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Fixing Behavior Problems: Issues in Trials and Tests

Fixing Behavior Problems: Issues in Trials and Tests


I trained my black Labrador retriever for hunt trials for three years. He did very well for the first two years, gaining his Senior Hunter certificate and getting three qualifications for a Master Hunter, but for the last year he has not qualified. My dog developed a peculiar reaction only during trials: He rolls on the duck and then retrieves it to us.

I never see him do it in practice, where we also use dead birds (mostly ducks). I have tried to set up situations to get him to do it on cue, but he only seems to roll on the bird at trials. He does not do it on every bird, either.

He may get through the first series, retrieving three marks and two blinds without a problem, and then in the second series will roll on the first or second bird. With my continued blowing of the whistle, he retrieves the bird every time, but is usually dropped by the judge because of the rolling.

This rolling problem has me perplexed, as well as the two professionals I train with. Together, they have 70 years of training experience between them, and they do not know what to do, either.

My Lab has also seemingly lost concentration only during the trials. Most recently he overshot several retrieves by 20 to 30 yards. He then acts like he is lost and does not know why he went out there. On a few he realized it, but much too late to qualify.

Could it be that he has had just too much training? Should I just cool it for a month before running him again?


When I first read your letter, I initially thought it was a problem of superstitious behavior where one day your dog simply added the roll on the bird into the retrieve sequence. It worked OK, so he incorporated it into the sequence of things to get a retrieve done.

It's not so different from what people do: Some people put on the left sock first and then the right, then the left shoe then the right, and never deviate. Someone else puts on both socks first, then both shoes. It doesn't make the job any more efficient either way, but if we had to change the sequence we would feel out of balance. When I read that your dog was not consistent in it and only did the roll thing sometimes, though, I had second thoughts.

Your note about the concentration sounds like what we commonly call in people "burnout." Both burnout and superstitious behaviors can come from too much training and too many repetitions too close together in time.

If repetitions occur one after another, unwanted things are incorporated into the performance. If repetitions are too far apart in time, there is a tendency to forget so each time is like the first. Your idea of cooling it for a month and then going at it much slower for a while is the best solution to try.

It is what we people do for burnout, and it is what I would also suggest for a possible superstitious behavior that was inadvertently incorporated into the procedure. Try your idea of cooling it for three or four weeks, then see how your dog does on a more relaxed refresher attempt. Keep me informed on how it works.


I have run my dog in several tests, Natural Ability and Utility level. He is always reasonably steady to flush, shot and fall. However, in his most recent test, he found and pointed many birds solidly, but was so hyped that he broke on every shot.

Before this test I worked him primarily on fetching. I used only pigeons because he will point them — and, as you know, some experienced dogs won't. He was completely steady on all birds, even with teasing, except for one bird that flew away, which I shot out of a tree. He broke in that instance when it dropped.

I thought his steadiness was OK, but I misjudged his past season's hunting performance. He had more than 30 pheasants shot over him, and he got worse as the season progressed by breaking to shot. Later, he even broke on a couple of flushes. He also had about 60 quail where he was reasonably steady, but not perfect.


This is the part where hunting wild birds takes over and wrecks the whole thing. The tendency is to shoot and say "fetch" instantly — we all do it. We want the dog on the downed bird ASAP. The break-to-fetch command is incorporated into the sequence. It gets chained onto the shot-fall sequence so that in only a few repetitions, the fall means go, the shot means go and the flush means go.

We tell him "fetch" even before the fall for two reasons: First of all, we think we are better shots than we really are, but paradoxically, we also know we don't shoot well enough to put a strong-flying rooster dead on the ground every time.

We want the dog there on the first bounce so we don't have to spend half an hour trying to find a wing-shot bird that is already halfway across the next section. You have inadvertently trained your dog not to be steady to flush, shot and fall.

That is the reason why real, efficient hunting dogs mess up in the tests so much. They have actually been trained not to be steady. To avoid the problem, don't say "fetch" for at least a minute, preferably longer after the shot and fall, so the fetch isn't chained onto the fall by the fetch command.

Or, better, train the dog so that the shot serves as the command to stop. Do this by chaining the shot in front of the dog's known command to stop dead in his tracks. Chaining occurs when an event closely precedes a known command enough times so it becomes associated with the reward gained by obeying the command. After only a few pairings, the event acts as the command. It is simply Pavlov's classical conditioning.

But be prepared to spend a lot of time trying to get your dog to follow cripples if you are into the niceties of the steady part of a test. It takes a long time and a lot of exposure for the dog to be a super efficient tracker of a fast-running pheasant bent on escaping the pot.

For solutions to your dog's behavior problems or behavior-related training problems, you can contact Ed Bailey at

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