From the Field Editor

By Phyllis Walsh

Field Training Problem Clinic

It is the beginning of summer and most of you have been back to training your dogs for several months. If your dogs are like my dogs, you have already seen several problems interfere with your dog's performance. Is the problem one that keeps cropping up and never seems to be completely resolved? I call this the "Cardinal Sin" of the dog. All dogs have what I call their "Cardinal Sins". If you make an issue of them and "fix" the problem they seem to go away for a while, only to return again. Think about your dog's performance in the field. What are the tendencies you always seem to be correcting? Does he try to bank run, does he drift from the line, or does he break? There are so many problems that may be the recurring problem for your dog that it would be difficult for me to mention them all here. Whatever the problem, if you do not stay on top of the situation, you will see your dog's "cardinal sin" occurring over and over.

Dogs also develop other problems when learning new skills. Often these problems are just a new version of the old problem. Unfortunately, when correcting a new problem you may see additional problems occur in response to the correction. Therefore, you may have to fix 2 or 3 problems in succession before the dog is running well again.

In order to correct problems effectively you must first understand the problem and its source of origin. Therefore I would like to address a process of evaluating problems that will be helpful to you. This process has several steps.

1. Know Your Dog

It is important to know about your dog's personality and how he handles stress and corrections in order to properly assess a training problem and use the method that he will respond to best.

A few years ago we were training three dogs on the same tests. The oldest dog, Ryan, was a good boy. He had a conscience and when you were training him he would become upset if he didn't catch on immediately. Ryan was very intelligent and he usually understood commands with ease, but if he became confused he had difficulty overcoming problems if you corrected him too harshly. For example, if he had a tendency to break, and you corrected this with force, he would then wait for a double command when you sent him before he would leave your side. His behavior was not a refusal to go but it was more like a question, "Are you really sure that you want me to go Mom?" Therefore, when Ryan was corrected you only needed to exert enough force to get his attention for you always had his respect.

Stormy another dog, took corrections well. He would always give you 150% of his effort. If he wasn't doing what you wanted all you needed to do was get his attention and redirect him. If he needed more than that, it was ok. He could handle a stern correction and he would act as if he were saying to you "oh, is this what you wanted" when corrected.

Sunny was very intelligent and usually tried to outsmart you. He could figure out what you wanted him to do easily, but he wasn't always ready to give it to you. You couldn't let Sunny get away with anything because his head would swell with importance and he would lose respect for you. Sunny needed a firm hand, and an immediate correction. He could handle the corrections well, and not shut down. The key to successfully training Sunny was staying one step ahead of him.

The handler needed to take a different approach when training each of these dogs. Ryan wanted you to explain what you wanted him to do. He needed very clear directions to minimize the need for correction. Stormy would be ok with a sketchy set of directions. He had a lot of momentum so he wouldn't shut down if you had to stop him and redirect him. Sunny was always looking to play games. In order to hold his attention you had to vary the tests and keep them hard so that he couldn't go on automatic pilot and mentally doodle while he was completing a test. He always needed to be focused on the test, otherwise he would cruse to his own tune and he would use his intelligence to figure out ways to outsmart you. Ryan, Storm and Sunny demonstrate that each dog is different therefore trainers must be able to evaluate the dog's temperament and have a basket of tricks in order to be able to use an effective approach with dogs of different personalities in order to reach the same end.

2. Does the Job Description of Field Dog suit the dog.

It is important to evaluate your dog's ability to do field work. Each dog comes with a unique set of strengths, weaknesses and abilities. If you think of "Field Dog" as a job the dog must fill, than you can write a Job Description for this job, just as if this was a job that needed to be filled in a company. This job would need to be filled by a dog with certain abilities and there would be a list of duties that the dog would have to perform in order complete this job. Is your dog capable of filling the job of Field Dog? Does he have the necessary strengths and abilities? Will his shortcomings get in the way of his progress or performance? Would you hire your dog for the job and believe that it would be cost effective to have him as one of your employees? If you do not believe that he has what it takes than train him for something else so that he can be the star he deserves to be.

3. Analyze the Problem the dog is having

Is the problem occurring for one of the following reasons?

