Mollify Your Monsters by Multiplying Your Efforts

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I’m still feeling kinda puny after having surgery 3 weeks ago.  That explains my absence from the blog.  I’m very grateful for my friends and family who have helped exercise my critters while I’ve been laid up.  I’m back to walking with my dogs every morning now, even if the walks are much shorter than they’re used to.  I’ve had to take some of my own advice and multiply my efforts in order to provide Peck & Kaia with enough exercise to keep them from going bonkers.

If you’re reading this blog, you probably already know how important exercise is for dogs.  Not the “throw ’em in the backyard and let ’em play” kind of exercise either.  Nope,  I’m talking about exercise that involves interaction with you.  Unless you happen to be a young, fit, well trained athlete, you probably don’t have enough energy to go mile for mile with my dogs.  I know I can’t!  So I have to find ways to multiply my effort.  This is especially important right now because I don’t have as much strength or energy as usual but my dogs are just as full of vinegar as they always are.

Since my dogs are labs, multiplying my effort by using retrieving is a complete no-brainer.  I won’t go into any of the finer points of retriever training here because we’re talking about exercise.  Tennis balls can be inappropriate toys for some trained retrievers but for others, they are a great way to burn up excess energy without exhausting the trainer.  The Chuk-It toy works well for this because it enables you to throw the ball farther than you normally could.  Dummy launchers are another method of flinging a retrieving  bumper 50 or 60 yards with minimal effort.  These gizmos use a .22 caliber blank to throw a retrieving bumper.  Once again, not always appropriate for a trained retriever, but a great way to multiply your effort.

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Multiplying your effort doesn’t always mean using a gizmo or piece of equipment.  Just throwing a bumper is a great way to get your dog to burn energy with a minimum of effort on your part.  This works especially well when the retrieve includes swimming.  If you have a smooth flowing, safe creek for the dog to cross it’s even better.  This is what we did this morning.

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This is great exercise because it requires enormous effort for the dogs to cross the current.  They have to use all their senses and drive to mark, track and find the bumper.  I get to keep all the usual retrieving rules in place so we’re not backsliding on our retriever training.  Oh… and did I mention that the dogs absolutely LOVE it?

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Multiplying my effort is a very familiar concept to me.  I use it a lot.  I try to remember little things like taking the path back to the truck that doesn’t include any road or well worn trail.  It doesn’t cost me very many calories, but the dogs are much more excited and cover exponentially more ground than they would if we were just plodding down a trail.  Any time you can introduce your dog to a new patch of habitat to explore, you are multiplying your effort.  The novelty of the situation forces your dog to fully engage his senses.  A fully engaged critter burns more excess energy than one that is simply walking on lead with his human companion.  Some times it’s enough just to walk the same area, but take the route in reverse.

So, those of you who aren’t marathon runners, what do you do to multiply your effort so that your dog gets the interactive exercise he needs?  Please share your tips and ideas.  I can always use more effort multipliers!

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What a Bunch of Sit!

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Diesel’s training is progressing nicely.  We have a Front-Sit that’s working well.  In the coming days we’ll try to build a Heel-Sit too.  First I think we need to work on steadying his Front Sit so that I can walk away and trust him to hold Sit reliably.  I begin this phase by stepping carefully to the right or left while he is in Sit, then returning to my position and reinforcing his steady Sit with a click and treat.  As he becomes more reliable I will stretch my movement until I can walk completely around him while he holds the Sit position without moving his furry little bottom.

I don’t normally train a “Stay”.  I think Stay is a goofy command because its meaning is so arbitrary.  Want the dog to stay in the car while you run in the store for a minute?  You tell him Stay, right?  Want him to keep sitting next to you while you fumble with your house keys? Tell him Stay!  And what do you tell him as you walk out the door and want him to remain in the house?  Stay, right?  Each one of those Stays means something different to the dog.  In many cases he can be expected to break the command because you really can’t expect him to remain on Stay for 4 hours until you get back, so he breaks stay the minute you’re out of sight.  If you’ve used Sit and Stay, he now gets to blow off 2 of your commands in one fell swoop!

What does Stay mean?  And, since your Stay command is arbitrary to the point of being almost meaningless, why should he listen with rapt attention to your other cues/commands?

So, Sit is a big deal in my program because it’s the cue/command that replaces Stay. 

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Book Report: Positive Gun Dogs

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Positive Gun Dogs By: Jim Barry, Mary Emmen and Susan Smith

This book is the result of a collaboration between members of a yahoo discussion group dealing with clicker training.  It is published by Sunshine Books which is part of Karen Pryor’s clicker training empire. 

