by Grayson Schaffer | on March 15th, 2010 | in Features, The Wildrose Way, Training
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 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 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!
by Grayson Schaffer | on October 28th, 2009 | in Features, The Wildrose Way, Training
Puppies are great. Loads of fun. But they squirm a lot and, unlike cats, do not always land on their feet. Here, Mike demonstrates proper technique with my mom’s pup, Gibbs.
by Walker Parks | on October 19th, 2009 | in Features, The Wildrose Way, Training, Video Clips
by Grayson Schaffer | on October 7th, 2009 | in Features, The Wildrose Way, Training, Video Clips
That old trope about old dogs not learning new tricks just isn’t true. It may be difficult to break old dogs of long-held habits, but teaching new tricks isn’t so hard at all. Here’s a clip from when Mike was here, in Santa Fe. Features editor Elizabeth Hightower was having problems getting her ten-year-old black Lab, Angus, to drop his ball. Mike showed her his pressure-point technique to fix the problem. Now watch him spit it out and wait for a retrieve before dissapearing into the bushes. . .
by Grayson Schaffer | on September 30th, 2009 | in Features, The Wildrose Way, Training, Video Clips
We’ve harped a lot over what’s hard and what’s easy in dog training. Honoring is hard. It’s when one dog waits patiently while it’s another dog’s turn to work. It falls generally in the category of self-control. If your dog sees another dog run by, will he chase? Or will he sit there calmly and, if you’re lucky, check in with you to see what you want him to do. Here’s a quick video, where Mike has Whiskey and Deke honor while Cooper retrieves. (Mike was in Santa Fe a couple of weeks ago and gave Outside’s staff a demonstration. Great fun. Thanks, Mike!)
by Mike Stewart | on September 16th, 2009 | in Features, The Wildrose Way, Training, Video Clips
In order to train any dog, you’ve got to know what your dog is willing to work for. Every dog is a bit different, even within breeds, so finding your dog’s favorite things is up to you. In this clip, Mike explains five basics that should be combined in different proportions depending on what you want in your finished dog. If you pay attention, you’ll also hear Mike mention something called a primary motivator or reinforcer. Here’s a quick primer on the difference between primary and secondary reinforcers.
Primary Reinforcers: These are the things a dog naturally views as rewards. You don’t have to teach a dog that a liver treat is worth working for. Almost all dogs will view a treat as a primary reinforcer. Most retrieving breeds (with a strong prey drive) will view a retrieve or even getting to hold a favorite object as a primary reinforcer.
The Gray Area: These are motivators that some dogs may see as primary and others may have to learn as secondary reinforcers. In this category are verbal praise, affection, and just being with you. Some highly-social Labs go crazy over a high-pitched baby voice. Meanwhile, independent sled-dog and pointer breeds often don’t care whether you’re around or not.
Secondary Reinforcers: These are also called conditioned reinforcers because the dog learns that they’re valuable based on their pairing with primary reinforcers. That sound that the food makes when it hits the bottom of your dog’s bowl is a good example. Most dogs will sprint toward that sound becaus they’ve learned that it’s predictive of food. If your dog will come to that sound, you should be able to train him, through repetition, to come to any sound.
Finally, there’s the bridge, which Mike Mentions. The main purpose of the bridge is to mark a specific behavior and to let the dog know that the reward is coming. But over the course of training, the sound of the bridge—a click or a one-syllable word—will become a conditioned reinforcer in its own right. The bridge word is the lynchpin in positive field dog training. It allows you to mark behaviors at a great distance and then deliver your reward once the dog has returned to you. It’s only through building up the power of these secondary reinforcers that we can get the dog to perform consistently at a distance without resorting to force methods.
by Grayson Schaffer | on September 1st, 2009 | in Features, The Wildrose Way, Training, Video Clips
We’ll teach heeling to a bike just like we’ve taught all of our other skills so far: slowly and in increments. Once you’ve got a good loose-leash walk or off-lead heel, you can start this. (If your dog won’t heel ordinarily, it’s unlikely he’ll heel when you add such a big, mechanical distraction.) When you’ve got this down, it’s a great trick for riding around town with your pup as well as having him join you on some mellow spins through the woods. Remember, don’t run your dog flat-out behind a bike until he’s at least a year old. And even then, keep the distances short. Puppy joints aren’t tough enough to take prolonged pounding.
- Walk with your dog at heel on his normal side while you push the bike on the other.
