David Lisett trains and bonds with dogs much like the legendary Horse Whisperer bonds with horses. Observing Lisett’s springer spaniel training at a clinic he conducted not far from where I live…well, I learned more in three days than I’ve ever learned about anything in my life in three days.
Lisett gained control over spaniels he had never seen before in a veritable heartbeat. He eliminated problems dogs had, effortlessly. He had young puppies straining at the figurative bit to not only retrieve, but to actually “hunt” for the dummy.
In June 2009 a mutual friend had given me Christine Lavier’s name in conjunction with this David Lisett clinic. Lavier was bringing Lisett over from his home base in Scotland in May 2010. Although I did not know it at the time, I discovered that Lisett is one of the most renowned dog trainers in the entire world–not only in Scotland.
Lavier has 60 acres near Cochranton, Pennsylvania, and those acres are groomed for training spaniels. She has her own line of springers (with a lot of English bloodlines), and other springer and cocker fanciers use her training grounds regularly. Again, I didn’t know Lavier before meeting her at the Lisett clinic, other than through our e-mails, but after spending three days with her, I know she and her 60 acres of training grounds definitely require more verbiage. But that’s another story.
Back to the Lisett clinic. I arrived on a Friday in time for lunch, and I knew I was in the right place when the first couple I sat down with was from Utah. Imagine driving all the way from Utah to Pennsylvania, a dog trailer behind their van, to attend a three-day spaniel clinic!
As if that was not enough, the couple sitting with the Utah folks was from Virginia. They were going to buy a springer pup from Lavier, a pup that would not be born for two more weeks, so they were there to garner tips from Lisett for training their new charge.
Getting into the nuts and bolts of Lisett’s training methods, I hardly know where to begin. So let me start this way. When one of the spaniels would show too much exuberance–that is, be at least somewhat out of control– Lisett employed a unique hands-on method (gently grasping just the skin of the dog’s throat, no windpipe involved) that also included making eye contact with the dog.
In three days of this and any other Lisett training, I never saw one dog display an iota of pain, nor utter one whimper. I want to emphasize again that this was not harsh treatment in the slightest, but Lisett gained control over each dog almost instantly.
In contrast, I watched the dog owners handle their dogs, both away from Lisett and with him nearby, and nearly every one of them was forceful in getting their dogs to obey a command. Lisett, in contrast, was the antithesis of their demeanor. He explained it this way.
By making eye contact and gently holding the dog’s throat skin, he wasn’t hurting the dog one bit, but the dog being held couldn’t do anything about its predicament. Further, with the dog held in what might be called a vulnerable position, this explained to the dog in no uncertain terms, without a word being said, “Hey, I’m the boss here. Not you.”
But there’s even more to Lisett’s success. He can read a dog’s demeanor better than I can read the words on a page. Immediately upon the dog relaxing–and this never took more than a few seconds– Lisett began stroking the dog.
The dog was sitting at this point, and the stroking was along both ears and further down the dog’s sides. With this immediate transition, Lisett’s voice also came into play, with soothing, almost-whispered tones of “Good boy, good boy, good boy,” or whatever.
Thus, the Spaniel Whisperer.
For whatever reason that dog had been out of control–that was the end of it. This little training session of gaining control, followed by the stroking and bonding, might take 10 to 20 seconds. Lisett was adamant during the clinic about this being just one way to form the necessary bond between handler and dog.
It’s a bonding opportunity to take advantage of whenever the dog gets somewhat out of control. Lisett did not use this technique every time the dog failed to obey a command, but only when it became obvious that such a tactic was both necessary and beneficial. Only mature dogs (i.e., never puppies) were treated this way, save for the stroking of the ears with both hands and down the dogs’ sides, which he did with pups as well.
Another important lesson I took away from this clinic was how Lisett used his voice while working the dog. Let’s say the dog was casting left or right and did not turn to the owner’s whistle or turn command. Immediately, Lisett chimed in with a loud chortle. This got the dog’s attention, and most of the time the dog turned back immediately.
Equally important was the change in Lisett’s voice when the dog did adjust his cast’s direction. That voice went to a mellow “Good boy, good boy, good boy.” Now the dog was doing something right, and Lisett’s approving voice was the dog’s reward. Or say the dog would playfully run off with the dummy during a retrieving exercise. The loud chortle would get the dog’s attention, and as soon as the dog started back, Lisett’s voice switched into reward mode.
What was critical here, and what is difficult for most handlers to pick up on, was how immediately Lisett would get on a dog with his voice when the dog did not perform properly–and how quickly his voice changed to approval when the dog did act as required. Again, this was all done by voice.
Never did I see any physical chastisement doled out, so it was easy to see how Lisett’s methods worked and how physical punishment did not. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I’ve doled out plenty of punishment in my day. After watching Lisett, I know I’ll never do it again. The Spaniel Whisperer had shown me the way to “whisper.”
