and scrape it off my chest because yesterday I was reminded – again – of a concept called “place learning.” Most have heard of, or experienced, the phenomenon: a pup is an all-star at recall … heeling … steadiness, when you’re on the training table or next to the big pine in your yard. Move to the small rhododendron or beyond the gate, and it’s as if you’re speaking a foreign language.

I’m saying this as a reminder to myself. If you benefit, all the better. From now on, in all skills, at all levels, the “baby steps” of progression will include geography: From the front walk, to the grass next to the front walk. From the front yard to the back yard, from the yard, to the driveway next to the yard, yada, yada, yada.

Professional trainers often suggest a dog hasn’t mastered a skill until he performs it flawlessly in seven places. With me and Flick, it will be a hundred and seven.

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I was fortunate enough to attend our local NAVHDA chapter’s training day and even help out a bit. It was a very positive and supportive session. The young dogs all exhibited strong potential and as the upcoming test implies, natural ability. And of course, our leadership did yeoman’s duty on organizing the event and the logistics leading up to it.

fter having been away from puppy training for many years, what was striking was how many of the fundamentals of young-dog training are still the most important. The challenges young dogs faced yesterday haven’t changed since I ran Bill, Yankee, Buddy and Manny in NA:

1. Obedience – sure, it’s a puppy test, but consistently following basic commands not only aids in succeeding at the rest of the training challenges, it bonds owner and dog.

2. Socialization – whether with other dogs or humans, a young dog will perform better in the field and at a test when it is comfortable around others.

3. Bird contact – a dog that knows what a bird is and what to do around one, will be more confident in the field and apt to better follow directions. The NA test shouldn’t be their first exposure to birds.

4. Water – most of us may rationalize that we own an upland dog, but I guarantee the time will come for a water retrieve and if you are a true conservationist, it’s either you or your dog swimming in that icy pond.

Yes, it’s easier said than done. It’ll cost us time and money and more than a little aggravation. There are plenty of legitimate reasons these basics don’t get enough attention.

And it’s easy to say, not as easy to do these things – just ask Flick. But our commitment to our hunting partner requires them if both parties are to lead fulfilling lives in the field and at home. We hold all the cards, it is our responsibility. Going the extra mile to get our dog exposure to all four pays dividends for their – and our – entire life.

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