- Once you’ve mastered that, move the dog to the bike side and walk with the bike between you and the dog.
- Finally, mount up and ride out. If you’ve built up each of the steps slowly—over days, not minutes—you should have a dog willing to heel beside you as you ride.
by Grayson Schaffer | on August 27th, 2009 | in Features, The Wildrose Way, Training, Video Clips
Here’s an uncut clip of Cooper’s first water retrieves. He makes three beautiful deliveries when we cut off his return to the bank. On the last one, I’m not quick enough and we quickly discover why it’s so important to be in the water with your dog.
by Grayson Schaffer | on August 20th, 2009 | in Features, The Wildrose Way, Video Clips
Last week Danger and I returned to Wildrose Colorado to polish up Danger’s water work in Clear Creek. He’s matured a lot since we made the video below, last year. But water entries have remained a problem, due mostly to the fact that I took Danger whitewater kayaking when he was four months old and scared the crap out of him. As a result, he’s prone to charging toward the water, stopping and then running up and down the bank for a few seconds before I finally persuade him to go in. Fearlessness in water is a critical skill for any gundog or adventure dog. We want our pups to love water and see swimming as high-value reward. The goal is a dog that drives straight into the drink in a controlled manner. Huge leaps are fun to watch but, as with humans diving into unknown pools, they can also lead to serious injury for the dog.
To improve Danger’s water entry, Mike had me divide the task into two steps that you’ll see in the video. First, we had him start his retrieve from a small sandbar in the middle of the creek. The sandbar eliminates bank-running by eliminating the bank. That’s called an environmental cue and it sets the dog up to succeed the same way that starting him lining along a fence does.
Second, we moved to a point of land that juts into a deep pool in the creek. The point gave Danver limited options for bank-running but, more importantly, put him a few feet above the water. As a result, he builds momentum coming down the bank which carries him into the water.
After a few of these drills, we had him going straight in off the rip-rap along a bank that ordinarily would have tripped him up.
by Mike Stewart | on August 18th, 2009 | in Features, The Wildrose Way
Here, I introduce Opus to water. The keys to a successful water introduction are simple:
- Get in the water with your pup and make sure it’s not to cold and not more than shin deep
- Toss your puppy bumper or toy. Make sure your dog doesn’t break for it, but watches it for a moment.
- Once you send him, move to block the most direct route from the bumper back to shore. This will prevent the pup from making land and running off with the bumper.
Every good adventure dog needs to comfortable in the water. Making a clean and fun introduction will pay off for a lifetime.
by Grayson Schaffer | on August 17th, 2009 | in Features, The Wildrose Way, Video Clips
Mike shows you how to pick your pup’s crate. The inclination is to save some money by getting a crate that will fit your dog when he’s full grown. Unfortunately, that often leads to a dog that’s conditioned to soil his nest.
by Mike Stewart | on August 7th, 2009 | in Features, The Wildrose Way, Training
Introducing a young, inexperienced dog to water, whether it’s a hunting dog or otherwise, is a matter of desensitization. We accomplish it just as we would introduce a dog to any new situation—progressively. In case it needs to be said: Never “teach” your pup to swim by tossing him off a dock or forcing him into the water. That’s a recipe for a land-loving dog.
Start off in shallow, warm water, where the pup can easily stand. You should introduce your pup to water only after he understands basic obedience skills and the two of you have developed a trusting relationship. No problem if you’ve had a kids pool in the dog’s yard—actual swimming is different. If you make your intro to water slow and fun, you should end up with a dog that views swimming as a great reward.
The best way to ensure that your dog goes in the water at the first introduction is to get into the water with the pup. Most dogs don’t like being left on shore and will follow their handler right in. I begin with several sessions of heel work in the shallows, with no expectations for swimming. Once he’s relaxed, we start to play with a bumper (retriever), favorite toy (other dogs). Make sure there are no drop-offs or other spots where your novice pup could lose his footing and get dunked. Usually, after a few quick retrieves in elbow-deep water, the dog forgets about the water altogether.
Slowly and progressively toss the object farther from shore. We’re talking only a foot or two of additional distance with each toss and only a few tosses each day to avoid boredom. Water introductions can take several days depending on the dog. When your pup is showing no hesitation toward the water, toss the object far enough to require him to swim to reach it. Usually, that’s all it takes.
No?, He won’t pick up his feet and start to swim? Lead the dog out with you until he’s got to swim. Quickly, they catch on and the swimming reflex is triggered.
