In the previous column we discussed the early stages of training a flusher pup, namely the necessity of establishing a strong foundation alongside clear boundaries.
The basis of my training methodology assumes that the FOUNDATION is the groundwork, specifically the first steps, the instruction, affirmation and reward that define the behaviors that you as trainer want the pup to achieve. BOUNDARIES, on the other hand, are the guardrails or corrections that are used to reinforce that foundation.
It is important here to recognize that it is quite easy to have some tunnel vision around gun dog training, particularly when we consider that the desired end result, specifically having a dog find, flush and retrieve a bird, is so central to our thinking. That said, it is more important, in the early stages especially, that a trainer focus on establishing a training relationship with a pup, ensuring foundational behaviors and boundaries that can be applied to each training stage.
What I mean by this is that I could use very similar training tools to establish a solid foundation in my girlfriend's poodle as I could in a springer from champion bloodlines, even though the desired resulting behavior and work of the dog is, in the end, quite different. With all of these matters in mind, let's look at our pup at about 5 or 6 months of age, having been socialized and oriented towards a treat/praise philosophy of positive reinforcement
At this point we've established general manners and introduced rudimentary boundaries for behavior. The pup is now ready to move up a level in the complexity of his training, and the ideal tool to facilitate this next advance is the Place Board.
Why Place Boards Work
Place Boards have gained tremendous popularity in recent years and are widely used in both flusher/retriever and pointing dog training. The principle of the Place Board training is quite simple: a small (ideally a 2-foot by 3-foot or 2-foot by 4-foot) board delineates a safe and reliable physical place to which a dog in training can return.
In my experience prior to using a designated "place," the pup essentially viewed the entire 3-acre training field as a working/training space, and boundary establishment was quite difficult. The clear and defined confines of a Place Board make a range of lessons far easier to teach by establishing for a pup clear physical boundaries.
Build Your Own Place Board
Though some pre-fabricated Place Boards are available for sale, a cost-effective board can be made from a frame of 2x4's capped with a piece of plywood. I personally don't feel that the height of the Place Board is hugely critical, and there are some trainers that use a rubberized welcome mat to great effect. I personally prefer the 2x4 frame with plywood, topped with some scrap carpeting, as it is light enough to carry but rigid enough to stand up.
Introducing Place Boards
Once the Place Board is built or purchased, it is time to introduce the pup to it, and vice versa. The command that I use most is simply "Place." I use it to indicate that the pup should find the board, get up on it, sit and make eye contact with me. The pup should then stay in that "place" position until released with another command.
To teach "Place," I use an English-style slip lead to keep a fairly tight connection to the pup. Starting from fairly close range, I give the command "Place" and guide the pup over to the Place Board, and, once he's on the board, I lift the slip lead enough to make the pup sit. Then, in keeping with my foundation training methodology, I treat the pup, but only after he has made eye contact with me.
Often, I hold the treat up in front of my eyes to ensure contact before giving the treat, and I, of course, praise extensively. Once treated, I praise the pup, and only lead him off the board after giving a release command, which is often "Okay" or a tap on the head. I lead the pup off the board, do a short circle, and repeat. Often, two or three sessions of four or five such repetitions per day is sufficient to instill the "Place" command into the pup's lexicon.
Mastering The "Place" Command
Early on, this command will not always be executed smoothly. It is important, however, that the exercise be used to firmly and cleanly establish boundaries. Give the command, guide the pup confidently to the board, use a firm lift (not a jerk) on the slip lead to apply pressure for the pup to sit, and only treat when eye contact is made.
As in all new skills, the pup will wiggle and try at times to avoid the board, but soon, and with practice, it will become a safe and secure place. In the pup's mind, while on the board treats and praise are given, and the job at hand is simply to sit still and be attentive.
As this skill is mastered through repetition, it becomes an action that the pup has confidence in; the objective and the expectation are both clear. Getting to this point of clarity is the essence of foundation training.
Now I am the first to admit that as described, this exercise seems simplistic, and also somewhat arbitrary. Obviously, the "Place" command in itself has little practical application in field work with a flusher. However, the exercise establishes several lessons. Boundaries are established and enforced by the handler, creating a clear leadership dynamic. Foundational expectations are rewarded when met, and reinforced with praise.
What's more, the pup is asked to remain engaged, with eye contact on the handler. This last and somewhat subtle element ensures that the pup understands the need for engagement. Place Board training time is not, at this point, "go lie down" time. It is teaching time. School is in session, and attention is required.
The Next Step
Over a period of days/weeks the pup will gain some real confidence around the Place Board. Once you as the handler feel that the foundation and boundaries around the "Place" command are well established, you can move on to using the Place Board as a tool within other command training.
I personally progress from "Place" into a more rigorous recall (i.e., "Come") command. To do so, I begin with a 20-foot check cord. Keeping a fairly proximity to the board, I walk the pup on the check cord within a few feet of the board. From there, I give the "Place" command and by this time the pup should place well. I attain eye contact, treat and praise, then back away to the end of the check cord.
At this point, with eye contact, I give my recall command, I use the check cord for insurance, and guide the pup straight to me, where I get eye contact again, treat and praise. If the recall is not swift and direct, I use the cord to "reel" the pup in, establishing clear boundaries and enforcing that the command's intention is clear.
Once treated, I circle the pup back towards the Place Board, give the "Place" command, and repeat. Again, I may do this session twice a day with four or five reps each time.
In the event that the pup falters on the "Place" command, leaving the board before the recall is given, I simply back up, repeat the command and re-establish those boundaries. In essence, I maintain good contact with the pup throughout the early stages, until I am fairly confident in the fact that both "Place" and the recall are well-seated.
Shortening Your lead
To move up to the next level, I shorten the length of the check cord to 10 feet. Using this shorter lead, I place the pup and then back away the full 20 feet, leaving the 10-foot cord on the ground. The pup, focused on eye contact, assumes that I still have the end of a 20-foot cord in hand, and the 10 feet of cord acts simply as a 'dummy.' I then give the recall command, and the dog comes in for a treat and praise.
If he breaks, I have a 10-foot cord to grab and return to the Place Board, and move back to the 20-foot cord for more work. Progressively I can shorten the cord until it is simply a short slip lead, then I can consider moving to an e-collar. Bear in mind this will take time, but clarity, consistency, and established boundaries will cement the foundation in a remarkably efficient timeframe.
The Place Board has become, for many trainers, an indispensable training aid. It is easy to build, transportable, inexpensive and practical. When seen as a key piece of foundation training, it can prove worth its weight in gold. Just remember, in using a Place Board we are not teaching the pup so much to sit still in one spot, but rather, to do what is commanded, with rapt attention on the handler.