From the Field Editor

My Dog ... A Washout?

In part one of this series on avoiding having to washout your dog from field competition, I discussed the need to have the right dog for competition. Part II discusses things you can do to optimize the success you have training your dog so that you can bring it to its highest level of achievement.

If you haven't already read part one, please review it before going on to read Part II.

Part II - Training the Dog for Success

Set Realistic Goals

Working towards a goal is always helpful when pursuing an activity where you want to achieve success. The most important factor in setting goals is to set realistic goals. You may know where you want to be by the end of the season when you train your dog but you don't know the problems and pitfalls you may encounter along the way. Therefore is always helpful to build in time to correct these problems. This will help you avoid becoming frustrated in your day-by-day training program and keep you from putting unnecessary pressure on the dog. For instance, if you think that it is realistic to be able to get a Junior Hunter title or a Working Certificate on the dog by the end of the season, than move that goal to the middle of the next year. This will keep you from rushing the dog through training, or skipping steps along the way. The dog will be ready when it is ready, and speeding up the training will only sour the dog. Most problems are compounded when the handler does not take the time to be sure the dog is ready to move on to the next step before he or she introduces new information to the dog.

The goal may be to that your dog achieves a Junior Hunter title or a Working Certificate, but each goal has many objectives, the objective being the step that you must take to reach the goal. Think through the objectives, paying attention to the amount of time you think your dog must spend on each before learning is fully integrated. Also take into account the number of times a week you train. This will help to make these time frames more realistic.

Have a Training Plan

A Training Plan is a carefully thought out plan, which includes the goal, and multiple objectives that help you reach the goal. This plan will incorporate training for all the skills your dog must develop before it is able to complete successfully for the title you are pursuing. For those of you who are really organized, write this training plan down because this will help you see the pitfalls. Experienced trainers often fly by the seat of their pants, deciding which tests to set up on the morning of the training session. Granted, what you teach for the day is dependent on the land or water you are training on and wind conditions of that day, but if possible, select land based on what your next lesson is rather than selecting the lesson based on the land you are using. I guess my point in all of this is to remind you to think before you do.

Train Methodically

The trainer who moves a dog along the training program too quickly often skipping steps frequently contributes to one of the major causes of a dog having problems. Even the dogs that seem to have caught on when you move them to the next higher level of performance may have problems when more is expected of them. A sure sign that learning is not integrated is a dog that runs into problems when it starts the next level. If this happens, bring the dog back to the previous level and review the tests at this level. Do this for a few days on different land and different cover, being sure that the dog is mistake free before moving it on again.

Anticipate Problems

Think about your introduction to the next level and remember which parts gave the dog problems in the past. Simplify your introduction of the dog to the next level of training. This will give the dog the most opportunity to make the transition successful.

If you start teaching new skills remember that you are in the teaching phase of training (three phases: teaching, reinforcing, proofing). It is your responsibility to make sure that the dog understands what you are asking it to do. If the dog makes a mistake at this level then don't make a big deal about the mistake, just set up the test so that it is clearer and run the dog again. This time take more care to be sure that your request is clear. Once the dog understands what you want and is giving it to you on a regular basis you can make the test more complicated. If the dog seems to be stuck and starts having problems evaluate the problem and focus on correcting it for the next few training sessions. Are there any drills you know of or can create that will help your dog resolve these difficulties? If you have a training partner, get some input from this person. If you have opportunity to attend a seminar at the time you are having the problem, bring the problem up during the session to get the expert's input if the question is appropriate, or discuss it with the presenter privately, during break, if it is not.

Know Your Dog's Cardinal Sins

Each animal has weaknesses. These weaknesses are demonstrated periodically in training or in a competition situation. For some it may be breaking; some may bank run; some may over run the mark; some may refuse the cast; blow through a whistle; or some may pop. These cardinal sins are problems that keep recurring during the dog's training and they only seem to stay corrected for a while. When the dog is tired, stressed because it is learning new material, or if it is what is called "ring sour" in the horse world (over trained), these cardinal sins seem to appear. The best way to correct them is to anticipate them and short-circuit their appearance in the dog's performance. When you are planning to introduce new skills to the dog, anticipate which of its cardinal sins are likely to make an appearance. Before you begin the new lesson run your dog on a drill that you used to correct the problem and reinforces correct performance. This will help your dog clean up its act, so to speak. If the dog starts demonstrating one or more of the cardinal sins, quickly revert to the correction drill, than go forward when the dog consistently completes the retrieve accurately. Most dogs demonstrate that they are having problems by little behavior changes. Pay attention to your dog's behavior just before it starts having problems and you will soon develop a list of behaviors that occur just before the dog starts becoming confused or just before it starts pleasing itself rather than pleasing you. Once you learn to recognize these behaviors you can take steps to stay in control of the training session. If the dog is starting to get confused than simplifying the test at this time is a good idea. If the dog is thinking about taking control, that convincing it that you are in charge it called for at this time. I can't stress enough that you must "know your dog" in order to make the proper choice of the correction to use.

