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Posts Tagged ‘obedience training’

Hard to get mad at him. It’s probably “operator error.”

At the time, I thought it was a red herring … an excuse … a pro trainer’s nomenclature to make us feel um, well, less professional than them. But time and time again, I am reminded (and often humbled) that “place learning” is, as Millennials say, now a thing. Probably has been forever, if you harken back to your own training experience. Are you familiar with the term?

The basic concept: A dog learns a command on the training table. Give the same command on the ground, or in a different yard, or another time zone, and it may have been given in a foreign language. I’m a slow learner, but eventually I do learn that you may have to start over, or at least backpedal a bit. Maybe you, too, have learned this from the cruel mistress of experience.

More so (in my experience) in the agility, obedience, Schutzhund and other non-hunting dog worlds, it’s one reason trainers recommend a dog be trained in so many different places. The number varies, but the concept is sound: a dog associates the command with the location. Only by “re-training” it in other spots does he finally, accurately, do what you want no matter the “place.”

For many it’s the best reason to send their dogs to a prairie “summer camp.” Or, a pro trainer. Or, to attend training days. Anyplace (else) is better than the same-old, same-old.

I was jarred into remembering this simple concept again today – maybe I need to practice dog handling in more locations! Flick is a rock star, steady to wing-shot-fall anywhere within 100 yards of his training yard. Our yard adjoins public ground, where we train a lot. For steadiness, Flick’s “bailiwick of excellence” is about a football-field’s length from my back fence. There are trails and abandoned dirt roads clearly defining that space, but I didn’t believe it was as obvious to him until an experiment today.

Having learned the hard way in recent days, I planted one pigeon within the zone of compliance. Result: as expected, a textbook point through the downed bird … even a bonus retrieve to hand. Chest puffed and head held high, I hied him across the old road where I secreted another bird in a shrub. Flick worked into the scent cone, crossing the dirt track, from familiar territory into the danger zone. The point lasted all of a few seconds and then all hell broke loose. The only good news was, Flick didn’t catch the bird.

So we weren’t set back to Square One. But we are starting again at about Square Three … checkcord and half-hitch, stage-managed so yours truly is always holding or stepping on it to ensure compliance. I can’t be lazy and plant birds at my convenience – longer walks are the order of the day – but with luck Flick will remember most of his training when he’s in new territory.

So next time it seems like your dog has been replaced by an evil twin, don’t necessarily blame him. Blame your location.

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Admit it, you too woke up in a cold sweat one recent night. “MY GOD! There’s so much left to do and there’s only (blank) weeks until opening day!”

Here, it’s polishing Flick’s steadiness: when he hits scent, when the bird flies, falls, or just stands there as the pup rounds a corner and gets a glimpse before he hits scent. My gentle version of force-fetch training is going well, and only a wild bird situation on a high chukar hill will prove (or disprove) my theory.

Your dog(s), your plans, may be different. But we are fast approaching the “triage” time of year, when shortcuts and compromises become part of our thought process. Are you there yet? I am trying not to settle yet for noncompliance in the above areas yet, but am mentally prepared for an all-hell-breaking-loose scenario on that first morning. It’s the best reason to open a season hunting solo.

In our little training group, every dog is at a different point in their career and that makes things interesting. We all get a new perspective, can see where our dog stands in the evolution toward “finished.” Watching a pup grow mentally and physically is therapeutic. Many of us, I’ll bet, breathe a sigh of relief at being even just a little farther along with our own dog.

We can help by sharing success stories and horror stories so someone else moves forward faster – or doesn’t do the silly things we all did! We get encouragement and feedback, and a few beers over good conversation.

So, what are you working on? And more importantly, HOW?

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Nom nom nom. Good dog!

Whether this works for you, you’ll have to decide. If a more experienced trainer has an opinion, I’m sure I’ll hear via Facebook. But at least one of those, pro trainer George Hickox, thought enough to bring it up in a recent conversation:

1. Dogs work for themselves, not us. If they choose to cooperate with us, “obeying” our commands, it is a means to an end.

