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Posts Tagged ‘obedience training’

The (intensity of) media is the message.

The (intensity of) media is the message.

Your dog is constantly watching you, and learning from your movement, your tone of voice, what you put up with, and what you simply won’t tolerate … whether with him, other dogs, or your first-born kid.

Because he has a limited vocabulary, literally, your actions often speak louder than words. But even words have different meanings to your dog depending on how they are delivered. So why not use your ability to nuance training “language” to influence your dog.

I’m lucky in that I can watch myself on TV a lot (someone has to pump up the Nielsen ratings). I learned to be a teacher the same way – with video. It is a cruel but fair instructor, the small screen. But you don’t need a camera to reflect on your actions and the messages they convey. Just think before you act, adjust your pace, the magnitude of your movements, and your dog will get the message. He does that now, but it’s often to your detriment and you might not even know it.

For instance, move slower and you literally demonstrate to your dog that things are not as exciting (or distracting) as they seem. When you’re winding down an amped-up retrieving training session a short “heel” around the yard in slow motion could cool down your Lab and prepare him for a rest in his crate. A quivering shorthair gulping in pheasant scent while on point might be steadied by a calm, confident and low-key approach to the flush.

Conversely, getting your Springer pumped up for an assault on that blackberry thicket might require an energetic pep talk and gentle pat on his butt. An easily-distracted wirehair might maintain focus during a long retrieve with some loud and animated encouragement from his owner (don’t ask).

When words are the appropriate communication tool, a whisper is often better than a yell. It certainly brings down the adrenaline levels, calming the situation. Like people, dogs will often pay closer attention to you if you make it hard for them to hear what you’re saying. Drop the volume level and you might be pleasantly surprised at the results.

On the other hand, an icy water retrieve by a young Chessie could merit a boisterous shoreline cheerleading squad. Again, evaluate your desired result and pick the correct arrow out of your quiver.

Even physical praise has degrees. As I write this, I’m scratching my old guy’s neck following a quiet “here” command. It’s a slow, relaxing touch, light and low-key, but a reward nonetheless. He in turn, is lying down, expecting nothing but a chance to be near me as his payback for a small job well done – he showed up. A vigorous, two-hand rib tickle implies something else entirely, higher energy and more excitement. It might be just the ticket to jet-propel a long cast in chukar country by my five-year-old.

That five-year-old Manny simply cannot stand still when he first gets on the training table. I used to yank on his collar, yelling “whoa” at increasingly high volume. Now I speak calmly, slowly, sometimes from a sitting position, stroking his back until he settles – faster than he ever did when I engaged him in a battle of canine (half)wits. Then, we can get on to the important stuff.

So consider expanding your training communications repertoire, usually by dialing down your energy. You might see better results, sooner.

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Monolith … and echo chamber

Whistle blasts, yells, nothing was getting Buddy back to me. It looked like he was actually running away – each command got the opposite reaction from what I wanted.

One more toodle on the whistle and the echo hit me in the face, the problem now quite obvious. Sound waves left my mouth, traveled the hot dry canyon and bounced off the massive basalt walls. That’s what Buddy heard. No wonder he streaked away – he was eagerly trying to please me but headed for the nearer source of the command – the rock, not me.

Wow, that sure changed the way I look at (er, hear) dog commands. Further experimentation showed that knolls, thick forest, even water will all affect what your dog hears, and where he thinks that sound is coming from. It’s a wonder they ever come back to us!

These days I’ll sometimes turn and call or whistle in the opposite direction from my dog so the original sound – and any echoes – are both coming from the vector I want him to take. Other times, lower volume precludes an echo. By default, my dogs have learned that a beep from their collar means the same as “here,” so that works also.

Now that I know this, my dogs seem to be much more obedient.

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A little help, please.

A little help, please.

WANTED: Training partner. Age, gender, shooting skills unimportant. Necessary attributes include patience, tolerance for dog slobber and pigeon poop. Must appreciate burrs in socks and rips in pant legs.

I’m tempted to run an ad like that. I suspect I’m not alone. Someone else, somewhere, is probably drafting a similar blog post right now. Maybe it’s you.

It’s not that friends and acquaintances don’t want to help. There’s a matter of schedules, a difference in priorities, possibly they favor a different dog breed. Or maybe they just haven’t been asked.

But seriously, what do you want in a training partner? And what can you bring to the party?

