by Grayson Schaffer | on October 24th, 2011 | in Features, Training
Some people have Burning Man. For the last two years, I’ve cleared my schedule and made the 17-hour drive north to a certain repurposed mine-foreman’s house in North Dakota. On the agenda for the week: pheasants. My editor recently asked me if I was really taking a vacation and driving cross-country just to kill things—again. To be fair, chasing ditch parrots, as the Nodakkers call them, makes at least as much sense as driving to a place that’s good for riding bicycles or kayaking down a freezing rocky river where you could drown, or any of the other things we do for fun.
The simple explanation, for the uninitiated, is that bird hunting is actually more about the hunting dogs—British Labradors for most of us—than anything else. Here’s an animal endowed by nature to run faster, jump higher, and smell more acutely than any human. And through years of selective breeding, patience, reinforcement, and, who are we kidding, the occasional profane outburst, a good Lab will put those inhuman abilities to work for the handler. Occasionally, when everything aligns perfectly—bird and gun and scent and dog—it can seem like the connection between retriever and handler is plain English.
It’s that connection that brings this same crew—most of them from Alaska—together ever year. We all have dogs out of Mike Stewart’s Wildrose Kennels in Oxford, Mississippi, and we all do our best to train using the low-force, positive-reinforcement ethic that Stewart promotes. Getting together means getting a lot of good dogs together. When you turn 15 dogs loose in the same pheasant field, there’s either chaos or there isn’t. Mostly, there isn’t.
Here, then, are the (unofficial) rules of dog etiquette for people who take their gun dogs seriously—but not too seriously.
- Your dog might be the best dog in the field back home, but that likelihood lessens with each mile driven.
- Undersell your dog—always. He can speak for himself.
- Everytime you’re about to brag about your dog, stop yourself and complement another dog’s fine retrieve from the day, instead. Don’t worry, this is not a selfless act because,
- Only the underdog can overachieve. The best the overdog can do is meet expectations.
- If your dog breaks and steals a retrieve from another dog, you must berate your dog loudly. This is for the benefit of the other hunter and will have no effect on your dog’s behavior whatsoever.
- OK, now put a leash on him.
- Never give another guy a hard time about his dog. Believe me, he knows.
- Instead, refer to number 3: Acceptable: “That dog sure has a lot of drive.”
- When your dog honors, then makes a long retrieve through heavy cover, and returns with a lightly wounded bird, you’d better sound at least as happy as an eight-year-old girl who’s been given a pony for Christmas. (Not saying my dog has ever made a retrieve like this. But man, Jay, Duke sure makes those long falls look easy, don’t he?)
- When your dog leans against you, it either means that he’s trying to dominate you or that he has an itch he’d like you to scratch. Your call.
by Ryan Krogh | on August 25th, 2011 | in Features, Training
This past weekend, Mike Stewart and our friends over at Wildrose Kennels put on one of their popular Adventure Dog programs in Buena Vista, Colorado. The class is designed to show dog owners all the skills they and their pups need to do everything from float rivers to mountain bike together. I was at the class with Magnolia, my eight-month-old yellow lab, and came away with plenty of new tips. I also came away with a new appreciation for the mistakes I was making with her that kept setting her back. And I wasn’t the only one. Here are the seven mistakes that nearly everyone in the class, included me, made—and how you avoid them with your own pooch.
Mistake #1: Not Mastering the Basics
Most dogs sit and lie down at home just fine. They’ll even heel around the block. But add in a new location, like hiking on an unfamiliar trail or walking down a crowded Main Street, and the dog is pulling on the leash, trying to chase rabbits, or chomping at a four-year-old’s ice cream cone. It’s simply because the dog hasn’t mastered all the fundamental skills: Sit, Stay, Here, Heel, and Leave It. As soon as you add in a new stimulus or a new location the dog goes off track, because those skills haven’t been fully ingrained yet.