Once you’ve got him swimming. Try this gradual build-up to water retrieves
- Wade out with the dog at heel. Toss the bumper just far enough to require him to swim.
- Heel the dog back to the bank.
- Once he’s calm, send him for the bumper. Making him wade out with you to throw the bumper requires him to remember the location of the bumper. It builds calmness, focus, and problem solving ability. Throwing an object and immediately sending your dog immediately can spin your dog up and make him uncontrollable.
- Meet your dog in the water to take the bumper to avoid any fraps on the bank.
- And keep the distractions low. No other dogs, kids, boats, gunfire, real birds or any of that. Remember Wildrose Law #6. Solve one problem at a time.
With a solid introduction to water, layering progressively more complicated skills—like directional signals—will be easy.
by Mike Stewart | on July 27th, 2009 | in Features, The Wildrose Way, Training
Canine prey drive is the instinct that makes many dogs love to locate, pursue, and catch game. It’s a trait that has its roots in wolves, but that’s been honed through breeding over centuries. A strong prey drive, once integral for the animal’s survival, is now the trait that’s often the best predictor that a pup will make a good working dog in any field.
Man’s association with the wolf and, later, its domesticated descendants extends back more than 15,000 years. This relationship evolved first out of scavenging—wolves following nomads and living off their waste. But rest assured, man quickly recognized the gifts and abilities of these animals to hunt and track prey. Well before the shotgun, hunters in Europe pursued rabbits and fowl with falcons. And they used dogs to locate, pursue, and flush game for the birds much like they do for the gun. In today’s dogs, you can see prey drive in a number of different incarnations:
- Retrievers to fetch game
- Hunting hounds to pursue foxes, raccoons, and other animals. Narcotic dogs that locate drugs.
- Narcotics dogs that sniff out drugs
- Border collies that herd sheep
- Any dog that’s ever bolted after a squirrel
But prey drive isn’t limited to hunting or even to working animals. Prey drive also translates into a dog’s motivation to perform. And as a testament to the selective breeding process that’s been honed over centuries, certain elements of prey drive have been deselected. Retrievers, for example, have been bred to pick up game but, contrary to a pure prey instinct, not to consume it. That trait is known as soft mouth. On the other hand, dogs used for hog and bear hunting have been selected for their instinct to catch, hold, and kill game as a pack.
Now if you’re thinking this doesn’t relate to you because you’re not in the business of pursuing feral pigs behind a pack of dogs, I’ve got news for you. Any of these traits—both desirable and not—can be present to in shelter dogs of the type that commonly end up in homes. Evaluating a dog’s prey drive should be of paramount consideration to you in selecting a pet or a working dog alike. Does the untrained dog have any interest in thrown objects? Will he give them up after fetching them or does he clamp down fiercely?
Controlling Prey Drive
The Wildrose training methodology is designed to bring out the natural abilities of dogs (instincts), apply controls, and forge a working
relationship (bond) between the dog and the handler. This is where prey drive becomes important. We want to promote natural instincts like tracking, flushing, and retrieving, but control them so that the dog is looking to us for guidance and not bolting at the first sign of a bird. We accomplish this
by establishing a positive relationship between the handler and the dog and relying on a training methodology that uses fulfillment of a dog’s natural desires as rewards for calm behavior. You give us what we want; we give you what you want.
by Grayson Schaffer | on July 21st, 2009 | in Features, The Wildrose Way, Video Clips
Here, Mike shows us how to train young Opus to stay quietly on his dog mat. This is a skill that’s best taught through positive reinforcement—rewarding the dog for being on the mat—and polished by setting boundaries: No, you cannot come off that mat until I say so.
by Mike Stewart | on July 20th, 2009 | in Features, The Wildrose Way
Dogs have long been used to alert us to faint whiffs of drugs or explosives. In the last decade, trainers have also discovered that dogs can smell high or low blood sugar levels in their diabetic handlers and alert specifically for each of these life-threatening conditions. Unfortunately, the information out there isn’t being readily shared and the techniques being used to train diabetic alert dogs is anything but standardized. To better understand this new field of dog training, we held the first annual Diabetic Alert Dog Training Conference here at Wildrose Kennels, June 24–26, 2009. The workshop was full and overflowing with 60 participants and 18 dogs covering 12 different states. Some of the participants were trainers, and some were people with diabetic alert dogs seeking training assistance. People who came without dogs were looking for guidance in finding a dog. The conference was facilitated by Rita Martinez, “Clickin’ Canines,” in California. Breakout sessions for hands-on work were led by Wildrose trainers, Mike Stewart, Jeremy Criscoe, Ben Summerall, and James and Carissa Skipper.
