Often when trainers ask questions about problems, the question describes deviations from a formal exercise. But often what they are worrying about is a result, not the real problem. And sometimes it turns out that the problem is a training decision or action by the human rather than the dog. I’ll give you a couple of examples.
One person asked me about her dog making slow returns on retrieves, particularly articles, in the ring. For the particular dog, articles were hard to master; but he also likes to scan ringside to say hi to his friends on other retrieves, so I could not assume that a lack of confidence was the real issue. The trainer said he did fine in training, but walked back in the ring.
So we set up articles, and the dog went right out at a nice trot, found the right article, did a very nice turn back toward the handler, who slightly raised both hands as though starting to signal a touchdown and then thought better of it, and the dog trotted right back happily. There was no verbal encouragement. But the hands… So I told her to hold her hands still on the next try, and discovered that she wasn’t even aware that she had moved her hands at all. So we set up again, sent the dog out, and the handler very carefully held her hands still. The dog trotted right out, found the correct article, turned nicely, and walked back, all the while looking intently at the handler for that tiny little gesture.
That problem of the dogs looking for affirmation on articles is common, whether it’s praise for the selection given just a bit too early or cheerleading of some degree to cause speed back that may inadvertently praise the cautious return rather than modify it. We are trying doing play retrieve of the article before the formal exercise, and as the reward for correct selection to see if that will motivate a faster return. The jury is still out on that; but clearly the visible motions from the handler must be removed from the dog’s perception of the cue set. The dog may need to have just plain retrieves of a single article practiced with a Flexi to remind him that on ANY retrieve, he needs to hurry back. Now that he is competent on the exercise consistently, the handler really needs to stop reacting to it as a miracle….not that I blame her for feeling that way!
Another common place for training issues is the sit after a go out. Trainers often struggle with a slow sit response, or at least that’s what they are seeing. But what is actually happening is often much more complicated. For example, if you’re sending a dog to a go out target that has food on it, and you give the command to sit while the dog is still swallowing the food, the dog is likely not even hearing the sit command at that moment. Should the dog be corrected? Personally, I don’t think so if you don’t want to then have to repair the go out itself down the road. This is a situation that requires you to consider the purpose of the food on the target. If you tell the dog get it, are you not rewarding the go out? And if you are trying to reward the go out, do you really want to have an immediate argument about the sit? In this context, I’d rather let the dog finish the treat, then say the dog’s name, and only give the sit command when I have eyes and ears directed toward me. I might correct if the dog ignores his name and dives back to the target to search for more snacks. But frankly, I’m most likely to just end the exercise with the reward acquisition with a dog just learning, or to ask the dog to touch the empty target again to remind the dog of his actual task, which is NOT “go eat”, and then decide whether or not I need the dog to sit this time.
We have to realize that the targets become cues themselves. The closer the dog is to the target, the more he wants to either complete the task it represents or get to the motivator that he expects to be there if that is a frequent event in training. The distance sit response is its own skill to be taught and developed as a stationary skill. It needs teaching and proofing for distance before being put into a go out context. Distance between the dog and handler has to be expanded. Distance between the dog and the go out target has to be diminished. And the skills of stopping short of a target (name response for my dogs) and then sitting on command (TWO skills there, not one) need to be taught with the cues given while the dog is well short of the target at first, so that the value of the dog’s response to the verbal cues and the target cue can be equalized with a bit less target magnetism in play. I do this first with 100 foot go outs to build the dog’s drive and speed; then after 2 or 3 of those, I stop the dog at 50 feet. That gives me time to see that he does or does not respond to his name (he’s supposed to stop, just as he’s been trained to do for the drop on recall), and I react accordingly, but nowhere near the target. I can toss a reward for a good stop, or I can go ahead and command the sit and go in and reward, or I can turn a failed stop into a “Hey! Come here right now!!” so we can do a little reminder work on eye contact in response to the name. But the target remains a good place in the dog’s mind rather than a hot zone where there are too many conflicting expectations.
In proofing and problem solving, sometimes the first positive change in the dog’s performance may not be a correctly performed exercise. For example, let’s say a trainer puts some toys out in the training area randomly to practice commitment to the retrieve. On the first try, the dog goes to a toy, and the trainer goes to the dog and does a correction for a failed retrieve. On the second try, the dog flinches forward on the command, and then sits still. Is that really a failed retrieve, or is that the dog showing that he’s quite conflicted about the strong desire to go to the toy AND the knowledge that his trainer really doesn’t want him to do that? Should the dog be corrected again for the retrieve, or encouraged to move and observed for how he resolves the conflict that he is now aware of? Or should the distraction be moved a bit so that the temptation is not quite so close physically to the desired line of the task? Should the trainer consider the dog taking a wide berth around a distraction to do the retrieve an error, or a strong effort to obey and resist the temptation, and praise the effort and then see if confidence will build so the route can become more direct? It’s probably obvious that I would consider it a sign of resistance effort, but the correct answer might vary depending on the dog’s history and personality. However, this is a situation in which I’ve seen folks get very focused (and frustrated) on the deviations from a formal exercise and miss the observation of their DOGS and how they cope with challenges. It’s an opportunity to build trust, encourage problem solving skills, and to build knowledge about a dog that will aid better predictions about challenges in future training.
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