Strictly speaking, the term â€śrelease commandâ€ť is an oxymoron. A dog is either on command or has been released from command. He canâ€™t be both. So whatever expression one uses to release his pooch isnâ€™t really a command, but retrieverites have called it one for so long itâ€™d be pointless to try to change it. Thus Iâ€™ll call it a command here.
You have numerous actual commands with which to direct your dog along the road of responsible retriever reactions: Sit, Stay, Heel, Come, Back, Over, Fetch and Give. You have one term to both get his attention and send him on a marked retrieve: his call name (â€śBlackie,â€ť â€śGoldilocks,â€ť â€śDead-Grassâ€ť or whatever).
Youâ€™ve got several corrective expressions to highlight his occasional behavioral lapses: No, Hush and perhaps a few that a family-oriented magazine shouldnâ€™t publish. After you and your pooch have worked together awhile, heâ€™ll understand these verbal communications quite well, without any misunderstandings.
You also have several terms of praise for proper behavior: Good Dog, Atta-Boy and so on. Your dog learned to understand their complimentary meaning quite rapidly. However, he may add one unintended meaning, namely freedom from whatever command he has obeyed so well. You command Sit, and he sits, then you say â€śGood dog,â€ť and he jumps up, wags all over and wants to play. Not what you meant.
Many years ago, this confusion led some trainers to believe that they should never praise or pet their dogs because it made them â€ślose control.â€ť They trained negatively and their dogs worked as if trained by Attila the Hun in a bad mood.
Look at it from the dogâ€™s point of view. Without a specific release command, he has to figure out on his own when a given command expires and thereafter no longer applies. He usually does this by studying the bossâ€™s body and verbal languages. And what could better signify release than verbal or physical praise?
However, as far back as I can rememberâ€”like when Caesar and I were running channel blinds up and down the Rubiconâ€”savvy trainers have known that by teaching a separate release command, they could eliminate all canine confusion about the significance of praise. They could train positively and their dogs would work confidently, happily, ergo stylishly.
So, if you teach your retriever a separate release command and he learns that command alone releases him from any previous instructions, you can praise and pet him lavishly with no risk of losing control.
Teach the Cease
Different people use different words for a release command, like Okay, Free, Hie On and even Schoolâ€™s Out. Of course, if you wish, you can make up your own, even from nonsense syllables. Here Iâ€™ll use Okay.
Theoretically, you canâ€™t teach the release command until after youâ€™ve taught your pooch at least one control command from which to release him. But actually you can teach it in conjunction with your pupâ€™s first control command, normally Sit.
Say â€śSitâ€ť and put him into a sitting position. For this, you can simply push down on his rump with one hand while holding his chin up with the other. Obedience trial trainers prefer not to push the rump down because it can confuse the dog later in the â€śStand for Examinationâ€ť exercise, when he must remain standing while being thusly pushed.
Back when I was doing obedience trialsâ€”with my two training buddies, Mark Antony and that gorgeous Liz Taylor look-alike, Cleopatraâ€”we tapped the pupâ€™s rump down.
More recently, some â€śtotally positive trainingâ€ť loonies have condemned both pushing and tapping as negative. Instead, they wave a treat around over the pupâ€™s head until he leans back and sits. In Ciceroâ€™s oft-quoted words, â€śO Tempora! O Mores!â€ť (What times! What customs!)
Hold your pup in a sitting position a few seconds while praising him. Then say â€śOkay,â€ť and help him back up onto his feet. Praise him again and play with him awhile before repeating this exercise. Repeat it several times a day. Before long, when you say â€śSit,â€ť your pup will plunk it down and look at you for praise. So praise him! If he moves, say â€śNoâ€ť and put him back into a sitting positionâ€”and then praise him (very important). Wait a few seconds before releasing him with â€śOkay,â€ť and once again praise him.
When heâ€™s reliable while youâ€™re standing next to him, snap on a lead and start backing away before commanding â€śSit.â€ť If he refuses, go to him, put him into a sitting position, praise him, back away and praise him again. If he gets up, say â€śNo,â€ť put him back in a sitting position, praise him, back away again and praise him again. After a few seconds, say â€śOkayâ€ť and praise him when he gets up.
Eventually, even when youâ€™re quite some distance away, heâ€™ll sit on your command and remain in place, while you praise him, until you say â€śOkay.â€ť (When you reach this point, you should start using the Sit-whistle as well as the verbal command. But thatâ€™s another topic.)
Then, you should introduce this command-praise-release-praise sequence into other basic obedience commands, like Heel, Come and Stay. By the time you finish basic obedience, your pooch will have acquired a mass of incontrovertible empirical evidence demonstrating that your release command, and only your release command, frees him from your previous control command.
Heâ€™ll understand that praise is just a reward for good work, not a release from control. This will allow you to train in a predominantly positive manner ever thereafter. Sure, youâ€™ll have to correct him sometimes, but youâ€™ll always have praise available for rewarding good work. Heâ€™ll work for your praise, and his anticipation of it will bring out as much style as his genes possess.
Perhaps your most frequent use of the release command will be in giving your dog â€śfun dummiesâ€ť to end training sessions on a happy note. Let him break and chase fun dummies, which without a release command would quickly unsteady him.
Holler â€śOkay!â€ť several times as you swing a dummy around over your head. Heâ€™ll race around you watching the dummy. Toss it long and high as you again holler â€śOkay!â€ť Heâ€™ll chase so hard that he might occasionally catch the dummy in mid-air! Fun dummies will perk your dog up, and remembering these exhilarating session-ending pleasantries will make him eager for the next session.
When you e-collar-condition your retriever, your ability to reassure him with praise will help him get through this sometimes stressful training procedure. The sequenceâ€”command, nick or burn, praiseâ€”helps your dog understand whatâ€™s going on much better than does a sequence of command, nick or burn and silence.
When you force-fetch him, your power to praise without release will also make this process less frustrating. The sequence â€”Fetch, pinch (or nick/burn), praise…Give, praiseâ€”speeds this process up and makes it more positive. (For your own force-fetch stress, I recommend a post-session martini!)
When you advance into blind retrieve training, youâ€™ll find several uses for praise. For example, letâ€™s say your dog â€śslips a whistleâ€ť (refuses to stop and sit on the Sit-whistle). You first send him an electronic correction, after which he plunks it down properly. If you immediately holler your favorite terms of endearment, heâ€™ll find the experience both educational and positive.
When youâ€™re hunting upland birds together, your dog will sometimes start trailing a track-star pheasant.
As he does, each time he gets too far ahead of you, stop him with the Sit-whistle and have him wait while you catch up. As you approach him, praise him with â€śGood dog, good dog, good dog.â€ť Then, when youâ€™ve caught up, release him to resume trailing with â€śOkay!â€ť
You may do this stop-and-go pheasant trailing for some distance, through all sorts of cover, and eventually see the bird flush just a few yards ahead. When you shoot that bird and your pooch retrieves it, youâ€™ll both feel a special bond that such teamwork usually produces. (If you miss the bird, your dog wonâ€™t blame you, thereby humbling and making you more tolerant of his mistakes.)
As you and your retriever go through the years of his active life, youâ€™ll find many other occasions when youâ€™ll be glad you taught him a distinct release command, thereby preventing him from confusing praise with release.
Jim Spencerâ€™s books can be ordered from the Gun Dog Bookshelf: Training Retrievers for Marshes & Meadows; Retriever Training Tests; Retriever Training Drills for Marking; Retriever Training Drills for Blind Retrieves; Retriever Hunt Tests; HUP! Training Flushing Spaniels the American Way; and POINT! Training the All-Seasons Bird Dog.