These are some of the observations we made over the weekend:
- There is a general lack of defined and standardized alerts. In some cases, dogs’ apparent alerts were confused for high or low blood sugar.
- There was a lack of obedience with most participating dogs. Diabetic alert dogs need to comply with the same public access standards as any other service animal.
- There was a question of consistent scent discrimination between the high and low blood sugar levels.
Participants had a great many questions, and a good number were answered by the trainers and those who own and handle their own diabetic alert dogs. Rachel and Abi Thornton, who have Mr. Darcy (a Wildrose Labrador) to alert Abi, run diabeticalertdog.com where they answer questions and give tips based on their experience training Mr. Darcy, who’s now 18 months old.
We’ve got a lot to learn in this field, and there’s an overwhelming need for diabetic alert dogs. More than 16 million people in the US have diabeties. Wildrose has begun developing a training program specifically for diabetic alert dogs. Currently, we have three puppies in training to prove the concepts. Wildrose British Labradors are known for their amazing scenting ability, temperament, and trainability. Their instincts, intelligence, desire to please and smaller size make them exceptional candidates for diabetic alert work. We’ve set up a page for our diabetic alert program here, and will also be discussing the top on our Facebook page.
Finally, we’ve set up the Wildrose Diabetic Alert Dogs Foundation (Wildrose DAD) as a non-profit project of Tupelo, Mississippi’s Create Foundation, to provide quality diabetic alert dogs to individuals with Type I diabetes. All donations to Wildrose DAD go to support programs designed to deliver trained dogs to qualified individuals with Type 1 diabetes. Also the foundation will support research, continued education, training and information dissemination about diabetic assistance dogs.
To contribute online to the foundation, go to createfoundation.com and search Wildrose Diabetic Alert Dog Fund or send a check to Create Foundation, P. O. Box 1053, Tupelo, MS 38802 and designate Wildrose Diabetic Alert Fund.
by Mike Stewart | on July 6th, 2009 | in Features, The Wildrose Way, Training
Summer months provide the opportunity to keep our dogs in shape, improve their skill levels, and, perhaps, rectify shortcomings identified in the field last season. Use the cool, damp mornings and be careful of the summer heat. Exhaustion can be a killer.
Retrievers, pointers, and other high-energy, athletic dogs have enormous enthusiasm for the job, often working to the point of self-injury. On hot, dry days, body heat builds up quickly in the active dog. And because they don’t sweat there’s no way to dissipate the heat.
The key is to recognize the warning signs of exhaustion early and to avoid training during the hottest part of the day. Warning signs include excessive panting, frothing at the mouth, lethargy, and dizziness. Some exceptionally driven dogs won’t slow down as they overheat. You’ve got to be exceptionally vigilant and stop training and cool them down with water.
Get the dog in shape before active training programs. If your dog has been out of service for a while or has become overweight and out of shape, begin conditioning with long walks practicing heel work and swimming retrieves on cool mornings. Swimming is more aerobic, easier on the dog’s joints, and cooler than running. Gradually extend the duration and intensity of the sessions getting the dog accustomed to working in warmer conditions.
Train in the early morning hours when the ground and air are cooler with less humidity. The dew is a bonus, much better than a sun-baked field. Involve lots of water work and choose places with a large tree canopy for shade. Plan sessions. Each exercise should have a training objective to prevent wasted energy, which builds body heat. Hold off long lining, casting, or pointing training for cooler weather. You can run four 25-yard retrieves with brief rest periods between each retrieve and keep the dog cooler than running one 100-yard retrieve.
by Mike Stewart | on June 18th, 2009 | in Features, The Wildrose Way, Training
Our training is based on a positive-reinforcement methodology, although we do use occasional corrections (positive punishment) to build boundaries and stop unwanted behaviors. These are the five reinforcers we use as rewards. The key is figuring out which rewards work best for your dog and then making sure that each of these rewards are earned and never given indescriminately. The dog must learn that all of these rewards come through you.
