When I started training Chaser in 1995, I was in the height of my self-imposed pure positive era. I was working hard to replace forceful flinging of dogs into position with the use of luring and rewarding to teach them to want to do things. It was a fun time, with a lot of experimenting with different dogs in classes, and some resounding successes with unlikely dogs. However, we all eventually ran into the reliability wall. There had to be some way to motivate our dogs to rise above distractions and temptations and stay on task. What I discovered was that these dogs were conditioned to be attentive and wondering what we wanted, so the amount of physical compulsion needed to guide them back to the path of right behavior was actually minimum. Collar pressure became my go-to means of adding guidance and sensation that was just enough for each dog to prefer to avoid, but not enough to make them feel fear or be too overwhelmed by my emotions to take in the information I was trying to convey.
These days when I run into a team struggling with a persistent problem, one piece of advice I give often is to think about focusing on the DOG rather than an exercise, and to adjust the tone of the communication. Let me give you a couple of examples.
Many trainers with experience try much too hard to avoid ANY errors in their training. The retrieve is the most common place for errors. And the one that can set you back pretty hard is being too intense about not allowing the dumbbell to hit the ground once it’s in the dog’s mouth. Regardless of how people choose to teach the take and the hold, I see handlers with green dogs stepping toward their dogs to close the last two-step gap on a retrieve, or bending down over small dogs quickly and actually snatching the dumbbell away to prevent the dog from dropping it. The results are dogs who stop short on retrieves, and dogs who sit and won’t look up at their handlers as they brace themselves for the snatching hands. Some dogs start avoiding the dumbbell because the snatching away makes them wonder if maybe the owners didn’t want the dogs to have it after all. Some dogs start spitting the dumbbell out since that appears to be what the owners want. It’s a tangled web of misinterpretations on both ends of the leash.
So what would I do instead? First, I would stop worrying about the dumbbell hitting the ground in early stages. Hold is its own element. Holding while going from a stand to a sit is also a separate element. Coming in close enough with the dumbbell is a must, so I’m going to protect that first and foremost. With a dog that I’m using either a play retrieve or a shaped retrieve dynamic with, I’m more interested in the dog getting to me and the dumbbell landing in my hand. So I welcome the dog in. I move my hands AWAY from the dog to offer a place for the dumbbell to land without asking for a front at all. My hands move calmly and smoothly and remain open and on the dog’s level. If the dog drops the dumbbell, I encourage her to pick it up again, and offer the landing place. But I do NOT grab for the dumbbell.
When we’re a bit farther along in our training, and I’ve addressed the hold (which includes no mouthing) and want to put it into the topography of the retrieve to include the sit and deliver, I work it on a leash. I will have taught the dog than she can turn off collar pressure by taking the dumbbell from my hand. Now if she comes in and drops the dumbbell, I apply just enough pressure for the dog to notice. Due to the use of collar pressure as a “Pay attention and do the next thing I tell you to do” cue for other behaviors, what I get is curiosity and minor annoyance rather than fear. I calmly pick up the dumbbell and give it to her, and then release the collar pressure when the dumbbell is in her mouth. Then we try a one step front again, and if she holds on, I praise WHILE THE DUMBBELL IS STILL IN HER MOUTH. Then I take it, and have her do a few other behaviors before rewarding her obedience, but NOT rewarding the act of spitting the dumbbell out directly. I allow the dog to make the choice to hold and deliver, or to drop the dumbbell and experience the penalty and learn that keeping the dumbbell in her mouth prevents the penalty. No drama, no startling moves, no anger. Just instruction, information and result comparisons. Most of all, no motions from the trainer that actually cause the undesired behaviors!
Even something as seemingly simple as eye contact can turn out to be complicated mentally. Over the years, I’ve run into a few dogs who just didn’t get blessed with a high degree of social bravery. They weren’t necessarily outright fearful dogs about the normal things in the environment, and they mostly got along fine with dogs and people; but they really were overly deferential to their owners. Anything they learned well and were familiar with, they were reliable and consistent on; but they overtly resisted changes to what they knew because they were afraid to make errors. And…they often avoided strong eye contact with their trainers.
Many folks like their dogs to look right up into their eyes during heeling. It works okay for taller dogs, and when you see a successful connection like that, it looks wonderful. But for the more deferential dogs, that sort of bold eye contact seems pushy and inadvisable. Some will literally lower their heads and look sideways toward the owners’ knees or hip. Some extreme cases will glaze completely. Some of them are actually capable of doing glorious functional heeling with that safer focal point; but their trainers read that altered head position as inattention and lack of focus, and that often leads to some pretty strong corrections. Those corrections would work on a bolder dog who simply zoned out for a few seconds to try to sniff something on the ground; but for the deferential dog whose cautious respectful posture is now being punished, in spite of the fact that the dogs are in heel position and are hitting turns and halts correctly, it’s a disaster. Now the dog REALLY wants to avoid making challenging eye contact, and the body language of the owner, the tone of voice and the force on the collar all projects anger without showing the dog what to do instead.
The solution for this sort of dog might be a more neutral heeling target. Could be a hand target, or an armband, but something that brings the head up just a bit, but does not require that eye-to-eye laser gaze. More importantly this is the sort of dog who should be treated calmly, with skills broken down as small as possible and trained patiently to avoid what I call emotional static that gets in the way and overshadows the dog’s perception of information. It can be frustrating to train dogs who don’t make intuitive leaps; but the reward is that they tend to be quite reliable and consistent and trustworthy once they know for sure what is wanted.
That heeling scenario is an example of a principle that I urge people to follow. When you are not getting what you want to see, take the time to see what you ARE getting, and try to figure out why the dog is giving that to you. If you can figure out how the dog is thinking, it can be a light-bulb moment that will help you alter your presentation so that things will make sense to your dog. That connection, that sort of insight and mutual understanding is the magic in our sport.
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