Oct 092017
 

This is the busiest time of year for us – right after the start of the shooting season. It’s when those who, for good reasons, haven’t been able to put in the training time discover that their gundog is behaving like an unguided missile when amongst the birds again and come looking for help! First thing is: Don’t panic Mr Mainwaring!

First day madness is a common problem with gundogs, even for those who have managed to find time in busy lives to do some training. So you’re in good company. So, now that we’ve got this hyper-excited uncontrollable beast who went berserk and embarrassed us in front of our friends, what do we do?

Well, the easy answer a professional dog trainer would give you is to put your dog away until next season and spend time building steadiness. I’ve always thought this advice to be complete bo****ks, not because it’s wrong, but because it ignores reality for the majority of people who have gundogs as pets. I totally get it that you want to and will take your dog shooting regardless, so we have to manage what we’ve got, right? 

In order to move forward with Fido, we will have to move back. What you shouldn’t do now is to get hold of cold game, take Fido out and start firing shot guns and dummy launchers all over the place. All you will do is become perfect at having an over-excited dog! Instead, the key is to go back to basics in your training, in particular the choice of training environment. Take Fido into an enclosed, confined, if possible channeled area, free of any distractions where he only has you to focus on. A kitchen, hallway, patio or small garden are perfect for this.

Concentrate on the 4 basics: focus on me, sit/stay, recall and stop whistle – in other words steering and brakes. Have plenty of food rewards and use placeboards, hoops, mats or something similar to help Fido target his behaviour. Get these skills cemented in here in this benign environment until they become non-negotiable responses. Don’t be afraid to correct any misbehaviour with a growl or a sharp “No!”: any deviation in this calm environment will only be magnified in the shooting field. Make the exercises short, sharp, high-octane, unpredictable and full of fun and rewards – but laced with discipline.

This way, you’ll stand a better chance of Fido being the talk of the town in the beaters’ wagon. 

Whatever you do, don’t panic!

 

Sep 052017
 

Part 3 of our heelwork advice concentrates on getting the dog to want to be with you, on associating in the dog’s mind the heel position as being one of pleasure, praise and reward. Heelwork should be a positive and happy experience and not accompanied by constant corrections, verbal or physical.

We find that, once the dog understands that by being next to you (s)he will be rewarded and praised, that this becomes a default position. The dog now chooses to be with you rather than is forced to be with you on the end of a tight lead, which is both uncomfortable and potentially damaging for both handler and dog. 

For this, we use treats and placeboards. We rely initially on the dog following a food treat. But as the exercises progress, we start to ration the treats and eventually remove them altogether. Same goes for the placeboards: initially they become a target for the dog to keep them aligned, but eventually they too can be dispensed with. So how does it work? The following exercise assumes you normally walk your dog on your left. If it’s normally on your right, just substitute “left” and “right”!

With the dog sat on the placeboard on your left side, put a small treat between forefinger and thumb in your left hand plant the treat on the dog’s nose. Move your treat hand tight against your left leg so that the dog’s head is against your left knee. Move off by turning sharp left in front of the dog, so that the dog has to give way to you in order to follow the treat. Walk half a circle only around the placeboard, delivering praise and the word “heel” (or equivalent) in a gentle tone. Lead the dog back on to the board, keeping your treat hand low and on the dog’s nose throughout (if you have a small dog, you’re going to have to bend your back!)  Don’t let the dog take the treat, just let him nibble! Once the dog is back on the placeboard alongside you, then (and only then) raise your treat hand to your shoulder to promote the sit. As soon as the dog sits and is making eye contact, mark the behaviour with “Good!” and then treat.

Tips:

  • Do not be tempted to do several circles with the dog. Initially, half a circle is plenty. Build this up into a full circle and then widen the radius as things get better.
  • Once the small circles have been mastered, you can feed the dog the treat during heel work, but be sure to reload your treat hand and continue. Aim to increase the time between treats as heelwork improves.
  • Heel work should be a happy and positive experience for your dog. Ensure your treat hand position is correct and that the word of command “Heel” is delivered in a soft & gentle way & only when the dog is correctly positioned.
  • For outdoor heelwork (or if the dog is easily distracted) use a slip lead held in the right hand, draped behind your legs, leaving your left hand to treat. Only the left hand controls the lead.

So, the aim of this exercise is not to stuff treats into him, but to build an association in his mind that being next to Dad/Mum in the heel position is a great place to be for reward and praise. Once this behaviour becomes engrained, you will have a dog that focuses on you and chooses to be with you – the holy grail of heelwork!

Aug 232017
 

I promised you further suggestions on how to stop Fido pulling on the lead. But before we start, if you don’t believe in correcting your dog, then this advice will be of no help. We correct our dogs without causing pain, harm or distress, but sufficiently for the correction to act as a deterrent. A dog learns quickest if there are pleasant consequences for one behaviour and unpleasant for another. Read “My Approach to Training” if you want a more detailed explanation on our methods.

