Every year I peruse websites and magazines and drool over the latest and greatest in dog training books and videos. Undoubtedly I find a new piece of wonder and information to add to the ever growing library of dog training books and videos in my house. The day comes when the package arrives and giddily I practically run a marathon over to the DVD player and pop the “magical” CD in. This CD contains all the information I know will fix the issues that my dogs had in the field last year, that this year my dogs will become “perfect” retrievers…..then the DVD plays. I watch the dogs perform the tasks with painstaking perfection that I can only dream about and 45 minutes later I am about $100 bucks poorer and the DVD has not answered how to solve all of my retrievers problems.
While the video was great and taught me how to perform many wonderful tasks with my faithful retriever, they only cover some “what if” scenarios and none of the problems my dogs are having fall within the videos “what if” column. Now I am back to square one and still have a faithful retriever with “issues”.
If this is how you feel every year, you can join the “club” of owners that struggle every year with training difficulties that are just not explained in a book or video and you are left trying to solve the issues on your own. Often this feels like trying to speak a second language you never heard of.
What if I told you that I can teach you how to cure ANY problem that your retriever has? Most of you will probably now hit the “back” button on your browser or just go “humph” or start laughing very loudly. All of which are typical responses to my outrageous claim, but please read on and then decide what you think of my solution to every problem a retriever has.
I learn best through examples so I will teach you the concept of “breaking things down into the smallest behaviors possible” through some of the issues that I have encountered through training my dogs.
Scenario #1 The dog who did not want to fetch
I had a cute little female retriever who loved to retrieve anything but only on her own terms. When the day came to force fetch her, she gritted her teeth and completely shut down at the sight of a bumper. I tried giving her treats, pinching her ear with all kinds of things that numerous trainers suggested and making games with the bumpers. To no avail, every time a bumper came out she would sit there, solid as a rock with her jaw clenched like a vise. I then employed my method “breaking things down into the smallest behavior possible” the dog loved to retrieve, she loved carrying items and she she loves ducks. At this point she did not like bumpers. I then took her out during her training sessions with toys on the floor that she would have to pick up. Every time she did so, I would say fetch and praise her….eventually she would see an item, I stated fetch and she would pick it up. Often these items were dropped, but none the less she did pick them up on her own when told to. Now I know I wanted the “force” component in there….so I took a duck and said “fetch” while pinching her ear. She was agreeable to this and fetched the duck. We practiced this from my hand down to the floor and in a few weeks was “force fetched” to pick up anything from ducks, bumpers and toys. I then tied in the “hold” command and then a “heel” command, working on “fetch/hold/heel” separately and after each behavior was solid independently brought them together.
Let’s review; the dog would not fetch a bumper in the typical force fetch fashion, yet the dog would “fetch” other items. The main goal is to have the dog “fetch” an item. Using high reinforcing items and moving down to low reinforcing items can often make a difficult task easy. By only focusing on the dog “fetching” an item and not being stuck on the aspect of having the dog holding or heeling with an item this allowed me to focus on just the issue she was having.
Scenario #2 Working on blinds, a broader explanation of the theory “breaking behaviors into the smallest pieces”
I find this is the best place to put my theory into play. Often this is where most trainers have issues with their dog. My plan when working on blinds is you need to look at every blind you set up and decipher what are all of the factors in the blind. Often trainers set up a blind with one purpose in mind, an example being running by a group of trees and not having the dog disappear around or in them. Often there is more than one factor in every blind and when the dog then goes to run the blind these “hidden” factors suddenly appear, the handler gives a wrong cast, the dog is confused, the wind blows and then suddenly your dog is in the holding blind sharing lunch with the bird boy. When doing blinds really take the time to look at the complexity. If you decide to tackle a complex blind, run the dog through part of the factors and build success. Once the dog is successful with the components of the blind, then bring them together to run the original blind.
In closing, when looking at an issue a dog is having focus on the one small component the dog is having. Is the dog not swimming by a point, do decoys and people distract the dog, do changes in terrain seem like the dog is going from Kentucky to Canada? Then break those small components down, practice them and then build them slowly into your training routine. Adding one new piece at a time and expect regression as your dog puts all the pieces together. Final thought; patience is a virtue.