- The Treat: Food is a primary motivator. That means the dog doesn’t need to be taught to think of it as a good thing or reward. At Wildrose, we’ll use treats to begin training dogs and then move to other, secondary reinforcers (below) that have certain advantages over treats. One thing we’ve noticed over the years is that an over-reliance on treats can lead to latent dysfunctions like nipping at the trainer’s hand, dropping bumpers prematurely to go for the treat, or sniffing the ground to find any dropped morsels.
- The Retrieve: For many breeds and just about every retriever, this is also a primary motivator. Many animals will even value the retrieve more highly than a food reward. Some dogs may not view the retrieve as a reward, but many of those will view an object like a fun bumper or a Kong as a reward. Retrieves (and any other object you want to give your dog) must be earned; impatience, nosiness, breaking, or any disruptive behavior should never be rewarded.
- Affection: A vigorous pet—always on the shoulder or back and not on the head or belly—and enthusiastic “good dog” is a huge motivator when properly timed. Indiscriminate petting is seen as a weakness in the pack hierarchy. Save the petting and affection to reward the best behaviors during training. Affection and verbal praise are secondary motivators in that the dog learns to like them by their association with fun things like retrieving and eating.
- The Bridge: We’ve talked about the bridge before. It’s a sound or cue that bridges the time between the behavior one wishes to reinforce and the resulting reward. Many use a clicker. In dolphin training a high-pitched whistle is commonly used. At Wildrose we use a verbal “good” quickly and powerfully delivered at the same time the behavior we wish to reinforce occurs. With young pups, the bridge comes just before a primary motivator like a food treat or a reward. By association with those primary motivators, the bridge becomes a powerful motivator of its own. And the best part about instilling a motivating bridge word is that you can project it into the field to a dog that’s working. We can’t do that with food. A dog that hears “good!” just as he’s obeyed a good whistle stop or cast knows that he’s done the right thing and that a reward like affection is coming.
- Inclusion: For most dogs the opportunity to be with their owner (the pack leader) and the pack, whether it be other dogs or the family, is a powerful motivator and is reassuring to the dog. Banishment from the pack is certainly a form of correction of an inappropriate behavior much the same as it is for a child when put into time out. The disruptive dog is removed from the activities and is only allowed to re-join when they demonstrate the desired behaviors.
As with any reinforcers or corrections, it is imperative that they are properly timed, consistently applied, not overused to the point that their value is diluted. Normally our reinforcers are progressive. Only the better behaviors are to be recognized to promote behavior modification. In all cases, training is repetition and consistency to the point of habit formation. As always, remember Wildrose Law #5, “Make haste slowly.”
by Mike Stewart | on June 2nd, 2009 | in Features, The Wildrose Way
As with any new pup or dog that’s going to share the home, the first order of business is housebreaking. We are talking about forming habits that will last a lifetime:
We approach the matter by thinking about these three things as one concept. The outcome: a well socialized, disciplined home companion. With pups, building these habits begins the day you acquire the pup, and it’s no different with a new older dog.
We get to all three of these through restriction and confinement: First, no free run of the home and no free choice food or water. Control the inputs and the dog’s space and you will more likely control the outputs. Build absolute reliability before bending these rules.
Use these behavioral tendencies to your advantage. When food or water is offered and accepted, upon conclusion, take the dog straight outside to the designated relief area. Keep feeding and watering on schedule and you are building habits – absolute predictability, absolute consistency. Dogs are creatures of habit and appreciate routine.
Second, dogs need their own space. They should not have the chance to build a their own territory out of your house, so don’t give them the run of the house. When you’re not available to give 100 percent supervision, keep your pup in his crate. Crate training provides the dog with a sense of security. Crates are great for travel and for control when necessary in the home. Pups spend a lot of time in their crates now so they don’t have to later, when they’ve grown into calm reliable dogs.
Dogs do not like to soil their own nest. Do not indulge the dog with an over-sized crate or your dog will likely turn it into a condo – soil in the back and live in the front. As soon as the youngster exits the crate in the morning or after a rest, it’s straight outside to the ol’ designated area. Not a time for a slip up here. Stay the course: Persistence and routine.
Place training is a great habit to instill. It puts you in control as the pack leader. Leaders control territory and define a “place” where the pack members may rest and be patient. While outside the crate, our dog has a place in the home, office,or camp site. Again, dogs respect the sense of security and pack order. With place and crate training, one has improved chances for housebreaking success and the ability to prevent the entrenchment of some quite undesirable behaviors as well. See our selection of dog training mats at www.wildrosetradingcompany.com.
