In our last column we covered the first command “Sit”. We seamlessly covered 2 other commands on the bottom rung of our training pyramid. The first was “Sit” at a distance. You first want the dog to sit fairly close to you and then over time, to be able to get your dog to sit at greater distances from you. I watched the expression on the face of a person who had never observed advanced retriever training absolutely gape when on a single whistle at 400 yards away an Open dog stopped on a dime and looked back at his handler. Some day one of my dogs will do that.
The second of the other commands we taught was “Sit” on a whistle. To review, walk with the dog by your side and say “Sit”. He will instantly sit because over the course of many very short periods of instructions you have taught him to do that. Remember when training dogs, give a single command, not a paragraph. Dogs are like teenagers, if you start to lecture them or give too many words in a command, their eyes will glaze over like a teenager and all they hear is what Charlie Brown hears when an adult talks to him. If your dog does not sit at even a short distance from you, simplify. Go back to the last step where he was successful and continue the lesson. The younger the dog, the shorter and more frequent the lesson should be. This is one advantage an amateur has over a professional. The amateur has only 1 or 2 dogs and has the luxury of time. Almost every person, including myself, is guilty of overtraining his first dog. Utilize short frequent lessons. Let the dog cogitate what he has learned and then try again. Once your dog is sitting on a whistle at a reasonable distance, add a distraction. Whistle and make him sit when someone is walking by or when someone approaches him. When he is doing his “Sit” perfectly in the backyard take him out to the field and you will have the thrill of starting all over again. There is nothing like having your dog do everything perfectly in the backyard and then take him out to the field where he runs amok and someone will say “You should train that dog”. All training should be done to perfection without distractions and then begin to add on as many as he can handle.
I use the words Train and Teach interchangeably. Why, because good training is good teaching. The best example of this interchange occurred many years ago. Rex Carr could teach. While attending the School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California, Davis, I was fortunate to receive instruction from many outstanding faculity members. The greatest teacher however was a dog trainer named Rex Carr.
During the early 1970's my dog training partner Bill Sabbag, a psychiatrist, surprised me by never trying to make excuses when his dog could not complete a task. He would simplify the concept and re run the dog. Only when the dog mastered the concept would he proceed to the more advanced level.
I had won a field trial but was struggling to advance my training techniques. We needed more consistent results. Bill suggested if I wanted to advance in the sport of field trailing, I should train with Rex Carr. Bill and I drove out to CL 2, the name of the site Rex created for the express purpose of training retrievers. The place was a dream come true for a novice trainer. Rolling hills, meadows and acres of technical ponds with easy access lay before me.
After a number of visits it was obvious that Rex had more than wonderful training grounds. He had a program. This exacting program was the first of its kind and produced many National Open and Amateur Field Trial Champions.
Upon arriving at Car Labs, the dog would undergo an orientation. He would learn to be around other dogs, how to jump into a dog truck and begin to pay attention to his handler. Once acclimated, the program would begin. "Sit" was the first command. Rex never used the work "Stay". "Sit" meant that the dog would sit and stay until given another command. Once "Sit" was completely mastered, Rex would teach the next step. Rex would make the lessons short and always end on success. Upon completion of the 4 month program the dog was expected to have excellent line manners, demonstrate a perfect delivery to hand, and complete difficult singles and doubles. The dog would not cheat on the water, and was beginning to handle. The key to the program was that each step was perfected before the next step was started. If the dog became confused Rex would simplify and then advance. The program was very much like school. I would ask where a dog was in the program and after a few words, I knew exactly what the dog knew and did not know.
Rex never used tricks, he was always fair to the dog. If the dog became confused he would go back as many steps as necessary until the dog regained his confidence and then would advance. I never saw him get mad at a dog. I did see him lose his temper at a handler especially if the mistake caused the dog to behave incorrectly.