Correction: Dogs are place-oriented. Your pup may be able to sit still in the house, but not so in the campsite while you’re roasting marshmallows. So practice having him sit in multiple locations. Same with heeling: Don’t always take the dog on the same after-work walk. He’ll do fine in familiar territory, because the routine is familiar, but he’ll run off as soon as he sees a chipmunk while hiking. Mike Stewart’s rule is that if a dog can consistently perform the skill five times in five different locations, with a distraction or two thrown in, he’ll be able to do that skill nearly anywhere.
Mistake #2: Being Inconsistent With the Dog
The tendency for most dog owners is to want a dog that is chill around the house but on point as soon as you step out the front door. It’s impossible to get that unless you act nearly the same in the house as out the door. As Stewart is fond of saying, “Dogs are not an On/Off switch. They’re creatures of habit.” What he means is that if you let a dog run roughshod over the house, that’s exactly what he’ll do when you open the door.
Correction: You need to be consistent with how you reward and scold them, so that the dog actually learns. If you want a dog to sit and stay still whenever you want, you need to work on that in the house first. And yes that means you’ll need to change your routine with the dog, because your daily routine with him needs to line up with your end goal. Instead of letting him have the run of the house, make sure he sits still on a mat. Then do that in five different locations. The add in a stimulus, like a kidding running around or a ball tossed in front of him. When it comes time to sit around the campfire, he’ll be ready sit calmly and not dive after your marshmallow the first chance he gets.
Mistake #3: Using Rewards Indiscriminately
All weekend long, we saw various dogs misbehaving, wandering around, and then getting petted when they sidled up to someone. That’s rewarding the dog for misbehaving, even if it wasn’t you that did the misrewarding. The indiscriminate rewarding also happened with owners who were petting (or worse, feeding) their dogs when they came up while we were sitting around a picnic table eating lunch.
Correction: Make sure you’re not reinforcing bad habits by encouraging them. The classic example is whining or barking. If walk outside every time they whine, they’ll quick put two and two together and keep on whining to get you to come out the door. The dog is training you at that point. Leave them be until they’re quiet, then go over and pet them. The same thing goes for feeding. If your dog is begging you for food at a BBQ and you feed him, don’t be surprised when he starts hopping up on your lap at the dinner table. Playing tug of war with the dog? No wonder he chews on everything and then brings it to you to destroy further. Instead, play games with a purpose so that you can focus the dog on things you want. Around the house, you can work on getting your dog to “Shake” hands with you or jump “Over” your lifted leg. They view this as fun. On a walk, don’t let them retrieve tennis balls randomly. Throw one that they have to ignore, and then another that they can pick up by you calling their name. That way you can reward good behavior at the right time and keep the dog focused. The mental energy expended on these games will often be more than enough to wear the dog out.
Mistake #4: Relying Too Much On Verbal Commands
“Dogs don’t talk,” Stewart said all weekend, earning him a chuckle every time. But he’s right: dogs have no idea what you’re saying. They only associate a verbal sound that you make with a behavior that you’ve reinforced. The much stronger message is always sent via body language or the tone of your voice. Most people were yelling a screaming at their dogs in long complicated sentences to get back in line—all of which meant little to the dog.
Correction: Dogs are extremely perceptive. Try a training session in which you don’t say a word and only attempt to communicate to the dog via your body language or hand signals. You’ll be amazed at what the dog picks up. Now add that same “language” to the specific command you’re working on. Be stern when the dog does something bad, but effusive when he does something right.
Mistake #5: Missing the Dog’s Signals
Just like your dog picks up on your nonverbal cures, you can pick up on the dog’s noverbal cues. If he is supposed to be sitting still but he’s leaning a little too far forward as another dog passes, you can bet they’re about to break. Same thing goes for a high tail, or a raised head. A dog is always communicating.
Correction: At least three times during the weekend I saw dogs give signs before they bolted away from their owners, snapped at another dog, or barked at a waitress. It’s only because I happened to be watching them at that exact moment. Pay attention to your dog, and make mental notes on any signs he gave that preceded an unwanted behavior. If he gives those signs in the future, rather than testing the dog, simply call their name to have them refocus on you. That way you don’t have to continually make harsh corrections when the dog gets out of line.