Jean Donaldson’s blurb on the back cover states that this book is never preachy in tone.  Apparently being a clicker trainer herself has made Jean tone-deaf because this book is preachy as hell right from the get-go.  Already on page one of the introduction the authors describe “force fetch” as if it were some kind of torture carried out by medieval henchman in dark dungeons.  By the time you finish the first page of chapter one you will read:

If you were to ask the average gun dog trainer to explain learning theory, he or she would not be able to do so and might even scoff at the idea of needing to understand such a thing.

Blanket statements such as the quote above do nothing to enhance the view of clicker training in the eyes of the “traditional trainer”.  Rather, these kinds of derisive comments serve only to alienate so-called traditional trainers and boost the egos of the authors who apparently harbor a sacrosanct belief that theirs is the only “right” method.

My question is this: If you truly believe in positive reinforcement then why don’t you just present the positive and effective aspects of your methods rather than using so much space to criticize and impugn the methods of others?  In a book as short as this (100 pages) it seems that all the space used to denigrate other methods is a product of the authors’ insecurity with their own techniques.

On pg. 13 the authors tell us the one area in which they use traditional training methods is in “snake avoidance training”.  For this kind of training the authors grudgingly admit, “electronic collar training is the most reliable.”  Apparently they don’t want this kind of reliability unless it’s a life or death situation involving a reptile.  Many trainers prefer to have this same degree of reliability in other situations as well.  We’ve never hunted around snakes, but having a 100 percent reliable remote-sit has saved my dogs from peril more than once. 

The chapter on basic learning theory is helpful if you’ve never read anything about operant conditioning. The information is straightforward and well presented. There are some good explanations of the operant conditioning quadrant, the Premack Principle and other learning basics. 

The next two chapters go on to explain more detail about the practical use of positive reinforcement and how to keep records of training progress.  Here the book shares a problem typical of clicker training literature, namely the seemingly endless use of jargon and acronyms.  One would think that a tome espousing the wonders of learning theory would find some way to make its contents easier to digest without all the alphabet soup.

In Chapter 4, Obedience Fundamentals, I was dismayed to find:

…,in hunting the dog can drop the bird on the ground rather than delivering to hand as the dog must for tests and trials.

This statement indicates a lack of familiarity with hunting retrievers and the job they perform in the field.  All of the bird hunters I know require their retrievers to deliver to hand.  Dropping a bird at the hunter’s feet is a sure way to cause unsafe situations in the field because wounded birds can create quite a disturbance in a duck blind or a small boat.  A quick game of “chase the bird” in a crowded duck blind is never a good idea.  Loaded shotguns and wild bird chases in a confined space are a recipe for disaster.

Another thing I find disappointing is the attitude that hunt test and field trial dogs are somehow superior to hunting dogs.  As in the example above, such attitudes are often based on deeply flawed assumptions about the role of a hunting dog in the field.

What follows in the next 4 chapters is basically an adaptation of Rex Carr’s training system that has been used to train retrievers for 50 years.  The system has been adapted to focus more on the carrot and ignore the stick, so to speak, but most of the underlying structure and drills are the same.

I must admit that I experienced a bit of cognitive dissonance as I read the book.  I attribute this to the unusual combination of its condescending tone, and political correctness combined with the fact that parts of the book actually mention bird hunting as if it were acceptable to the authors.  In one paragraph the reader is admonished on the horrors of inhumane training and in the next we read about the importance of retrieving “crippled birds” quickly before they get away.  All the while the book consistently uses the female pronoun for dogs; her, she, etc., as if the authors thought they were addressing a group of feminist duck hunters.  Odd, perhaps that was their target demographic?

While the authors admit that virtually ALL the dogs performing at the top levels of gundog sports have been trained using traditional methods; they claim this is simply because the science of clicker training is so new that it hasn’t had time to reach the top levels of these sports.  I seem to recall Karen Pryor making similar claims in the 80’s.

I spent a considerable amount of time and money to learn what I know about clicker training.  I’m very glad that I did.  Within the realm of positive reinforcement are some very powerful tools to help learning and behavior change.  What I’ve also learned is that they are not always the best or most effective tools for every dog in every situation. 

Nothing in this book has changed my view which can be summarized as follows:  Traditional methods work.  Clicker training works.  If you observe carefully, a dog will show you what approach or combination of methods works best for him or her.  If you decide what approach to use based on human traditions or your own ideological convictions, you have ignored the dog.

In closing I would like to add that $24.95 (plus $5 shipping) is entirely too much to pay for this book. 

Just A Hunting Dog?

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I was attending a dog event last summer and overheard a conversation that I found mildly annoying if not outright insulting.  The gentleman doing most of the talking was asking a small group of dog-people if they knew of a young dog that might be suitable for his friend who “just needed a hunting dog”. 