  1. Is the problem one of your dogs "cardinal sins"? If so, than correcting the problem will be different that if it is a new problem. When a "cardinal sin" crops up it usually means that the dog's performance, hence the handler's performance, is getting sloppy. You usually see these problems occur when a dog is just getting in condition to work after a lay-up, or when he is suffering from a lack of focus. Getting his attention and refocusing him will usually eliminate the problem.
  2. Is the problem arising because the dog is learning a new concept or skill and is confused? Does he know what to do? Here you need to explain to him what you are looking for and not worry about his performance, but concentrate on how clearly and effectively you are communicating your wishes to him. You know that your explanation is clear when the dog is able to complete the test successfully.
  3. Does your dog have an attitude problem? Does he know what you want him to do and is he refusing to do it? Is he sour and overworked? Does he need more R & R? If the dog has attitude problem training will only go downhill until he has a better attitude. Spend some time with him doing other things he likes in order to get a change in attitude.

4. Correcting the problem

Set up tests to correct the problem. Begin the training session with a retrieve that is easy for the dog to complete successfully. Follow this with a test, which will specifically give the dog the opportunity to demonstrate the problem (flushing the problem out). After the dog demonstrates the problem and you can get an effective correction, follow with another easy retrieve. This will help the dog to snap back and elevate his attitude so that he will be a willing worker.

Having a set area where you school the dog that is suitable to flushing out this specific problem will help you resolve the problem. Return the dog to this area and set up the tests so that you can correct the problems. Once the dog is doing well in this schooling area return to various fields and set up the same tests to proof the dog on these tests.

One good training concept to remember when running into difficulty training a dog is to back up and return to the tests the dog could do successfully and rebuild the dog from that point, just as if the problem never occurred. When you get to the point where the problem arose the last time, be careful to approach the tests from a different perspective this time, and take the time to use training methods that explain to the dog what you want him to do. Make the test as simple as you have to for the dog to get it right, and then make it more difficult gradually. Progress slowly and don't skip around so that the dog has a firm foundation on which to build his skills.

Most problems can be avoided by using a recognized training program when training your dog for the field. When following the plan, pace your training according to the dog's ability to be successful at the lower level before you move him on. When he is comfortable with the current tests move him on to a more challenging test so that he will always continue to grow. Make sure you have included basic training in the dog's training program which should include heel, sit, here, wait, force fetch, e-collar conditioning, forced retrieve, whip fetch, back-piling, lining drills, yard work and handling drills. If you have done your homework, or as the case may be, yard work, then you can always return to the yard to correct many of the problems that arise in the field. Some have the belief that a dog shouldn't be forced if he is doing something willingly. The premise behind forcing a dog is simple. If the dog knows that you can make him do it he will be much easier to work with when you run into a problem in the field. You have also established that there are certain tools that correct problems. The dog respects these tools and knows the appropriate response to these tools. If you have never conditioned your dog to these tools, (ear pinch, crop, e-collar, etc.) than you can't use them to gain control of the dog when the problem arises in the field.

List of Problems That Lend Themselves to Becoming "Cardinal Sins"

1. Refusing to go when the dog is sent for the retrieve from the line.

This is probably the worst problem a retriever can have as the whole concept of fieldwork is centered on the concept of fetch. The problem should be evaluated first. Is the dog over his head on this test? Did the dog see the mark? Has this problem been building up to a flat out refusal? If the refusal is a water retrieve refusal, does the dog have much experience retrieving in the water? Has he recently encountered a problem in the water (swimming into a tree stump, etc.)? If the dog lacks the confidence to go then you need to build it up again. If the dog knows what you want and has the confidence to do the job but refuses to do it then you must force him then and there. The premise is to make it hotter in the pit than it is going out for the retrieve. This is where the forced retrieve using the e-collar, whip fetch or force fetch (ear pinch) can be used as a technique to get the dog moving again. Shorten up the test by moving the line up closer to the spot the mark is thrown and repeat the test, this time be prepared to give him the correction simultaneously when you send him. He should automatically respond to the pressure, just as he did when you conditioned him to it and fly out to get the bumper or bird. After regaining control of your dog in the field training situation it is a good idea to return to lining drills for a few days so that the dog gets the idea that faster out means faster in.

2. Popping

A dog pops if he starts to go for the retrieve; he turns his head and looks back for a repeat command to retrieve. Popping is a terrible problem if it becomes established so you want to correct it immediately if it happens. First you want to distinguish between a confidence problem and a dog that would rather be the handler and have you do the retrieve. If the dog developed a confidence problem you may have moved the dog along with his training to quickly without letting him integrate his learning before moving on. Bring the dog back to yard work and do some lining drills. Make sure that the bumpers are white and mark the pile with a white Clorox bottle filled with sand. Now you know that the dog can see the bumpers. Move the line and make the drills short at first (30 yards) and gradually move the line out so that ultimately your dog is doing 100-yard retrieves. If the dog is starting to pop because of attitude that a severe correction with the e-collar or whip should get him going without looking back.

