Matching Training Methods to Your Dog
By Chad Hines – Willow Creek Kennels
No matter what you’re trying to teach your hunting dog, one of the best (and most underused) training tools is your mind. When things are going poorly during a training session, the best thing to do is stop and think…
* What am I doing wrong?
* What can I do to help my dog understand this?
* What part does he understand?
* What part doesn’t he understand?
* Is there a smaller step I can take to help him along?
These are questions you should ask yourself over and over. Even if the dog is doing what you ask, you might wonder if it’s the best way for your dog to learn that concept.
KNOWING WHEN TO CHANGE METHODS
Some indicators that can tell you it’s time to try a different approach:
* Your dog’s spirits seem low
* Your dog has a general look of confusion
* The dog’s tail is lower than normal
* The dog avoids eye contact with you, keeps looking away
* And, perhaps most importantly, there is a lack of progress.
If your dog appears happy and is showing signs of understanding, then results are being achieved. If things are not going well and the dog appears unhappy, you might want to involve the use of treats or more praise during training. Try shortening sessions. You can also take a break in the middle of a session for praise.
CASE STUDY: TEACHING ‘WHOA’ or ‘SIT’
Here’s what we mean by thinking as you train:
For this example, we are going to say that we’re training a pointing dog to understand the ‘whoa’ command. It’s one of the most important commands for getting good performance in a live hunting situation. But a similar approach works well when teaching flushers and retrievers the ‘sit’ command.
To begin teaching whoa, it’s common to place the dog, standing up, on a board (a specific place), with all four feet staying still.
Most dogs will just walk right off the board. You have to show them that they should remain standing on the board until you release them. You say, ‘whoa,’ and restrain them so they get the idea.
But what should you do if your dog keeps walking off the board? Usually, it’s a good idea to make a simple physical correction, by picking the dog up and setting him back on the board. You are helping him succeed, by helping him stand on the board. If the dog keeps moving, and is becoming discouraged, you might toss a treat a few feet in front of him. If he moves, pull him back and keep him on the board. Wait until he quits struggling, and then release him—so he can have the treat for a job well done.
After doing this a couple times, he should start to understand that if he stays on the board he will receive the treat sooner, with less correction. If he moves, he will still have to go back on the board and remain still, until you release him, or he doesn’t get the treat.
If he still does not grasp this concept, rather than giving up you should try a different approach. All dogs do not learn the same way. Try using an e-collar.
For pointers learning whoa, you want to put the collar around his belly. If he moves, give him a light stimulation until you get his feet back on the board. He will learn the board is his safe place and a mild annoyance seems to be buzzing his belly when he is off the board.
(For flushers and retrievers use the command, ‘sit’ and a neck collar with the same approach.)
What if the e-collar by itself doesn’t work well with your dog, and he is still struggling to understand what you want him to do?
Try using a check cord.
Tie a check cord around a pole or tree and attach it to the dog’s collar. You want enough slack so the dog isn’t pulling on the rope, but it should be tight enough so he can’t take more than one step away from the board. When the dog tries to leave the board, the rope stops him. He should realize he can’t go anywhere and that the trainer is going to put him back on the board. This exercise can help some dogs learn.
What if that approach doesn’t seem to work with your dog? Again, you can think about how various styles of corrections are either working or not working with your particular dog.
You can also try combining a check cord with the e-collar.
Using the belly collar in conjunction with the check cord can make the difference for some dogs. Having an e-collar around a dog’s belly promotes him to stand rather than sit; the stimulation is in an upward direction, so the dog typically reacts by moving ‘away’ from it, which in this case is by standing upright.
Dogs learn in predictable ways. Many dogs begin to understand that when the belly collar goes on, it’s time for whoa work.
TRAINING YOURSELF TO THINK
As you can see, it’s not just the dog that needs to learn during the training sessions. As the trainer, your mind should be actively engaged in how things are going. Pay close attention to your dog’s reaction to each method you try. Experiment until you find the approach that works best for him—but don’t give up on any given exercise until you’re sure your dog isn’t learning. In our example of teaching ‘whoa’ to a pointing dog, you might find that your dog needs a combination of all these exercises before he truly understands the concept.
Patience is an important virtue. Don’t be in a huge hurry, or set unreasonable expectations. No matter what you’re trying to teach him, your dog might need several ‘beginner’ sessions to start picking up on the idea. As long as progress is being made, keep trying with the same approach, and build through consistency and repetition.
It’s a mistake to try too many different methods too fast. That can confuse a lot of dogs, and do more harm than good.
Also, especially when you’re teaching a new command, keep each training session short, maybe 5 to 15 minutes. Most dogs do not have a long attention span. Pick a goal for each session, and try to achieve it. If the goal seems unattainable, try to make some progress and quit.
Again, you are in charge, so you have to be the one that monitors how well any particular exercise is working. If your dog is confused and loses enthusiasm, it may be time to switch to another method, something that makes it easier for your dog to understand what you want.
There are many ways to train a dog. We owe it to our dogs to try to find the best method for them. A dog’s temperament may decide which approach is best. A ‘soft’ dog (one that does not take correction well) may require a low-pressure approach. A tougher dog may require more pressure. Always err on the side of caution; try to help your dog succeed with a minimum of pressure.
Nothing is certain in dog training. Just because something worked for your last dog, or your buddy’s dog, does not mean it is the best approach for your current dog. Research training methods, and try to apply the ones you think will be best for your dog.
Good luck and good training.
Notes: If you’d like help training your dog or correcting specific problems;
Contact – Chad Hines at Willow Creek Kennels in Little Falls, Minnesota,