This gentleman went even further to say that a “field trial washout” might make a good prospect for his friend who was only interested in hunting, not competing in field trials or hunt tests.  The implication being, of course, that hunting dogs were somehow inferior to field trial dogs.  The term, “field trial washout” refers to a dog that has not performed well in his training or in any field trials and could therefore be relegated to the subordinate duty of hunting.

The person making this comment was an experienced handler and participated in both AKC field trials and HRC hunt tests with his dogs.  There is no question that he understands the rules, requirements and rigors that challenge the participants at these events.  What I question is how much he knows about hunting in real-life field situations.

Hunt tests and field trials both have their origins in hunting.  The seminal idea behind both of these sports was to provide some form of objectivity in the measurement of a dog’s ability to do his work.  Unfortunately, the longer these sports exist, the farther they drift from their original intent.  Humans’ egos and fierce competition have driven these games to a place where they are no longer so much a measure of a dog’s abilities as they are a training contest.

This is not to say that these events no longer have value in measuring a dog’s abilities, especially in the lower ranks where the youngest dogs participate.  Here the performance of the dog is a more reliable indicator of his or her natural ability because the dogs haven’t lived long enough to acquire all the training and experience that goes into a 3 or 4 year old dog. 

In the upper ranks of these endeavors, money and human ego become more relevant factors.  The top echelons of these sports are filled with wealthy owners, professional trainers, and professional handlers.  The dogs are carted from one event to the next in large, air conditioned trailers.  With each new title or win these dogs become more valuable.  The pages of dog sport journals are filled with glossy, two-page ads offering fresh or frozen semen for artificial insemination to produce the next generation of super pups that can further the legacy of the sire and stoke the ego of the proud owner.

It is perhaps no wonder that the owner of such a dog would look askance at a mere “hunting dog”.  Having invested thousands upon thousands of dollars in breeding, raising, training and campaigning his champion, he is unable to see the value in a good hunting dog.  This fellow’s idea of hunting is a day spent “afield” at a game farm where there is no competition from the public and risk of injury is carefully assessed and managed by the game-farm owner who is acutely aware of his liability as hundred thousand dollar dogs slash across his field in search of planted birds.

The lowly hunting dog, on the other hand, is cast forth on public land where he and his handler have to deal with other hunters of varying ethics and skill level.  The birds are not planted.  They live in that habitat and they fully intend to continue living there.  Having already escaped coyotes, hawks and other predators, these birds don’t give up easy.  There are hazards everywhere and the hunting dog needs to understand and manage risks like barbed wire, hidden ditches, cliffs, shale slides, raging rivers and wild predators just to name a few of the obvious pitfalls.  None of these hazards are a factor on the trial or test grounds.

About a year ago I was present at an AKC event where I witnessed several dogs run a blind retrieve that was in excess of 250 yards.  For those of you not familiar with the terminology, a blind retrieve, in field trial parlance, is a dead bird planted out of sight before the dog comes to the retrieving line.  The dog must then take an initial line towards the blind and accept direction via hand signals from his handler.  I was very impressed to see several dogs in succession that took the initial line and flew like rockets straight to the blind and returned with equal speed and intensity.  As a measure of training ability, this was an impressive display.  It’s also worthy to note that in over 35 years of bird hunting I have never seen a situation that called for a 250 yard blind retrieve.

My dogs and I find that most of our retrieving happens inside of 50 yards with an occasional bird landing outside 100 yards.  Our biggest challenges come in the form of birds that fall in heavy cover, rivers or creeks, tidewater or below cliffs or other hazards.  Those of us who regularly hunt wild birds expect our dogs to be able to negotiate these and other hazards, with or without our assistance.  On nearly every hunt I find my dogs making retrieves where they are completely out of my sight.  In the areas that I hunt, the cover is so heavy that I cannot imagine being able to see either the bird or the dog at 250 yards.

On a recent hunt, Kaia flushed a ruffed grouse that I shot just as it crossed a good sized stream.  The bird fell in heavy cover on the other side of the creek.  She stopped immediately at the sound of my shot.  When sent for the retrieve, she had to get through a barbed wire fence, crawl down a steep bank, thread her way through some nasty sticker bushes, cross the creek, and find the bird in thick brush without my help.  Her return was just as smart and graceful as she once again negotiated each hazard while carefully holding our prize.  Upon reaching me she went to the heel position and held the bird up for me to take as she looked me straight in the eyes.

Of course it would be an impressive display of dog talent and training ability to run 250 yard blinds on a regular basis.  But we’re just “hunters” or perhaps “field trial washouts”.  Of course there are other ways to look at this so, as always, your comments are welcome whether you’re a field trial veteran or “just a hunter”.