Patience and tolerance, of course. Everyone – and everyone’s dog – has a bad day. But what else would help you and your dog be all you both can be? Is it hard-won experience that can be called on when you haven’t got it? I’d imagine ideas would be welcome, from left field or the school of hard knocks. That’s where the quid becomes pro quo – I graduated with honors from that school.

I’d hope they have a dog, any breed, any skill level. I’m an equal opportunity training partner. Even retrievers are welcome. Someone who’s been there and done that would shorten the learning curve, especially when it comes to hunt tests, woodcock and field trials.

But a fresh perspective might be helpful, too. Wide-eyed innocence, honest questions that cause one to think differently, could be just what is needed on a given day.

If they brought their own pigeons they might be invited for a beer. If their dog will stand a bird indefinitely while me and mine maneuver clumsily into an honor merits a second bottle. Bird launchers, stakeout chain, blank ammo rattling around in their pickup ensure a barbecue invitation.

Flexible schedule, got it. Down-the-block availability, check. Stellar shooting skills, a bonus. The wisdom to know when to offer suggestions and when to shut the hell up merits a wee dram of very old single malt.

You know where to find me.

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Proud pup. I mean, pop.

Proud pup. I mean, pop.

There was no point. No quivering tail, lifted leg. Not a single fluttering nostril or bulging eyes.

I didn’t take a shot. Didn’t even have a shotgun. No anticipation and certainly not any expectation.

But the lone valley quail we encountered today was responsible for one of those moments. You know, one of the rare, fleeting moments amateur bird dog trainers hope for.

All the work, the drudgery and drills, mind-numbing practice sessions came together when Manny crashed into the tall sage from upwind. A hen bird whirred out of the bush, jetting right over Manny’s stationary head.

You read that right. Stationary, as in stopped to flush. Just like the books and videos, the very situation magazine writers brag about. The sound and sight of a flushing bird anchored Manny’s paws to the ground in our real world, just like everyone says it’s supposed to happen. If he wanted to, he could have opened his fuzzy, bearded muzzle and swallowed her whole. But he watched the feathered rocket sail off, calm and collected and waiting for his next command.

I’m hoping it will someday be such a common occurrence I’ll get blase’ about it. Until then, WOO-HOO!

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The goal.

The goal.

It figures: just when you start feeling cocky, things are sure to come off the rails. Manny’s steadiness on live birds in the field was a series of small victories. Excellent finds, solid points at 30-35 yards, and a patient observing look from the little guy as I kicked brush and flew birds. Cap gun, blank pistol, multiple shots, a statue watched me dance in front of him.

Then I uncased the shotgun.

Manny launched from his point like a marble from a slingshot. By sheer chance, I was between him and the birds so he came to a screeching halt after a few steps. And we went back to Square One.

A few days with the gut hitch, and we’d clawed our way back to the moment of truth. We’d reached the summit: flush-bang-still, even as the pigeon fluttered to earth.

That little win propelled us to the next level and the feeling that maybe, just maybe, we are making progress. A “covey rise” of two pigeons was laid out for Manny’s olfactory pleasure. Quivering muscles and flaring nostrils, the gut hitch was a mere formality, loosely wrapped. Birds up! Dog stock-still. Add a shotgun blast, one anchored dog. Three times the charm, and it was a wrap.

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Not ready for retrieves yet - this is from last season. But soon, soon enough.

Not ready for retrieves yet – this is from last season. But soon, soon enough.

One step at a time, the saying goes, and the steps are encouraging. Despite two TV seasons of breaking at the shot, Manny is making progress on his steadiness to wing, shot, and fall.

We had a few setbacks without it, so we are back to using Bob Farris’ “gut hitch,” a variation on the Smith cousin’s flank half-hitch (thanks to all of you). It is the defining factor. That little tug on Manny’s waist may as well be an anchor chain for as solid as he stands the bird. A whiff of pigeon and he’s staunch, foot up and tail twitching into a straight and high twelve o’clock posture.

Then the gut hitch goes on, I mutter a quick reminder of “whoa,” and move in for the flush. Boom goes the blank pistol (we’ve graduated), and a wirehaired statue watches the pigeon fly toward the desert, disappearing through the trees and out of Manny’s sight – and mind. A wiggle in the tail as the bird vanishes, but four feet remain firmly planted on the sandy soil. Ten more repetitions and I’ll take off the hitch.

So, how’s your training going? What are your goals for this spring and summer?

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