3. Bank Running

A dog is bank running when he is sent for the retrieve and rather than take a straight line to the retrieve he runs along the shoreline before entering the water; or he swims to the closest point on the shore when returning with the water retrieve, rather that taking a straight line back from the mark to the handler. There are several ways to correct this problem. First of all, if you are just beginning water work with the dog make sure that the line is on the long side of the pond, midway between the ends of the shoreline and the gun with not throw the mark near the shore. Stand on the line with your body between the dog and the bank that he might be temped to run along. Bring your dog along slowly with water work and make sure you can handle your dog before you set up any tests where he might try bank running. Once you have good control of your dog you might want to set up tests to see if he will try to bank run. This way you can correct him in a controlled situation. If he tries to bank run, handle him. If he insists on trying to bank run on his way back from the mark than make the shore "hot" by using the e-collar if his paw touches the shore. This correction timed when he tries to get on shore will discourage bank running. Whistle him in after the correction so that you are giving him a direction to swim toward. n older method used to correct bank running was the use of buggy whips. Training partners were hiding behind the brush along the shore with a buggy whip in hand. If the dog tried to bank run they would scare the dog away with the buggy whips.

4. Breaking

A dog breaks when he leaves the line before he is sent. Dogs that are not steady should be run on a check cord. This way you have control of the dog until you send him. If the dog is steady and has lots of momentum you can call him back and correct him, then do the test again or wait until he comes back with the retrieve and then put him on the check cord, correct him and let him know that he must wait, then send him for the next mark, severely correcting him if he tries to break again.

5. Shopping

A dog shops for bumpers when he is sent to a bumper pile but he can't make up his mind which bumper to retrieve and picks one up only to drop it and pick up another. He may do this several times before he returns to you with one bumper. To correct this problem go back to yard work and do lining drills or back piling. Have the dog on a line and make the pile about 60 feet from you. If the dog tries to shop be prepared to yank the dog back to you once he has picked up the first bumper. If he drops the bumper and returns to you without it, bring him back to the pile and tell him fetch, and use an ear pinch. Once he has snapped up the bumper bring him back to the line while he is holding the bumper and take it from him. Send him again and if he still tries to shop repeat the correction. You might want to move the line up to make the process easier on you. After several attempts at shopping and several ear pinch corrections he will remember that he must pick up the first bumper he comes to and return with it.

6. Cast refusal

A dog has a cast refusal when you stop him with a whistle, and handle him to the bumper, but he refuses to go in the direction you sent him and instead goes where he wants. This problem is easiest to correct with the e-collar. If he refuses the cast blow the whistle and sit him down again, this time using the collar to correct him, then re-cast him. You can also use attrition to correct this problem. Sit him down if he refuses and re-cast him making it clearer to understand what you what him to do. You can also put him back on a rope and correct him if he tries to ignore the cast. Once again a few days doing yard work will clean up his retrieves.

7. Failure to keep the line

A dog fails to keep the line when he drifts on his way out to the mark. If your dog occasionally drifts think about the wind and the direction it is blowing. Is it causing a problem for the dog? Is the dog drifting on the side of a hill or on flat land? If it is on the side of a hill you might have to recondition the dog to running on the side of hills by making the marks shorter, then slowly lengthening them out. If the dog drifts on flat land the return to yard work and do some double T drills and the three-legged lining drill. These drills will help the dog gain momentum and keep a straight line.

8. Over-running a mark or running short

Either of these problems occurs when the handler does not vary the length of the marks when he sets up the test. Also remember to consider the wind in setting the test up and vary your gun's throws (angle-back, angle-in and flat). Refer to my article in the January-February, 2000 issue that dealt exclusively with setting up land tests.

The problems listed above are just a few of the things that can happen when you send your dog on a retrieve. The first time any of these problems occurs you might be caught off guard but be prepared to deal with it if it happens again. There is a saying in the horse world; if you stop a horse twice in the same spot you've just taught him to stop there. Remember, any problem ignored is the same as training the dog to do the retrieve incorrectly, so correct the problems as they occur and you will spend less time in the long run.


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

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