Have a Frosty Rainier!

We try to get out every morning for a walk.  It was a little chilly yesterday.  That doesn’t bother us at all.

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Sometimes I hunt with a shotgun and sometimes I hunt with a camera, but we’re always hunting as far as Kaia and Peck are concerned.  I enjoy the scenery and they enjoy the “smellery”.

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When the temperature gets this low there is always ice to contend with.  Ice can be a very dangerous element for retrievers.  There’s really no way to teach them how to handle ice other than to expose them carefully and allow them to figure it out.  There are many different kinds of ice that a retriever needs to be able to navigate.  There’s solid ice, wet slippery ice,  thin cracking ice, cutting ice, slushy ice, ice breaking at the edge, and on and on.  If a dog’s first encounter with ice occurs while he is running a retrieve, the odds of injury increase exponentially.  It’s far better to allow a dog to learn about ice while he can approach it with some caution.

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In the photo above you can see Peck’s trail through the ice near the top of the photo.  He charged through a thin layer and I think he was surprised to find it rather uncomfortable.  After charging through the thin layer he turned around to go back and check it out.  I could almost hear the wheels turning in his doggy brain as he stored the data for future encounters with the cold, hard stuff.

This is how dogs learn to deal with a lot of things they encounter.  All we have to do as trainers is get them out into the wilds where they can gather these experiences.  No amount of classes or training programs, books or DVDs can ever replace the simple act of getting out there and doing it.

The dogs and I were walking through a field of mowed Scotch Broom the other day.  I was thinking about a friend who was deathly afraid of allowing his dog to run through the stubble.  It seems his dog had sustained a foot injury on a previous jaunt through the field of sticks.  He didn’t want to let his dog run there, ever again.  My dogs have been running through stubble since they were puppies.  We’ve never seen a foot injury resulting from this. (Knock on wood!)  I believe they have a way of paying attention to their feet that allows them to trot right through this stuff without a problem.  They only learned it by doing it.

Obviously you have to pick your poison carefully.  I would not have chosen to let the dogs learn about porcupines by attacking one.  Unfortunately they made that decision on their own.  But, other things like ice, streams, stubble fields, and numerous other hazards can be learned by the  dogs through repeated exposure.  You don’t want your dog to learn about moving water by having him swim for a 40 yards retrieve across a raging river.  The hazards need to be introduced gradually, beginning with the easy stuff, so the dog avoids injury and fear.

Labrador Retrievers aren’t the only dogs that conquer hazards in this fashion.  They’re just the first breed that comes to my mind because I work with them every day.  Please help me broaden my horizons by sharing how your dogs learn to navigate hazards through repeated exposure.

Slack Leads to you all!

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Another Sunday in the Church of Dog

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We decided to take the shotgun for a walk so the dogs and I headed toward Mt Rainier.

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..and we drove up in the boonies near Morton.

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Peck is pretty sure there’s a grouse up here somewhere:

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C’mon, we’re almost to the top!

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Hmmm. No bird on that hill either!

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There was lots of time to take pictures and I could have left the shotgun at home.  We didn’t see a single grouse.  None of God’s innocent little creatures were harmed in the making of this blog post, but I must confess that we had mayhem in our hearts and minds!  We just couldn’t find any birds that wanted to cooperate.  It was a beautiful day and everybody agreed that the air was fresh and the sun was bright. We were thankful for that!

Hope you all had a wonderful weekend!

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. 

That was FUN, but it’s time to get back to work.

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The kennel re-opens today after being closed for 2 months.  The first dogs show up this evening and more are coming throughout the week. 

It’s been a glorious sabbatical! I’ve had plenty of time to work with my own dogs.  We’ve been hunting in Eastern Washington, the Olympic National Forest and some local areas that must remain secret!  Kaia is hunting better than ever and Peck, who was just a bumbling puppy last season, has become a hard charging little bird maniac. 

The re-opening of the kennel doesn’t end our hunting season, but it reduces it to a series of short, local hunts rather than the 3 week epic bird-a-thons we’ve been enjoying on the other side of the Cascades.

 

I’m glad to be getting back to work.  All this time off is great, but I miss having all the dogs around.  I’ve had a chance to recharge and I’m ready to take on the wild beasts again! 

I have a class starting at Sprinker Center called “Click It, Don’t Kick It!”  This is a positive reinforcement training class that runs for 6 weeks.  We start up on Tuesday 11/5.  You can get details and sign up info HERE.  

Or just call Sprinker Recreation Center at 253 798 4000

Next, on Saturday Nov. 9 we begin our next series of Beginning Obedience for Sporting Dogs.  This is a traditional training class primarily for young sporting breeds, Labs, Pointers, Setters, Goldens, Chessies, etc.  This class runs every Saturday for 6 weeks, from 10 to 11:30 AM here at Muck Creek Kennels.  To sign up for this class, just call Muck Creek Kennels at 253 442 9625

See you in class! 

Oh…. I almost forgot…  Don’t forget to bring your human!

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”.

Safety Vest Fail!

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One of the things that appeared to be a fiasco during our recent hunting trip was the “Quick Spot Safety Vest” that I purchased for both of my dogs just prior to the grouse opener in September.  I bought the vests from a popular online supplier of equipment for hunting dogs.  I’ve had good experience with the company before so I had no reason to expect anything but good quality stuff from them.  These vests may prove to be an exception to that rule, but I haven’t completely made up my mind yet. 

The picture above shows Peck in his vest after we returned from the first hunt in which the vest was used.  I didn’t put the vests on the dogs until the day before the deer hunting season began.  The area we hunt tends to attract a lot of deer hunters.  Most of these folks are good, competent, experienced hunters, but it only takes one stupid mistake to turn a good hunt into a tragedy.  That’s why I always outfit the dogs and myself with blaze orange vests as soon as the woods start to fill up with deer hunters.

Several times during our hunts I found Peck running through the brush without his vest so I had to go back and find the vest and reattach it to the dog.  I actually like this because I would rather see the vest come off than have it trap the dog in some briars or a fence.  On the other hand, the shredding of the fabric was a constant annoyance as it made the vest even more likely to hang up on every bush, branch and stick that the dog brushed up against.

Three days after the picture above was snapped, Peck’s vest was completely shredded and no longer useable.  I dug out an old vest from my hunting stuff and he made it through the rest of deer season with a 3 year old vest that was made of stronger material.  Unfortunately this vest is no longer available and its Velcro is almost worn out.

I really liked the increased visibility both for the dog’s safety and for my convenience in keeping track of 2 flushing dogs in thick brush.  I could definitely be interested in using the vests on all our hunts if I could find the right combination of availability, affordability and durability.  The vest pictured above cost $14.95 plus shipping so it may be inexpensive but, it’s not really cheap enough for me to consider it disposable.

To be fair I have to mention that Kaia’s vest made it through the whole trip.  It’s definitely ripped up a bit, but I think Kaia considers it a fashion statement.  I guess I could sew some new Velcro on that old vest that Peck was using.  The girls at Woofers Grooming have already offered to dye him bright orange, but I’m not willing to try that… yet.

Seriously, if you have some really great safety vest or other visibility enhancing solution, I’d love to hear about.  Post up the name of the product and a pic if you have one.  Thanks in advance!

Jon

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