Many trainers and handlers (myself included) seem to make common mistakes when training our dogs. I cannot explain why people tend to fall into the same negative or unproductive behaviors, but I hope that in sharing these common problems with you, we can self-assess more honestly and can do a better job as trainers, thereby doing better by our dogs.
As you consider the following common missteps in training, assess your own actions: Break your training down into elements and lessons, and take note of how you and your dog performed, for better and worse. Hold yourself accountable, as you would hold your dog accountable, and learn from your mistakes.
The issue stems from a handler being inconsistent with commands. Sit, sit down, and hup may all label the same desired behavior, but to a dog’s way of thinking, they are three distinct verbal commands. Simplicity and consistency of verbal commands makes for a much more linear cause-and-effect relationship with a dog. Remember, dogs do not speak human language. In following a verbal command, they are simply identifying a sound and attaching a singular behavior to it.
A great way to self-assess and correct this problem is to have a friend film your training sessions. Be a firm critic, and identify those times when your commands lack consistency.
Identify Failure & Move Back
As a dog moves forward and learns new skills, he has to be challenged, made a bit uncomfortable, and then rewarded when the desired outcome is achieved. Once an initial understanding is established, the lesson has to be drilled, practiced, and incrementally tested. Consider the recall as an abbreviated example. The “come,” or “here,” command (settle on one, and use it consistently) can be established and rewarded, and then drilled in very close quarters. Start a recall with only two feet between trainer and dog, and then drill at that distance. After drilling for a period of time at two feet, move back to five feet and repeat. Then 10. Then 15, and so on, eventually adding distraction. The goal is to see success and affirm that success, establishing and cementing the correct behavior rather than correcting an incorrect behavior. Mishandling failure is where many trainers and handlers go wrong.
When a new skill is learned, we as trainers are often eager to test it, and to see the extent of its utility. With that, we often ask more of a dog than he is capable of early on. Again, to oversimplify: If we have our dog drilling at five feet for recall and performing well, then we take our dog on a run in the woods and recall our dog from a position a hundred yards out, he will likely fail to comply. In this instance, we have moved way too far too quickly. If we move along a more reasonable progression and see failure at 15 feet, simply move back to 10. Move back until success occurs, and then move forward more gradually.
Vary Timing with Steadiness Drilling
Each training session should achieve as much as possible, as efficiently as possible. With that, consider how you are teaching and drilling steadiness, particularly how long you are asking your dog to remain steady for.
Often when we are training, we roll pigeons for the dog to find and flush. A dog that is being steadied will hup on the flush, and be released sometime after the fall. Far too often, a handler develops a certain rhythm to this process. The handler will wait for a three-second count before sending, and soon the dog learns to anticipate a standard pause between fall and release. It is incredibly valuable to challenge this rhythm.
Make sure that when drilling, you vary the length of time that you ask the dog to hup. If you commonly keep the dog hupped for three seconds, make it 10 seconds on the next bird, and then 30 seconds. Periodically call the dog in after the bird falls, hup him beside you, and then send him. Varying the duration of the hup allows the true meaning of steadiness to sink in and be tested.
I see trainers whose tone of voice is all over the map, or who maintain a tone that does nothing to help teach the skill at hand. Remember that a dog relies on the subtleties in our behavior and tonal quality of our voice to interpret what we want from them, or how we are interpreting their behavior. We must think of tone of voice as a key training tool, and identify moments when poor use of tone is counterproductive.
People remark on the fact that my colleague, Dan Lussen, and I are incredibly quiet in our training sessions. This is intentional. When we work dogs, we like to make sure that we only give the necessary commands, and that we deliver them for maximum benefit. When praising or rewarding a dog, we soften our voices and become enthusiastic. When releasing a low-drive dog for a retrieve, we might up the energy of our release command. When we need to correct a headstrong dog and get his attention, we may intensify our tone and give that dog the business. We do all of this, however, at a fairly low volume. Our tone and energy sets the stage for the learning environment. If that environment is energized and chaotic, it can be very hard for a dog to learn. Conversely, if the dog is low-energy, nervous, or lacking drive, we need to use our tone to invigorate the learning environment and make it more dynamic. Think of moderating your tone as you might think of playing a fish: It is a line that connects you and a dog, and you must moderate the tension in that line to keep the connection intact.