Mistake #6: Forgetting that Praise Is Just as Important as Scolding
We saw this one all weekend, and I’ll admit that I’m guilty of it myself. When a dog does something bad, everyone’s natural reaction is to scold him immediately so the he learns not to do it again. But many people forget to praise is just as effective, except you have to be just as effusive with it. More often that not, when a dog does something good, that’s all they’re rewarded with, a terse “good.”
Correction: If the dog has just done something exceptionally well, or done something for the first time, don’t be afraid to get down and make a show of it. Praise him while petting. Tell him “Good Sit,” “Good Stay,” “Good Backflip,” or whatever he did right. That way he learns without harsh corrections exactly what it is you want him to do.
Mistake #7: Expecting Your Dog to Change Overnight
It’s just not going to happen, unfortunately. Younger dogs will pick up habits, so instilling them with correct habits is much easier than correcting bad habits. Older dogs with ingrained habits will be much more difficult to change. (But it’s not impossible.) It just takes time, and you need to be realistic about how much time it actually takes, whether to train a new pup or retrain an old dog with new tricks.
Correction: The good news is that dogs are sponges: they pick up whatever you’re throwing at them. You just need to keep practicing it with them until it becomes a habit (again, older dogs will be harder but not impossible). But it’s your responsibility to incorporate that training or retraining into the dog’s everyday life. And do it consistently over many days and months. Stewart reiterated multiple times over the weekend that “You need to begin with the end in mind.” He meant that if you don’t have a vision for what you want out of your dog, you won’t be able to recognize the necessary steps that you need to do in order to get them there. Make the training and dog’s daily life line up with what you want. And again, don’t expect change overnight. But if you’re consistent and diligent, pretty soon the dog will be heeling on command, coming back to you every time you tell him to, and getting a beer out of the fridge, if that’s really all you want.
by Grayson Schaffer | on August 1st, 2011 | in Features, Training
According to the literature, dogs aren’t good at generalizing skills. If you teach your dog to rollover in one direction in the living room, teaching him to rollover in the other direction out in the yard will require starting from scratch. That’s what I thought about generalizing, anyway. Then I tried to put Danger on a diet.
A couple of weeks ago, I noticed that Big D was getting a bit wide in the midsection—probably as a result of knocking over his food bin a few times and New Mexico’s national forests and hiking trails being closed to prevent the rabble from torching the place. So I cut his rations back to one cup per day. That’s when the trouble began. Anybody who’s ever had a chocolate Labrador will tell you that they’ve got a wookie’s love of food. Danger will watch you out of the corner of his eye and knock over the trash if senses any inattention. I used to grab him by the ear or the hair of his chin and scold him, but lately he’s been simultaneously crying over his punishment and still leaning down to the floor to scarf a few more morsels before I can reach them.
Then, two days ago, he became self ware. I’d taught him to get beers out of the fridge as a party trick. To open the fridge, he tugs on a rope that’s tied to the door. But since he didn’t generalize the skill, he never thought to just tug open the fridge anytime he got hungry, which is all the time. But hunger is a great motivator of innovation. On Monday, I left him in his kennel in the yard but didn’t lock the gate with a carabiner. He flipped open the latch, ran around to the front door, shoved that open with his nose, taught himself to open the fridge, cleaned it out (including a pound of cheries), was still hungry, opened the door to the pantry, and ate five pounds of dog food.
My bad, right? I’d stupidly left the tug strap on the fridge. On Wednesday, with the strap gone, Danger presumably transferred what he knows about hooking a paw around the inside of a gate to pull the fridge door open. That was fridge heist number two—two more bricks of cheese and a pound of chicken. By this morning, he was opening the fridge when I was in the next room.