Have a Basket of Tricks

Over time each of us has run into problem situations and have tried many solutions before finding the right one. Share these with your training partners and associates and ask for help if you run into a problem that you can't resolve. If one method doesn't correct the problem try another. Some dogs do better with one method and some with another. Don't think that the electric collar will correct all problems because this just isn't so. You may, in fact, ruin a good dog if the collar is used inappropriately when you correct the dog (see my web site for the article, "How to Give a Good Correction").

Several years ago, I was out of town for a few months so I had a friend work with one of my dogs. The dog developed a problem blowing through the whistle (not stopping when the whistle was blown) on a blind. This dog had always sat to the whistle prior to this. This problem was reinforced for some time before I came home. I tried several corrections but they didn't work. Finally I placed 3 bumpers in a pile and ran the dog to the pile. After the third retrieve, I sent the dog again and blew the whistle for the dog to stop. The dog ignored the whistle and ran through to the spot were the pile was, however there weren't any bumpers there so the dog did not get the reward of a bumper. I called the dog's name and told him to sit, (I did not blow the whistle). The dog sat and faced me. I waved the bumper than threw it over to the side, giving the dog the cast "over". The dog took the cast and retrieved the bumper to me. I tried this same exercise one more time. The results were the same. The third time I tried it I blew the whistle after the third retrieve. This time the dog sat to the whistle and has responded with a "sit" every time requested since then. This is an example of a dog that would "washout" if the problem wasn't corrected. Only by being creative was I able to develop this correction for the problem. Once this dog realized that he must listen to me to get what he wants (the bumper) he was ready to sit to the whistle.

Creative corrections may be necessary, and may only work on one dog, the dog with the problem, so don't forget to be creative when deciding how to resolve a problem. The better trainer you are, the bigger your basket of tricks and the less you rely on the collar for corrections.

Simplify the Test

Simplifying the test is always a good place to begin if the dog runs into problems. Standard ways of simplifying a test are making it shorter, having it on flat land, using the wind to help the dog, running on short cover, reduce the number of marks or using white bumpers. If the dog is successful once the test is simplified then add one new dynamic each time you run the test, for example, first lengthen the test out; then add cover, etc. This system of test simplification is important to use when you run into difficulty training the dog. It puts both the handler and the dog on firm footing from which you can both move forward. If the dog is confused than it will make the test easier so that the dog will understand what it is being asked to do. If the dog is fighting for control, than it may misbehave anyway, but now you know that it knows what you want and is refusing to do it. You have flushed the problem out and can deal with it now.

Evaluate Yourself as a Trainer

Most of this article is written about strengthening your dog's shortcomings. However a dog is only as good as his trainer. Therefore it is also necessary to focus on yourself as 1/2 of the training team. Some of the areas you should subject to a mental review are as follows: are your messages to the dog clear; are your expectations reasonable; do you train consistently and progressively; are your corrections appropriate? Remember self-evaluation is an ongoing process and will only result in a better training partnership. An evaluation of your dog's performance is after all, an evaluation of you as a trainer.

Keep the Dog's Confidence Up

When I first learned about training Goldens for fieldwork my mentor told me to always end each training session on a positive note. If a dog is having a hard time with a particular test it will suffer some erosion of confidence. In order to bring its confidence back up, end with a test that the dog can do easily. Your dog will go back to the truck feeling successful and look forward to coming out to retrieve at the next training session. Remember, we are training Golden Retrievers, and the saying is "Labs retrieve for themselves, while Goldens retrieve for you". They want our good pleasure towards them and they deserve to have it. Keeping your dog's confidence up during training is very important because once lost, it is difficult to restore.

Have Fun!

Most of us live very busy lives. You may work, have a family and lots of responsibilities at home, but amateur field training is your hobby and your escape from the real world. If you are like me and you have little time to devote to fieldwork you may want the greatest result from the least amount of time spent. Dogs don't wear watches, they don't look at calendars and they don't review the training plan with you. For dogs, each moment in time is endless. Therefore, our focus and determination may be putting unnecessary pressure on our dogs. Since our expectations are high, as they should be, we may find that we are driving our dogs hard without giving them a reward. If this continues over a long period of time our dogs will lose enthusiasm for training or competition and may even lose some confidence. My dogs love a fun retrieve at the end of their session. It may only be one or two short retrieves, or it may be many, but they love to retrieve and that is their reward. I enjoy seeing them happy, so their fun retrieves are also satisfying to me. Enjoy your dog, that's why we have them.


This article originally appeared in the Golden Retriever News, official magazine of The Golden Retriever Club of America.

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