Droppers, Blinkers And Breakers
September 23, 2010
Plus, More On "Osmosis Training".
Question: I don't have much time or access to grounds to train my hunting dog, other than in the hunting season. He won't hold his points (he's a dropper) even though I taught him the "Whoa" command, I think. Is there anything I can do around home, when the season is closed, to make sure he stays put, most of the time? A friend down the road said every time I feed him I should tell him "whoa," and not let him go to the feed pan until I tell him, "okay." What do you think of that advice? (South Carolina)
Although I don't do it myself, I couldn't say the advice is bad. It has been a shortcut used since bird dogs have been trained. I'll tell you a method just as simple, which can be used in training pointing, retrieving and flushing dogs. This informal training doesn't require planned training sessions or open space and poses no risk of intimidating a pup or shy dog.
First, however, I know not many of today's dog fanciers know what you mean when you describe your bird dog as a "dropper," although most would be cognizant of today's deliberately bred "designer dog" mixes such as Labradoodles, Cockapoos, etc., which are sold for ridiculously high prices.
"Droppers" may well have been the original "oops" dogs, the result of an unplanned, inadvertent cross between a purebred pointer and a purebred setter. This crossing produced a lot of useful gun dogs, gifts to kids or sold for a pittance unless, rarely, they contributed to a serious effort to "hot up," "cool down" or revise and re-establish a breeding program.
Probably, most pro trainers would advise going back to basic work, yard training with check cord. But a pro you ain't. You have one dog and no facilities and aren't being paid for the time you spend with a casually bred dog. Nor am I telling you that whoaing him at the feed pan won't work. But there is an easier and better way. Reinforcement training!
Assuming, as you claim, your dog understands that "whoa" means plant those feet and keep them in place until I release you, the oftener (or more) you do this, the better he'll become at it. Do it anytime, anyplace--at house doors, kennel doors, on walks or during romps.
He'll soon recognize that when he "breaks" without a head-tap or verbal release and is punished for a breach of manners, the punishment came because he disobeyed a known command. When "whoa" is then used in a field situation, he'll have come to know whatever unpleasantness follows disobedience is not the fault of the bird he was pointing.
Associating "bad dog" and punishment if the command is used mostly or always when birds are present is distinctly possible.
Unpleasant punishment when correcting a lack of restraint on training birds can lead to developing a "blinker," a hunting dog that deliberately avoids birds he has come to fear or hate because of intimidating discipline during training. Innocently instilling such reactions in a bird dog puppy before its training is well underway is bad enough. Doing it deliberately, under the guise of early or reinforcing training, borders upon criminal.
Question: My Lab is difficult to get to sit and stay when I have company hunting. He's pretty good when we're alone, but when other shooters start banging away, he'll break. I give him a lot of work in the off season. In training and in UKC hunting retriever testing, he does well. Any suggestions? (Michigan)
See the preceding question and answer. In real estate sales, the clue is location, location, location. In any kind of dog training, it is repetition, repetition, repetition. You can use (with obvious modification) the "technique" described for stanching and steadying pointing dogs. Just practice it at every opportunity, regardless of breed or age; for spaniels and retrievers, it is sit-stay.
You may have an added problem. Before there were hunting tests, there were field trials.
Anyone who has worked and handled trial retrievers has experienced the "trial wise" retriever. Rules prohibit punishing a dog when he's competing. Wily ones sense the different atmosphere and act up, refuse commands or goof off during payoff events. They know they can get away with it.
You indicate that you do a lot of work with your dog and frequently hunt alone. While the tests do a better job of stimulating hunting situations than do trials, having gunning companions may prompt your Lab to get on his high horse (as he does when there is a crowd, noise and distractions) causing loss of concentration, which spurs giving into that urge to do things his way rather than tread the straight and narrow. When you're alone, he won't risk it.
Continue, of course, to do a lot of training involving just your dog and you or one or two other helpers, as available. But try to get some relatives, hunting buddies, neighborhood kids (preferably people who won't disown you when you have to mete out discipline) to make up the distracting crowd element that is featured in trials, tests and organized training sessions.
Question: I wish to congratulate you on your column in the September 2006 issue. It was fair and objective and in line with my experience. After 42 years of grouse hunting with English setters and two European breeds, I must say the setters were most satisfactory overall, especially a Llewellin I had in the '60s.