Since Danger has been on a diet, he’s eaten at least 12,000 calories worth of raw meat and dairy products while adding enough fiber (those cherries and a pot of black beans) to keep himself regular. But there’s a valuable lesson to all this: If you train while your dog is hungry, it’s going to make him smarter—or at least more determined to earn those treats.
by Chris Carpenter | on July 25th, 2011 | in Features, Training
Want to train your retriever to take directional casting? You can make this job easier by reading your dogs eyes. One thing is for sure…dogs will always tell you which direction they want to go. All you have to do is read their eyes and then use this indicator to your advantage in training.
Just watch. Next time you go out with your pal to play bumper baseball try throwing your bumpers to first, second, and third base. Notice your dog will not only stare in the direction it wants to go but that direction is almost always the last bumper thrown.
So lets say your pal has back and over right down pat. Now you throw in the over left bumper. Make the first time easy for your pal and throw that bumper last. The dog will stare it down and take your direction with no effort.
Later you can read your dogs eyes to pull your pal away from obvious distractions too. Do the same drill as above and the distraction will be the last bumper thrown. Now cast in the opposite direction your dog is looking. This will teach your pup start depending on you for direction and not its own eyes.
Its all in the eyes so read your dog and use this information to your and the dogs advantage. My eyes are wondering off to a breakfast burrito now. Guess where I’m headed.
by Aspen Ski Patrol | on December 18th, 2010 | in Features, Training
Jane (my 5 year old black lab), my boyfriend, and I recently took a 3,000 mile road trip to Northern California for some adventure. Everywhere we went, the same dog issues kept popping up.
by Steven Kotler | on October 25th, 2010 | in Features, Small Furry Blog, Training
Every now and again, I’m reminded of what an incredible and improbable relationship we have with dogs.
Partially, I’m talking about our cross-species friendship, the likes of which exists (as far as we can tell) nowhere else on the planet. Mountain lions and coyotes are both predators that inhabit the terrain around my house, but they don’t team up and have play dates. They don’t sleep in the same dens or share their meals. And neither do any other groups of social carnivores except humans and dogs.
But what makes this relationship all the more improbable is that we were not originally hard-wired for the experience. The best example I can offer of this is from something that happens occasionally when I’m out hiking my dogs through the backcountry. During those hikes, I often like to stop and sit down and close my eyes and listen. I like how nature sounds. The chirp of the birds. The buzz of the insects. My dogs running around to inspect this hole or that. And that low hum—some distant echo off the canyon walls that always seems to be there.
A few days back, I was sitting and listening, ears open, eyes closed, when my dog Bella, a pit-bull/healer mix, came running up to me. She’s been around me long enough that, when I sitting with my eyes closed, I never worry about her crashing into me
And this day was no different. Bella did what she often does—stopped directly in front of me to lick my face a few times. Normally, after this happens, she trots away. But the other day, she lingered with her mouth right beside my ear. She had been running, so after she stopped licking me she started panting: hot, hard animal pants that boomed in my ear.
While she was licking my face, there was almost no reaction. Sure, I got that slight bit of pleasure I always get from a dog licking my face, but that wasn’t much more than a light buzz in my nervous system. But when she panted in my ear, my entire body freaked out. My stomach dropped—as if I had gone over the first hill on a roller-coaster—and then my body jolted—like a bolt of electricity had shot through me.
Even before I realized it, I had jumped to my feet and taken up a wide-eyed, aggressive stance and the entire reaction was completely automatic.
What was actually happening was I was getting a chance to watch my amygdala at work. Here’s what I mean: The human senses take in about 400 billion different bits of information every second. The very first place this information travels is the amygdala, an almond-shaped structure in the brain governing primal emotions such as fear and rage.
Among the oldest portions of the human brain, the amygdala is old enough that certain reactions have become hardwired instinct. For example, when we see a dark, twisty shape in the grass, we will automatically jump backwards before our brain has time to realize we’ve seen a stick not a snake. This get-me-the-hell-out-of-here response shows up around heights, snakes, spiders, and—yes—the throaty pant of a live animal in one’s ear.
