Some thoughts on “release”.

Whenever we are working with our dogs or even playing with our dogs there is a flow of “energy” going on. When we put the dog in a SIT, that energy builds up inside the dog until we release him from the sit. The constant flux of desire and drive within the animal is stopped up for a moment. When the pressure becomes too great, the dog either breaks SIT or he loses interest because he can’t maintain the pressure of mental concentration any longer.
The manner in which we raise and lower this pressure while working with our dog is a huge factor in training and learning. We want to keep excitement and arousal high, but not so high that we lose attention and response. Excitement and arousal are simply other words for internal pressure. I like to think of canine excitement and arousal as emotional pressures within the dog.
Try to think of your dog as a 1 liter bottle of your favorite soda. Now… shake the heck out of the bottle. You already know exactly what is going to happen if you spin the top open with a quick twist of your wrist. Pepsi is gonna be flying every which way and you are going to be wet and sticky!
This is similar to what happens when you put your dog in a sit and release him with a loud, staccato voice-cue and an exuberant hand/body gesture. Depending on the amount of pressure in the dog, he could come flying up into you face, lick your nose, put a paw in your chest, land on your foot and promptly run through the nearest flower garden, stopping only to pee on the roses.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s probably not the response you were hoping for. What if you had opened the cap on that soda bottle as slowly and gently as you possibly could?
All dogs need to be taught to SIT. They should be taught to RELEASE as well. Some dogs literally must be gently taught that RELEASE or OK mean that they are free from the SIT or DOWN. I’ve worked with a lot of dogs who quiver in anticipation of a release cue and I’ve found it helpful to release them as gently as possible to avoid the sudden burst of behavior that is so common when dogs are released.
This is what it might look like when I teach a dog to release. We walk at heel. I cue, SIT. We wait the amount of time that is appropriate for our level of training. I gently remove the lead from the collar. Grasping the collar, I quietly say RELEASE and step forward allowing the dog to follow one or two steps. I don’t let the dog jump or bolt, but release my grasp on his collar as smoothly as possible, with as little fanfare as possible. Again, think of opening a bottle of Pepsi after it’s been bouncing around in your backpack for an hour. SSsssllllooooowwwwwwllllyyyyyy
We can also think of times when we want to encourage maximum pressure and maximum release. In the duck blind I allow maximum pressure to build within the dog. My blind has a hole where the dog can look out and watch all the action. The dog has a full view as a loud bang is followed by a duck hitting the water. This dog is now about as excited as a retriever can get without actually bursting into flames. When I send the dog on a retrieve, I expect to see him quivering at the starting line. I use an obvious gesture and release with exuberance. I encourage the dog to use all his available energy. If, on the other hand, the dog is so under so much pressure that he is apt to lose focus, I may try to turn down the pressure by sending him with a less exuberant cue.
We can adapt our release to other situations. All the dogs at my house have a place where they lie down during the human’s meal time. When we have finished the meal and cleared the table, they are released to perform crumb patrol. By the way, this is never allowed when people are seated at the table.
When the meal is finished, I quietly say, “OK” and the dogs are free to perform crumb patrol. When we only had one dog living with us, we weren’t as conscious of this phenomenon as we are now with 5 or sometimes 6 dogs in the house. When you have a herd like that, it’s important not to allow a lot of food motivated pressure to build and release too quickly. Actually it’s a good thing to have a handle on that pressure no matter how many dogs you have living with you. It’s just easier to see when you have bunch!
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