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Sticking Points in Gun Dog Training

Moving forward sometimes depends on moving back.

Sticking Points in Gun Dog Training
Photo Credit: Chip Laughton

Raise your hand if you’ve ever had this happen: You’ve been training your dog the whoa command. You’ve gone through the introductory steps, introduced him to the command, reinforced it without stimulation, then reinforced it with stimulation, and you’re now convinced your dog is a genius. He’s got it! In just three days!

Secure your necktie, gentle reader. You’re about to experience a sticking point.

On day four, you line up your genius, command him to whoa, and to your amazement, he ignores you. So you try again. Ditto. What just happened? He was doing so well!

Any time a dog ignores, seems to forget or is confused by a command he’s previously performed, he’s hit a sticking point. What seems perfectly obvious to you—the command you’ve just given—isn’t nearly so obvious to your dog. We humans make cognitive leaps that dogs simply can’t muster, despite their intelligence.

A second and minor reason is that the dog is refusing just to be obstinate. No matter how much you may want to think so (and there have been plenty of times in my training career when I really, really wanted to believe that a dog was messing with my head), that type of behavior is uncommon, although it’s certainly not unheard of. Fortunately, it doesn’t really matter why the dog has hit a sticking point; he has and you’re…stuck. Now what?

Go back. Go back to the step or command immediately preceding the command that is causing the problem. Let’s continue to use the whoa command for our example. When I’m teaching a dog to whoa, I verbally introduce the command on a bench; then introduce it again on the ground, as the dog is walking beside me; then reinforce the command physically if he disobeys (by picking him up and replacing him); then reinforce the command with a collar; and finally, reinforce the command while the dog is casting back and forth but connected to a 20-foot lead. (There are several more steps I go through, but for the sake of this demonstration, these will suffice.)

As it often happens, a dog will obey the whoa command when he’s walking beside me, but will refuse the command as soon as I put him on the 20-foot lead. The solution is simple: go back and repeat the previous step. In this example, I’d go back to walking the dog beside me, then give him the whoa command. If he obeyed, then a few repetitions of the exercise would be enough, since I’ve established that he understands the command. If he didn’t obey, then I’d continue to work on that step until he got it.

But let’s say that he complies. Now that you’ve established that he does, indeed, understand what it is you’re telling him to do (stop moving on the whoa command), clip him to the 20-foot lead, but instead of giving him all 20 feet, incrementally increase the distance. Start with just five feet. Take a few steps and command him to whoa. Reinforce the command if he disobeys, then repeat.

When he’s got that down, increase the distance to 10 feet, then 15 feet and so on. Following these suggestions exactly isn’t the point (nor is it even necessary); the point is that your pup should understand and obey the previous step before you move him to the next. A quantum leap from one command to the next often fails, but baby steps will get your dog where you want him to go every time.

Unfortunately, it always takes longer to completely train your dog to do anything than you think it will. This is not to say that you can’t get a dog familiar with a command in just a few days. I’ve had dogs that picked up the basics of backing and heeling in less than a week. But getting a dog to the level where he really gets it and obeys that command no matter how many distractions you throw at him takes weeks and often months. It’s a slow process of establishing a command in the dog’s “vocabulary”; moving him through each succeeding, and slightly more difficult step; regressing to deal with the sticking points that invariably come up; and then continuing to move forward.

As a final example, let’s use the typical progression of a dog through the force breaking process. I’ve force broken a number of dogs over the years, including all four of the dogs I currently own. I can’t say I enjoy it. Retrievers and spaniels, most of which have strong natural drives to retrieve, make force breaking easy. But my area of operation is pointing dogs, and most pointing dogs, no matter the breed, aren’t strong natural retrievers, so getting them to willingly fetch a bird is a struggle.

I start with the dog on a bench, then pinch his ear, and when he opens his mouth, quickly insert a small bumper and say “fetch.” This part, at least, usually goes well, and most dogs pick it up after a few days. Next, I’ll give the dog an ear pinch, put the bumper in his mouth, command “fetch,” then back away from him. If the dog spits out the bumper, I pinch his ear and reinsert it in his mouth. Again, most dogs get this in a week or so, and it goes relatively smoothly. So far, so good.

But the hard part is about to begin. Now that the dog understands the word “fetch” and knows that he’ll have his ear pinched if he doesn’t open his mouth to receive the bumper, it stands to reason that, when I put him on the ground, place the bumper at his feet, and give him the command to fetch he’ll reach down and pick it up, right?

Never happens. Instead, he refuses, his first sticking point. So, back to the bench he goes. A quick session or two reestablishes that he understands the command, at which point I return him to the ground, place the bumper at his feet, lift one end of it off the ground with one hand and guide his head down to it with the other, all the while maintaining my grip on his ear.

Why do dogs invariably find a bumper lifted slightly off the ground (even an inch!) easier to retrieve? Beats the hell out of me, but they do. The bigger lesson here is that going from the bench to the ground is a big change. The dog needs help to make the cognitive leap, and if that means lifting the bumper ever so slightly off the ground, I’m happy to do that.

Later, when he’s reliably picking up the bumper at his feet, I’ll toss it ahead of him, which usually precipitates another sticking point. Further still, when I introduce dead birds in place of the bumper, I’ll hit another sticking point, and so on. Each sticking point is worked through incrementally, until the dog is performing the command every time.

For what it’s worth, all this takes as long as it takes. Reestablishing what a dog knows, then working through sticking points by introducing the next command in increments, is how smart dogs become smart, trained dogs. Who doesn’t want a dog like that?

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