Certainly, we co-evolved to live with dogs. Certainly we have been cohabitating with them for somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 years, but for millions of years before that the hot pant of an animal in our ear meant nothing good. And the memory of that is still buried deep in our brain.
So when something happens, like my dear friend and constant companion Bella triggering a fight-or-flight response, I am again reminded of how improbable is our cross-species friendship. How long and hard both my forbearers and Bella’s forbearers had to work to make that connection. And how much responsibility I still have to cherish it.
Steven Kotler is the author of A Small Furry Prayer.
by Alicia Carr | on August 31st, 2010 | in Features, Training
This week, Mike Stewart takes us on a short hike with trail dogs Indian, Deke, Opus, and Drake. Follow along.
by Grayson Schaffer | on July 12th, 2010 | in Features, Training
Here, Mike shows you the right way to introduce your dog to watercraft in four easy steps. Remember, you and your dog should wear a life jacket. Ruff makes some nice ones for dogs.
by Aspen Ski Patrol | on July 1st, 2010 | in Features, Training
My name is Ali Wade. I am a ski patroller in Aspen, Colorado, and I handle an avalanche search and rescue dog. Jane is a black Labrador and is almost five years old. She was certified as a “basic search and rescue dog” at 18 months and has since obtained intermediate and advanced certifications for avalanche search and rescue.
Jane is the first dog I’ve trained. I learned the different techniques and excersizes through other handlers around the country as well as from a bi-annual seminar hosted by Wasatch Backcountry Rescue out of Alta, Utah.
As a handler of a working dog, I find it important and quite to challenge my dog on a routine basis. Simple things like stepping over or up onto an object or more advanced problems like finding a hidden object and having to problem solve around an obstacle to retrieve the object are a few ideas.
Make sure you use one command and stick with it…. such as “over” or “find-it,” and reward your dog thouroughly. I was told that the sillier you make yourself look, sound and feel while you are praising your dog the more they will appreciate it. (I prefer praise and pats because my lab is a food nut and cannot think about anything at all when she smells food… but feel free to use food as a reward.)
Start easy and work your way up. Start by getting your dog to jump up onto a park bench with an “up” command, but be careful she doesn’t get a paw caught in the slats. Then as your dog recognizes the command and is happy to do it for the reward, find something higher to get her onto—a retaining wall, a large rock… Use your imagination and have fun with this.
This is a picture of Jane and I getting the frisbee off the roof, where I accidentally threw it. I know it seems kind of silly, and it really was a lot of fun. Given that Colorado only has snow for about 7 months out of the year, Jane and I cannot practice in the snow everyday, so these are the kind of things that I do to keep her mind sharp.
A little side note: She would not do this without her work harness on. It was as if she knew that she would be safer with the harness on and became immediately mindful once she was in uniform.
Please be careful with your dogs and yourselves and don’t try anything too crazy…
—Ali And Jane
by Grayson Schaffer | on June 16th, 2010 | in Features, Training, Video Clips
Stream crossings are often where your dog’s obedience will go off the rails. Usually what happens is you set foot in a creek and your dog bolts to the other side. If you’re lucky, you’re not in his way. We prefer to train for stream crossings so they happen in an orderly manner and you never get knocked down. To perfect a stream crossing, all you need is a rock-solid heel, where your dog knows that even though the terrain has changed, the rules haven’t.
by Grayson Schaffer | on April 8th, 2010 | in Features, Training
by Grayson Schaffer | on March 15th, 2010 | in Features, The Wildrose Way, Training
by Grayson Schaffer | on March 9th, 2010 | in Features, Video Clips
Danger contributes some nice camerawork to our ski outing on Friday.
by Grayson Schaffer | on March 2nd, 2010 | in Features, Training, Video Clips
Last week, Danger and I got to hang out with the Telluride ski patrol and learn a few tricks. One that didn’t go as well as planned was Danger’s attempt to ride the chair lift. . .