2. The end is quite often food (especially in young dogs) or prey (in our situation, usually birds).

Makes sense to me. Think about it for a couple days as you train, and see what you think.

So, how do we adjust our training philosophy and practice in light of those observations? I’m using the prospect of holding a dead bird as a much more frequent reward with Flick than with past dogs. So far, so good.

In steadiness training, when he slams on the brakes the moment he scents birds, he gets to retrieve one. Almost every time at first, and as quickly as practicable after a flush/shot. Then, he learns to wait a while from point to flush to fall to retrieve command.

In a gentle version of force fetch training I’m testing, a variation. Obviously, he “gets” the bird when he’s sent to retrieve it. But – and I’ve seen this countless times on the TV show and at training days – the moment a dog arrives at the human, the bird is yanked from his mouth.

Not Flick. He gets a moment or two to savor it. Maybe more, if he doesn’t start chewing! I’ll often heel him back to the yard or training table as he carries the bird – that’s a lot of savoring! And once he releases on command, he gets another chance to snort-sniff-lick it while I hold it.

A bird in hand may be worth two in the bush. But a bird in the mouth is worth two hundred in the bag … if Flick can enjoy it for a bit.

I’ll keep you posted.

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This is Manny, in a long-ago image combining the Smiths’ “half hitch” with Bob Farris’ “belly hitch.”

I’m working pretty hard on steadiness with Flick. Here, that means hitting the scent cone and slamming on the brakes, holding through the flush, shot and fall. Maybe you are faced with some of the same challenges on that one!

But another dimension of steadiness is “sight pointing.” Derided by some as cheating by a dog that should have whiffed bird scent prior to seeing the bird, it is a fact of hunting life. A dog can approach from upwind, birds can run from cover, and here in chukar country they can be seen skylined on a ridgetop, skitter across a rock field, or otherwise vex a dog. And that’s not counting the valley quail perched on a fencepost for all the world (and Flick) to see. Eventually, Flick will also screech to a halt on the sound of a flush – I hope!

It’s pretty simple: you either expect nothing from your dog and he chases/flushes them wild; or, you want the same performance as if he’d scented the bird/covey. I prefer the latter. We get more shots, the process is virtually the same for the dog so he gets the same reward, it’s safer, and if there are more birds around they aren’t accidentally flushed.

Easy to say, hard to train.

I am spending a lot of time secreting birds in my vest and surprising Flick with them as he roams the yard and field. It’s not the same as rounding a corner and finding one pecking on the ground, but it’s a start. A stop-to-sight is rewarded with a “flush” and a retrieve of the dead bird I also hide in my vest. A few good versions, and next time I put the bird on the ground after the “point.” Sometimes, when I’m confident of his steadiness I will dizzy a bird and let it waddle around a bit until it gains its senses and flies off. Next is anchoring birds out of sight, then bringing Flick around a corner to see them and lock up.

We are making progress – are you doing anything like this?

The peaks are often accompanied by a valley or two – Flick will crash in on the unsuspecting bird and we head back immediately to Square One: on the training table, belly hitch/checkcord are my retrograde training tactics for steadiness. I am a real believer in the flank-pressure method pioneered by Delmar Smith and taken to the next level by son Rick and nephew Ronnie. (Bob Farris has a more “portable” version, illustrated above, that has a detachable dragging cord if you like, but it’s only effective if you’ve already used the cord and the Smith’s “whoa post” method with the cord through the dog’s back legs to the post.)

Ronnie recently explained some basics about pressure/contact/”Silent Command” that resonate (hope I get them right – if not, someone please comment): neck pressure is used to get a dog to move, go forward, change direction … all motion-inducing commands. Flank pressure is to stop a dog, or keep him still once stopped.

The revelation is, a checkcord going to the collar will certainly yank a dog if he breaks a point. But it will not really have a lasting effect. E-collar on the neck, ditto, which is why you often seen field trialers’s photos (especially) of a collar on the dog’s waist. Per Rick and Ronnie, “stop” comes with flank pressure: half-hitch, e-collar, even a hand tap.

I’ll keep you posted.

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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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