A Ryman/Hemlock setter I have now (11 years old) is a close second. Keeping him trim, he still runs all day with grace and intensity. He has a great nose and is a wonderful companion all year long'¦on the trout stream and in the house.
A younger, smaller five-year-old from the same kennel is still so "wound up" he has trouble concentrating and has been a much slower learner. My Brittany was the opposite; precocious, but never got better after the first year or two. But I'm not giving up on the flightier setter.
Thanks again for the excellent evaluation in your articles. Any ideas about "very slow learners" among English setters? (Virginia)
I'm getting too old (70 plus years of ruffed grouse hunting) to remember the details of the Q&A column you liked and too decrepit (no more dawn to dusk training and shooting) to look it up. My assumption is that it involved a discussion of dog breeds that have come to be called "close cover" pointing dogs. Your most appreciated letter also fits well with the previous questions regarding the informal, improvised, off-season training that I long ago dubbed as "osmosis" training.
Good trainers recognize that anything done with a dog is training. They aid themselves by including the dog in everything possible occurring in their lives. That accounts for amateurs turning out hunting/companion dogs best suited for personal hunting styles.
Having one or two dogs to wor
k with over a leisurely period of time, rather than in more demanding and polished paid-for training scenarios, gives do-it-yourselfers an edge.
Whether or not the trainer recognizes what's going on, dogs soak it up without realizing it is happening.
A basic part of training philosophy should be to win a dog's trust. I have frequently pointed out this is done by, among other things, never fooling or tricking a dog. Like all rules, "conning" dogs with osmosis training is the exception to that one.
Agreement with my observations in a previous column wasn't what caught my eye in your letter. It was a "wonderful companion all year long'¦on the trout stream and in the house" regarding your old dog, which tied in with preparing this column. You were pleased that my remarks reflected your experience. I was thankful you recognized how smart each thinks the other is.
Regarding your inquiry about very slow learning setters (apply to any breed), I can only hope you'll find my observations as sagacious as those prompting your letter.
Generally, Brits do pretty good stuff at a much earlier age than the "average" setter.
However, the caveat about individuality within each breed applies. Whether dunces outnumber geniuses in one breed or the other is arguable.
I would agree with you that on average, were there such, the bobbed-tail versatile breeds "get it" younger and have become very popular because of that. Other contributing factors (their pros and cons would make an article in itself), particularly trainer/owner preferences, training approach and effort expended, profoundly affect what's natural and inherited.
Patience, patience, patience, and a very gentle persuasion is required of a trainer, amateur or pro, who undertakes the training of either a setter or Brittany. Because I'm essentially an impatient old man, I substitute perseverance and, hopefully, understanding and some skills applied differently to both setters and Brits than to breeds with less delicate dispositions. Training "normal" reps of either breed, whether because of lack of precocity or sensitive dispositions, is a labor of love.
It's doubtful I possess the character to process to fruition a nice dog who is a very slow learner. A Simple Simon taxes my non-existent patience. I can do it. Have done it. Don't like to. It requires additional time when getting paid for a fun job more easily done with representatives of other breeds.
"Normal" setters, in whatever you consider reasonable time, will come around if you "love" that breed or individual. Hobby time and effort aren't the monetary concerns they are for professionals who pride themselves on completing satisfactory training jobs "even on a stump, if it has four legs and a tail." The same goes for those trainer/owners who have a "thing" for their favorite Brits.
Pro trainers have different breeds they "get along best with." Whether training for bird shooters or trial and test competitors, they choose to work with what responds best to their ideas and personalities. They work hard and time is money, dictating that they specialize or train predominantly those "easy to train" breeds they favor. As a well-seasoned bird hunter and dog man you rate the right, and have the privilege, to be tolerant for as long as you want.
But to bite the bullet and keep the nice, younger dog only as a companion (or put in good home with non-hunters), because he hasn't become biddable afield at age five, could be a wiser choice, although longer, more careful training time is conceded a necessity to develop a really good grouse dog. For practice hunting, no domestically-raised replicates are available to assist the required actual hunting of wild game that is necessary to develop a ruffed grouse virtuoso.
"Time's Winged Chariot" is closer to my tail than to yours. But even when I believed there was "world enough and time enough" for me, nothing would make me keep a gun dog around unless by age two to three it was showing me something special or was accomplished at providing frequent and enjoyable wing shooting.
But, as noted earlier, all regulations either have exceptions or were meant to be broken. So have at it! Mistakes made by all of us are not necessarily tragic and can become cherished memories.