There were approximately 15 spaniels to train each day. Lisett did this training by “tests,” with two different tests each morning and two more each afternoon, with each of the 15 dogs going through four tests daily, for three days total. Consequently, each dog and handler pair had their own individual time with the Scottish dog trainer. Every test involved retrieving.
Many of these spaniels were mature and already very well trained. I would have loved to go hunting with any of them. But just like their handlers and me, all the dogs had a flaw or two or more. One common flaw was prancing around and around the handler when bringing the dummy back. While this might not be a serious drawback to a hunter, it is preferable to have the dog return with the dummy and sit mannerly without first making circles around the handler.
Lisett handled this situation in more than one way. One method: If the dog strayed too far away from the handler, Lisett’s loud, disapproving chortle came into play. As soon as the dog turned, his approving voice was immediate.
He also used his body to block the dog from circling. Once the dog sat, he stroked the sitting dog’s chest approvingly and with a bit of gusto, coupled with approving voice inflection. This showed the dog that stopping and sitting was the right thing to do, so the approving reward ensued.
Along those same lines, most handlers couldn’t wait to take the dummy from the dog’s mouth. In contrast, Lisett was never eager to take it. While stroking the dog’s chest with gusto, he let the dog keep the dummy. His philosophy went something like, “I want to take the dog’s mind off the dummy in his mouth. I want the dog to think it’s OK to keep it. I want the dog to think that taking the dummy is not important to me, the handler. I will only take the dummy when it’s agreeable to us both.”
Obviously, this technique was not used on every dog on every retrieve, but is just one example. Further, once a good retrieve was completed, Lisett suggested stroking the dog along both ears with both hands, continuing to the dog’s sides–more bonding, and more approval for a job well done.
I’d also like to mention how effectively Lisett uses a simple tennis ball. He employs this easy-to-obtain, inexpensive tool all through training, from puppies on. The handler of a seven-month-old pup that was already keen to retrieve a tennis ball was instructed to cradle the pup in his arms and cover her eyes. Both Lisett and the dog’s owner were sitting on the grass, thus a comfortable, positive situation.
With the pup’s eyes covered, Lisett bounced the tennis ball in the grass inches away from the pup so the youngster could hear what was going on. Pup would strain and strain, trying to get out of the owner’s arms, but unsuccessfully. Next, Lisett tossed the ball a short distance, told the owner to turn pup loose, and away the young charge went. Pup did not know where the ball was, so she had to go hunt for it. It’s easy enough for a pup to go after a ball it sees tossed, but with this simple exercise, you turn the young dog into a hunter, using its nose rather than its eyes.
Over and over during the three days, Lisett kept stressing this simple philosophy again and again: “If you fix the wee problems,” he’d say in his Scottish brogue, “the big problems go away.” There are certain fundamentals a dog needs to be taught. If one of those fundamentals goes astray (or the dog wasn’t trained for it in the first place), that’s when the bigger problems start and grow.
As a shot-gun instructor, for me this hit home. There are basic essentials that are a major aid to successful shooting. It’s easy to lose sight of even one of those basics, and when this happens, all sorts of misses can occur.
It’s the same with golf, or with a batter in the major leagues–basic fundamentals are integral to consistent success. And so it is with spaniel training. Zero in on the fundamentals, keep going back to the basics, then keep reviewing them again and again. “Fix the wee problems and the big problems go away.” It’s a philosophy for dog trainers (and anyone else) to live by.
Another Lisett philosophy revolves around starting with simple tasks. For example, when beginning quartering training, don’t encourage the dog to make 40-yard casts for starters. Keep the dog in very close; that way, you have much easier control. Give him “finds” in close to keep his interest up.
The American spaniel training philosophy seems to encourage big casts right from the get-go. This philosophy might be fine if you want to make a field champion by the time the dog is 20 months old, but if field trialing is not your cup of tea, or if you can wait a while before campaigning your dog until it’s a bit older, the English philosophy of keeping young dogs in close seems a better idea.
As Lisett explained, “If you keep a dog in close at the start, the spaniel will naturally increase its range with time and experience. If you start out encouraging the spaniel to run big, you will eventually have to bring the dog back in closer–and that won’t be easy or natural.”
I’ve only touched the tip of my figurative iceberg of notes, but I hope I am painting an accurate picture of the guy I’ve nicknamed “the Spaniel Whisperer.” Christine Lavier is considering having Lisett back for another clinic in 2011. If you are interested in attending, contact her at <a href="mailto:email@example.com.
Whether you are already nuts about spaniels or only thinking about becoming a spaniel owner, you can learn plenty at a David Lisett clinic.