These are the habits fit for a lifetime and rest assured, with consistency and patience, you can teach old dogs these tricks or shall I say, habits.
by Mike Stewart | on May 19th, 2009 | in The Wildrose Way
Once you’re getting a consistent glance away from a bumper or treat, it’s time for the more advanced levels of focus. Gradually build in each of these levels in parallel to your basic obedience and socialization training.
In obedience training, every command is preceded by the pup’s name. This will eventually allow you to work multiple dogs without confusion. Get the youngster to look you in the eye at the sound of his name. Once you’ve got eye contact, then give the command.
Sequence: “Deke” —> eye contact —> “heel.”
Gradually lengthen the duration of the eye contact. This helps build focus no matter what you’re training your dog to do. Then use the whistle instead of the dog’s name. The objective: The peep gets the pup’s attention and the eyes. This is where whistle stops begin—by building up a solid foundation.
Whistle –> eye contact –> “heel.”
Another point at which to gain focus is during hold conditioning, which we’ll get to. (This is teaching the dog specifically to hold an object gently in his mouth without any chomping or chewing.) When teaching hold, maintain eye contact. Provide lots of praise. Later in the progression as the youngster wants to take and hold the bumper to receive the immediate affection and praise you may utilize a variation of Stage I. Hold the bumper to the side and without a word wait for the eyes to lock on yours. Then, quickly give the bumper and praise.
Later, in stop-to-the-whistle training, I once again emphasize eye contact. During whistle stop exercises, hold those eyes for a brief period before the next command or cast. Do not allow glancing about or head swinging. If the dog looks about looking for the bumper (a behavior that can deteriorate into self-employment if the dog decides he knows better than you where that bumper is) or focuses on a thrown diversion bumper, use the whistle to regain the eyes and hold the focus briefly before the cast. If you build up the behavior gradually over time, every whistle stop will result have your dog instantly hitting the brakes and looking to you for direction. We’ll build in this same default response for every diversion, flush, gunshot, or bird down: eyes on their handler for instruction, which will ultimately be followed by the reward of a retrieve and lots of praise.
by Mike Stewart | on May 11th, 2009 | in The Wildrose Way
No matter what discipline—hunting, service, adventure—you’re training your dog for, he’ll require one very important behavior for success: focus.
Focus is a byproduct of patience, concentration, and biddability (the dog’s willingness to please). If a young dog lacks appropriate focus, he’s neither going to learn nor retain what you teach him. Eye contact is the benchmark of focus. I like to see the dog stare straight into my eyes for a few seconds, awaiting instruction. (This means you can’t train with sunglasses, handlers!)
If you hold the dog’s gaze, you’re a leader and your instructions will likely get the attention they require. Learning will take place. Own the eyes and you own the dog. No eye contact, on the other hand, is indicative of an independent nature, lack of concentration, or avoidance. Before you can go on to any other training, build focus.
I look for three levels of focus in training, each occurring at different stages. Here’s stage I. We’ll get to stages II and III in future posts:
With the young pup—three to five months old—I expect brief but direct eye contact. At this age, I’ll use a primary motivator like a treat, food at feeding time, or the youngster’s favorite bumper. (One of the reasons I withhold chew toys is because they lessen the value of the object as a reward if the pup can have access to them any old time. This way, we reinforce that all good things—bumpers included—come through me.) When your youngster offers eye contact, immediately reward the behavior with a verbal, “good,” and a quick treat. Once the pup understands how to sit patiently, set the pup off the ground on a bench. Hold the treat out to the side at arm’s length. Remain perfectly still and quiet. This must be a voluntary action on the part of the pup. When the pup glances at your eyes, reward him/her with a verbal, “good,” and the treat. The pup quickly learns the association: eye contact = verbal marker = reward. Gradually extend the duration of the eye contact required to earn the reward.
I’m very cautious about the use—or, rather the overuse—of treats for training retrievers. Treats often promote mouthing problems and later delivery difficulties. Remember Wildrose Law #4: Do not condition in a problem that must be trained out later. Limit the use of treats by moving to the bumpers, praise, and pets as rewards as soon as the dog is willing to offer behaviors for those other motivators.
Next month, I’ll share with you Focus Stages II and III. Focus is a must for handling retrievers, adventure dogs, and alert dogs. These dogs are biddable team players requiring an interdependent relationship with their pack leader. Eye contact is the first step.