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A.B.C.C. - Training Basics – Gun Dogs
 (by Bob Pickworth)

Training should aim to enhance the gifts that genetics has provided.

Whilst I am glad that notions of dominance and aggressive dog training are being replaced by positive reinforcement and non-confrontational methods, it is folly to forget who is in charge, or be ashamed of words like ‘command’ or ‘control’. Dogs are dogs, they are not people. We give them commands not only for our benefit, but for theirs. As well as being valued family pets, they carry out a range of complex and essential tasks.

All dog training is founded on four basic principles. To get satisfactory results, especially in dog sports, these basics are: Attitude, Balance, Control and Communication. There are many other important principles, but most will fit into the ABCC. When a problem or issue surfaces in training, (and they will) it’s important to go “back to basics” and analyse a sequential approach to dealing with the particular issue and in a methodical and slow manner. (“the quickest way to train a dog is slowly”). Generally the problem will relate to one of the ABCC and very likely the last, Communication. It is far better to not allow an undesirable behaviour to occur, than to have to correct it. (Bad habits are like a comfortable bed – easy to get into and hard to get out of). It can take many weeks (or months) to correct a “bad” habit, an example is breaking to shot, or unsteadiness at the line (I know from personal experience).

No Dog is superior in all areas of retrieving ability, but some will be more able than others. Dogs with weaker natural skills can benefit from well planned, prepared and executed drills. Early training experiences are foundational and prepare the groundwork for future success.

 ATTITUDE: A poor attitude rarely produces a good student.
Attitude and motivation go hand in hand. Learning what motivates your dog to elicit the responses you desire, is the key to getting the desired outcomes. This is even more applicable to dogs than in humans, because dogs are unable to reason or rationalise behaviour as we do. A sound example explained to me when studying Animal Behaviour at University, was that of a dog near a fireside in wintertime. As the fire dies down, the dog gets closer and closer to the fire to keep warm. When the fire diminishes, the dog does not have the reasoning ability (intelligence) to get a log and drop it on the fire.

Too much attitude is equally as difficult to manage (needing more control) however it is far easier to slow down a “hyper” dog than warm up a corpse. You will often hear the words, “driven”, “high performance”, “hyper active” and similar, for dogs that are highly motivated and “switched on” to work / play. A working dog with “high attitude”, is a challenging student, but far better than one with low motivation.

Like physical traits, personality and character traits are genetically encoded and transferable from the sire and dam.

Desired attitudes include: Biddable, compliant, cooperative, tractable, amenable, dutiful, submissive, willing to please, acquiescent, courageous, sagacity, attentive, responsive, educated thinking, Concentration (locking on) and partnership.

Undesirable attitudes include: stubborn, independent, uncooperative, self-absorbed, unsociable, fearful, anxious, aggressive, disobedient, cowardly, reticent, inattentive, irresponsive, lack of concentration (head swinging).

A puppy / offspring chosen from a litter where the desirable characteristics / traits of the sire and dam are known will provide a greater chance of producing those same desired characteristics / traits, than a randomly selected pup. This is a good rule of thumb, but by no means definitive – there have been many outstanding offspring from animals of unknown or mediocre parentage, whether dogs or racehorses etc.

BALANCE: is the harmony between taking direction and applying it independently.
Balance in training will produce the desired outcomes. This balance is demonstrated in the field where dog and handler communicate effectively and there is educated thinking and partnership, where the dog has been educated to take direction and applies it intelligently / independently. Balance, is that fine line of; application of training by following (drilled and embedded) direction and intelligently “thinking it through” to retrieve the game. This is epitomised where a dog is sent to an area of the fall (or blind) and uses its senses to hunt and cover the area until it finds the game and correctly delivers it to hand.

Balance in training includes: land and water, marks and blinds, cover and open ground, independent working and partnership, work and play.
Too much of one, will be at the expense of the other. Too much marking will see blind work diminish, too much land work and not enough water, will see water work diminish etc.

A well-bred gundog pup from a retrieving background will arrive with retrieving drive. This does not have to be taught, it is instinctive behaviour (however it needs to be managed and directed). A pup / young dog will benefit from steadiness; control; and obedience drills. Excessive marking in the early stages, can promote unsteadiness and excitability with the outcome of a ‘self-employed” and strong headed dog that wants to retrieve on its own and ignores the direction of the handler. Knowing “how much is too much” comes with experience, but a 75% steadiness / obedience to 25% retrieving play with a young pup is probably about right.

Mike Lardy suggests “ Never needlessly overcite a pup with repetitive, meaningless marks unless the pup has a motivational problem”.

CONTROL: complying with the handler’s directions / commands.
Having a well-mannered and controlled dog is essential. A controlled dog will watch, listen and carry out the commands / directions given by the handler, promptly and efficiently. An uncontrolled dog on the other hand, is unruly, disobedient and is self-employed, ignoring or only partly carrying out the commands given. An uncontrolled dog is a nuisance to all. Gun dogs enjoy hunting and retrieve as a function of their genetic instincts, Control allows them to achieve this inherently rewarding experience, by working in a team, following the handler’s commands.

Control begins the day the pup comes home. Crate training, toileting, feed time and basic obedience need to be considered and carried out as part of a methodical routine. Being haphazard with these routines will result in unpredictable results in both training and the field. Similarly inconsistent expectations for the dog will result in confusion and erratic outcomes.

To have a well-controlled and disciplined dog, you must be a well-controlled and self-disciplined handler.

COMMUNICATION: Using verbal and non-verbal commands so that the dog clearly understands what is expected.
Dogs, like humans, are happiest when they are doing something worthwhile. Training dogs is about communicating to them what is worthwhile (what we want them to do – or not do). Dogs have primitive brains (compared to humans), they rely heavily on their senses, particularly their sense of smell, which is far more powerful than that of humans. Animal behaviouralists suggest by 6-12 weeks of age a dog's brain is fully developed, but not its experience. It's during this early stage that relationship with a pup and the handler and foundations of effective communication is important.

Relating to Gun-dog work (any training), basic obedience commands; Sit (which also means Watch me and Stay until released), Come, Toilet, Fetch, Yes and No, can be learned very quickly with Patience, Praise and Practise.

Learning what communication best works with your dog (positive encouragement is important, but “NO”, must also be learned and “I am the boss”) is the key to success, but introducing whistle commands is useful, even at an early age. I am always amazed at how early a pup can learn hand signals when cued with voice commands and positive reinforcement.

It’s probably a good idea to introduce “fetch play” during this stage, but only with obedience work, remembering to keep it fun - holding on to the pup until you command “fetch” (reinforcing steadiness) - Bill Hillman calls this “The Game”.

The most effective communicators are the most successful handers.


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