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Puppies Have Their Place

Training the "place" command on a place board teaches your pup necessary boundaries.

Puppies Have Their Place

The "place" command can lend itself to all sorts of training concepts, including more advanced steadiness.  (Michael Clingan photo)

Over the course of a long career in flushing dogs I have seen to the ownership, care, and training of many puppies. It is always rewarding to watch a pup come into his own, and to see good genetics see the light of day as the training process unfolds. Sometimes, when the stars align, you even wind up with a National Champion. Honestly, though, raising a puppy is a big investment in time, and a significant responsibility. To see a puppy through adolescence and into early adulthood (in other words, to finish a pup) is a two or three-year process. With seventy-seven years under my belt, a likely return on a three-year investment begins to feel a little bit risky!

But then, last summer my friend and training partner Dan Lussen of Pondview II Kennels got the pick of a litter that his top English springer sired. Dan’s male, JB, is a field trial champ and placed second in two Nationals. The dam in the breeding is a field trial champion out of Canada, and Danny intended to get from the litter a male that might, in JB’s retirement, serve as the next great stud dog in his kennel. And this is how, in July 2020, we wound up with the puppy that I never intended to have, or to train, or to plan the next three years around. We decided to call the pup Frankie.

Genetic Potential

When you are breeding, training, and trialing dogs professionally you are forced to look at puppies objectively. They are fun and cute for sure, but they are also investments in the future, and they must pull their weight as business partners. This means that there is little room for failure, and the owner/trainer/breeder must do whatever possible to ensure that the dog will perform in the field. The most direct insurance for this kind of success lies in great genetics, as I have said time and again. You never know exactly what you are going to get in a puppy when you bring one home, but you can stack the odds in your favor by getting a pup out of a strong breeding and proven bloodlines. Frankie’s genetics are certainly an asset, and we plan to do what we can to make use of them.

Genes alone don’t make a champion. For a trainer or an owner, it is all about making sure that genetic potential sees the light of day, and that the training that you put in place from the start plays to the puppy’s strengths. Basically, good breeding should provide you with an athletic, intelligent, and biddable puppy. What you teach that puppy, and the way that you do so, is a whole different conversation. It is important that you make good first steps on this important journey.

The Importance of “Place”

In recent years I have come to believe that one of the best early training tools for a puppy is the place board. I have written on this a bit before, but watching Frankie get his initial work on the place board has re-upped my conviction in place training. The “place” command taught on a place board is the first and easiest way to teach a puppy about boundaries. It provides a concrete, physical boundary for a puppy, communicating that there are clear and defined do’s and don’ts. It also is a simple, portable tool that can work in a variety of settings. The puppy is able to work on “place” with the owner and trainer in the confines of the home or backyard. A place command in the quiver also makes a pup more mannerly and easier to have around. The sooner and better a puppy learns to place, the more opportunity for interaction it will have. If you can trust your pup to mind boundaries in the home, it will get more opportunity to be with you through the training process, and through its daily life.

Two dogs in place with trainer
The "place" command can provide a foundation for advanced training and handling. (Jordan Horak photo)

But how does this lesson translate to the field? Certainly, you are not going to carry a place board around with you when you go chasing birds. What a place board provides, however, is an opportunity to create conditions of training. There are certain fundamentals in training a flusher that are critical. First, the flusher must be focused on you, their handler, meaning that he or she must key into you and maintain eye contact. Moreover, your flusher must understand that the collar, or pressure on the neck, helps enforce the command, but when compliance is achieved, the pressure goes away. Next, a pup must learn that a command does not have a time limit. Once given, a command is a directive until the pup is released with an alternate command. Finally, the dog must learn that when it has accomplished a task it will be rewarded and praised, and that desired behavior is reinforced with a positive outcome. To engage your pup with these principles of training, the place board, and the “place” command, provide the perfect teaching tool.

So how does this work in practice? It’s quite simple, as we saw with Frankie beginning at about eight weeks. When we started teaching place, we placed a lead on Frankie, led him to the place board, and made him sit with a cue upward on the lead. This upward pull, coincident with a treat held up high, makes the hind end go down, and generally gets the pup’s eyes on the handler. We reinforce the place command, and reward with a treat. Early on, Frankie wandered off the board readily after given the treat, or at least tried to. When he did, we simply gave the command again, steered him back onto the place board, re-cued a sit, and gave a treat. Each time he complied, the cue of the collar released, teaching that a release of pressure indicated success. This release is key as it will translate to e-collar work down the line, during which compliance will enable the dog to effectively “turn off” the electronic stimulation.

Perfecting Place

When doing these sessions, shorter is better, especially in the beginning. Strive for perfection. The pup should get right up on the place board, the treat should be high to ensure eye contact and the pup’s rear end should be entirely on the board.

At first, don’t make the pup stay on “place” terribly long. With Frankie, it was a few seconds and then an “ok” or a tap on the head to release him. We built up from there, progressing from a few seconds at place to 15-20 seconds per session as Frankie got older, moving backward when we saw failure. Still, eye contact and a cue on the neck, as well as the earned treat and praise, were the keys. These were short positive lessons. We drilled “place” two to three times per session and got in about four or five sessions per day. Consistency is key, but those good genetics were in our favor, and Frankie continues to impress. It is amazing how fast they learn.

Place training a puppy
Start close and stick to short sessions when beginning "place" training. (Jordan Horak photo)

From here, we will continue to drill through Frankie’s adolescence, making the sessions a bit longer as we go. Soon we will have a pup that understands that we have boundaries and expectations of certain behaviors, and of the learning process as a whole. All of this will make the progression of field-specific training easier as we are laying a solid foundation. We are maintaining contact and rapport with Frankie while teaching boundaries and expectations, and Frankie is having fun because he loves the clarity of the expectation and the rewards for correct behavior. A win-win that will help us all.

In my mind, a place board is a must-have for the new dog owner, and place training is an absolute first on the to-do list. It is a perfect way to embark on the training journey with your pup, and it will help you put those all-important genetics into practice from the start.

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