Equipment. We only use a slip lead:

This is because when the slip lead is tightened when delivering a correction, it automatically releases pressure when you slacken the lead – provided it’s put on correctly as per this picture. We never use a harness:

as these harness the dog’s power and encourage the dog to pull. Take it from most of the top dog trainers: there is not a single piece of equipment or lead on the market that stops a dog pulling, despite the multitude of claims on many products (if you can invent one, you’ll be a millionaire!). Yes, they can help, but without the necessary training in core skills, you are better off saving your money.

So here is a method we use to stop a dog pulling. We call it “Spin, ignore and reward”. The aim is to encourage Fido to start anticipating your movements so as to avoid discomfort. The description below assumes you handle your dog on the left. 

With Fido on your left on a slip lead in your left hand, clamp your left hand to your hip, look up, turn away from him and march briskly off away from him (not forwards, but turn away). Fido will be taken by surprise and will eventually run to catch you up. As soon as Fido comes ahead of you, spin through 180 degrees to your right (away from Fido) and march off briskly in the opposite direction. As soon as the lead becomes loose (indicating Fido is now in the right position by your side), stop, praise and reward. Repeat.

Tips:

  • Pretend you don’t have a dog. Just turn away from Fido and set off marching at a fast pace without any warning.
  • Don’t talk or interact with Fido until and unless you are rewarding correct positioning.
  • Spins must be sharp, as if you’re a soldier marching.  If you turn slowly, the deterrent effect of the lead going tight is lost and the learning value is diminished.
  • Keep your head up and don’t look at Fido.
  • Even if Fido becomes entangled, don’t stop, keep marching! He will sort himself out.
  • When Fido conforms (which you’ll know as the lead becomes  loose), walk in a straight line for a short distance before stopping: spin only when he goes wrong, go straight only when he conforms.
  • Only stop when Fido is correctly positioned. Then reward and praise.

It takes me only about two minutes before a dog realises that there is only one comfortable place to be: by my side, looking at me and anticipating my next move. Anywhere else, and the lead goes tight and Mum/Dad marches off again. But when Fido starts to understand what the solution is and the lead goes loose, that’s the time to stop, reward and praise. If you are consistent with this technique, Fido will soon be at heel with his head by your leg, focusing on you rather than taking you water skiing down the High Street!

Try it. It works, I promise!

Aug 142017
 

There are many ways to help stop a dog from pulling on a lead. This Part 1 will address prevention, whilst later Parts will cover cure.

Most people put a lead on their new puppy. Why? Probably because they think that’s the right thing to do and they want to stop their pup from running away and getting into trouble or danger. All good reasons. 

But what about if we could get our pup to want to be with us all the time and not to want to run away? 

If we put a lead on a pup, the lead will go tight as the pup resists this strange new restraint and hey presto – you’ve just started to teach your pup to pull! But if you wait until the pup wants and chooses to be with you – and then put a lead on, hey presto you have a pup that is much less likely to pull!

So how do we get our pup to choose to be with us? Well, Mother Nature helps us. A pup will naturally want to follow and be with you in the first few weeks as the main source of comfort, protection, affection and food. We must do everything we can to reinforce this natural instinct. This means playing with your pup, having fun, not chasing after it but walking away if it loses interest, rewarding the pup with a treat every time it comes, not calling it when it wanders off (this just teaches the pup to ignore the recall) and generally by making yourself the centre of its world, the source of play, food, fun, affection, protection, warmth and all the good things in life.

All this initial bonding work should be accompanied by minimum voice. The more you talk to your pup, the less they will pay attention, the less they need to look at you. Your voice will become white noise to the pup, a sound they hear but don’t listen to. Ration this important tool – your voice. Rather than talk to your pup, get them to focus on you, use a treat to get them to make eye contact and then reward. Never bribe or reward a dog when they’re not looking at you. Focus is the holy grail!

Use the words you want your pup to understand (come, sit etc) but ONLY once they are doing what you want. So, each time your dog comes to you because you have gestured to them with open arms or they come of their own accord, tell them “Come!” so that they only ever hear this word when they’re already coming. Same for “Sit!”. Only say this as their bottom hits the floor. This way they will quickly associate the word with the action and before long you will be able to use the words as commands.

The final bit of advice is perhaps the most important. If you take your pup out too soon into the wide, wild world and allow him unrestrained access to the attractions of woods, parks, wildlife and the myriad of other distractions, you will struggle to keep his focus and to maintain yourself as the centre of his world. That’s why we recommend that all the initial training takes place in a confined, benign, distraction-free environment, one in which your pup only has you to focus on. If you try and compete with the wide outdoors for his focus, you will lose!

By following all the advice above, you stand the best chance of developing in the pup a powerful desire and need to be with you, to focus on you and to listen to you. These are the bedrock elements of heel work, both on and off lead. If we achieve this, lead and heel work will simply not be an issue.

But if we haven’t managed to get our pup “plugged in” to us and we now have a dog that instinctively pulls on a lead because that’s what we’ve inadvertently taught it to do, we need to cure this annoying and potentially dangerous and painful habit. There are many techniques people recommend. The next Part will look at some of the techniques that we approve of, that we use and that work for us.

Watch this space!