by Grayson Schaffer | on February 18th, 2010 | in Features, The Wildrose Way, Training
Here, I’ll use Cooper to demonstrate the stepping stones to a remote sit. Stopping a dog on the whistle is as important for skiing as it is for retrieving. Stopping your dog is the first step toward handling him—sending him left, right, and back like a football receiver.
by Grayson Schaffer | on February 10th, 2010 | in Features, Training
All dogs have the ability to swim underwater, but not all will. Here, we get Danger used to putting his head under in a controlled environment. All you need is a bucket and some jerky.
by Grayson Schaffer | on February 9th, 2010 | in Features, Training
This one is borrowed from horse trainers. Making right-angle inside turns forces your dog to watch your legs and make sure he’s in position to avoid getting stepped on. It’s kind of like a dance step. Practice often and your pup is bound to become a good partner.
by Grayson Schaffer | on January 26th, 2010 | in Features, The Wildrose Way, Training
Every dog’s got to know his name. That’s how your pup is going to know when it’s really his turn to heel, retrieve, or get on the couch.
by Grayson Schaffer | on January 5th, 2010 | in Features, Training, Video Clips
We’re going to keep harping on this point all winter. Dogs that get close to skis receive gaping lacerations. It’s just that simple. Here are three tips to help ease your mind and your dog’s pain. Nothing keeps me awake at night like the thought of skis cutting doggy tendons. You can see, even in this video clip that Danger and Cooper aren’t perfect. In the heeling part at the end, Danger crosses over my right ski and was very lucky not to have gotten cut.
Next time, we’ll work on positioning—teaching your pup when he should be at your side, when he should be a ski-pole’s length away, and when he should be behind.
by Grayson Schaffer | on December 21st, 2009 | in Features, Video Clips
by Grayson Schaffer | on December 14th, 2009 | in Features, Training
This is another fun one to teach with the clicker. First teach him to drop a glass bottle in the glass bin, just like we did with the cans. Do this only after teaching the can trick—broken glass and dog paws don’t mix. Then have him start by picking up the glass bottle from the can bin and dropping it in the glass bin. Gradually add cans to the mix and only click/treat him when he chooses the bottle.
by Grayson Schaffer | on December 7th, 2009 | in Features, Training
Here’s a classic trick that never gets old: Play dead. Use a clicker to shape this behavior. The click should come right at the moment when the dog has completed the task. Early on, you might click just for him lying down and then for flopping over onto his side a bit. With a dog that’s had some clicker training before and knows that he’s got to offer a behavior to get the click, this should go quickly. You can teach a roll-over the same way.
by Grayson Schaffer | on November 30th, 2009 | in Features, Training, Video Clips
What’s not to love about Ski Santa Fe? The same slopes we were hunting September we’re skiing in November. Cooper was too young to hunt this year, but he’s just the right age to get started on snow. We’re going to spend a lot of time talking about how to ski with your dog this winter. Everyone loves to do it, but few people do it safely. Of the Outside dogs that accompany us on morning hike-up laps, none have escaped a laceration either from a ski edge or a snowmobile. The reason it happens is simple: The owner has no control over the dog when new and exciting distractions are introduced. A few people have told me that I’m no fun for making my dogs heel. But that’s not quite right. The point is: Make sure your dog can heel and will come when called (even when skiers or snowmobiles are zipping by). Then when you release your dog to run and play, you can do so with the confidence that he’s not a danger to himself.
by Grayson Schaffer | on November 11th, 2009 | in Features, The Wildrose Way
Mike passed along news from Tennessee-based handler Jim Bowers about Cooper’s half-brother Boone’s recent certification in arson detection. Boone is trained to detect some 18 different accelerants, which are often present in arson-caused fires. The dog pinpoints the location of the fuel in the debris, a sample is taken back to the lab and, voila, This was no accident!
Boone was started in scent detection at Wildrose shortly after birth and made the team at only 12 months, which is very young to pass the Canine Accelerant Detection Association’s rigorous test. Currently there are about 200 arson-detection dogs working in the country. Nice job, Boone!