Let’s cover a few more of the commands on the lowest level of the training pyramid. “Kennel”. I start this command when it is bed time. It is very much like putting a child to bed. Wait until you can see the pup is tired, don’t try when he has the zoomies and running in a crazy circles around you. I have his own kennel set up, walk up to it and then using a treat, have him enter. Done. After some time give the command “Kennel” when he is some distance from his kennel. You will find that he will fly into his haven. Some non-dog people feel it is cruel to make a dog go into a kennel. What they don’t understand is that is the one safe place in the world for that dog and can be transported wherever the dog travels. The use of a kennel when you cannot watch the dog or when he is napping can greatly decrease the house training period for a dog. Dogs do not like to eliminate where they sleep. As soon as you take him out of the kennel, immediately take him outside.
Rex Carr believed a good training session began at the car kennel. Carr was all about control. This control began at the kennel. He would give the command “No” when he opened the car kennel. If the dog tried to rush out, the door was slammed in his face. Use any command you chose but make it clear to the dog he only gets out when you say so. As soon as the dogs’ feet hit the ground, give the “Sit” command. Now you are in control, not the dog. Take the dog in the opposite direction of where he will be working and then air him. If you immediately start to walk to the line you will teach him it’s OK to relieve himself anywhere.
At this time a new command is employed. Use any word or words you want, just be consistent. Take the dog to where you want to air him and give the command. I use “OK” or “Micturate”, it is a release command. It means go, air or just run around and burn off some steam. Time to play.
“Heel”. Probably the second most important command. For amusement I will go to a path or dog area and watch a dog take his owner for a walk. The dog gets out of the car with a collar and leash on. Then the fun begins. The dog takes off dragging his “Master” behind him or if I am really lucky, the owner assumes a horizontal position when the dog is flying along in front and the owner is flying along behind. At the very least the left arm of the owner will be several inches longer than the right from the constant pulling.
This lifetime problem can be solved in very short order with young pups. To start with just put a collar on the pups that fits him. Let him get adjusted to this over a period of time. Then add a leash to the mix. Let him get comfortable with the leash. Now comes the fun. Go for a walk. A leash on a well-trained dog is like the reins on a cutting horse. There is no yanking or jerking, just subtle almost invisible movements. And like a colt your pup may start to buck and pull at the leash. Slowly let him get comfortable with the situation. Play him like a fish, bring him in slowly and gently. Again you have a number of choices when it comes to a leash. With young horses you may start out with a very gentle hackamore, for a horse that needs more guidance, you can switch to any number of bits from gentle to quite severe. So it is with dogs. I don’t use a standard collar on a pup, they tend to pull out of them. You have several choices. The most common are the choke collar and the pinch collar. I really dislike the term choke collar because of what the term implies. I much prefer the term “Jerk Collar”. To get a dog to heel give the command “Heel” while simultaneously giving a short jerk on the leash.
A pinch collar has several advantages. The pinch collar should fit snug around the neck. This applies pressure around the entire circumference of the neck, not just the ventral aspect next to the trachea. The dog will not fight the pinch collar because correction is applied the moment they start to lean into it. Again for small people and large dogs you now have the edge.
Once they get adjusted to the leash, the second phase of the training begins, “Heel”. Again many short sessions. I use a heeling stick. The heeling stick is not a whip, it is employed to prevent the pup from surging in front and can also be used to encourage the pup to not lag behind. Properly presented when I grab a leash and heeling stick and ask “Walk” or “Outside” the dog will jump at the chance. On rare occasions I will have a very high powered dog that does not respond to the heeling stick used at the appropriate level. In this case I reach into my toolkit and bring out another instrument, the whiffle bat. Some readers may blanch at the sight or thought of this but the sight or sound of the bat make a strong impression and greatly shortens the time to a perfect “Heel”. When a seasoned professional has to air 7 to 10 dogs at a time, he may well carry a whiffle bat. That is because he does not want to spend his career having his knees replaced. Dogs play by running and crashing into one another. Pros can’t afford to play in this manner with 7 dogs all coming at him.
The whiffle bat is not a cudgel nor should it be used as one. Try this trick on yourself. Hit yourself with a normal heeling stick and then a whiffle bat. With the bat, no pain just gain.
When you begin to teach the dog to heel don’t demand perfection. Give him latitude. Over time he will learn to keep his head right next to your leg. Remember, as Rex would say “If you seek perfection you lose momentum, if you seek momentum, you will achieve perfection.”
John Schulte DVM