'The true Soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because He loves what is behind him.' -G. K. Chesterton
Showing posts with label dog training. Show all posts
Showing posts with label dog training. Show all posts

05 December 2012

First Bird

Yesterday was a big day for Angus. He finally was introduced to real birds. Accidentally as it happens but sometimes training opportunities crop up when you least expect them.

As I've said many times I am not a professional Retriever trainer. I'm an enthusiastic amateur with a little experience and a lot of study. Especially Richard Wolters (PBUH). Take what I say with a grain of salt. It may or may not work in all cases and there are certainly those who would take violent exception to my methods. I do things the way that work for me and I make no apologies for that though YMMV. Ok, weasel words out of the way on to today's lesson.

Introducing a retriever to birds can be tricky. Live birds can scare a young dog and if that happens curing one that is bird shy can be harder than fixing one who is gun shy. I start out a dog with wings and dead duck trainers. Wings smell intriguing to a dog and get them used to the taste and feel of feathers. The dead duck trainers get him used to the size, shape and general feel of the birds plus the floppy head and feet/legs.

I throw the trainers and generally tease him with them so he gets the idea that things to retrieve may be different from the usual bumper or ball and gets him excited to fetch. I let him mouth and tote the wings around but not chew on them. The wings are crunchy and if he is allowed to chew them it may lead to being hard mouthed where every retrieved bird comes back with every bone in its body broken. Not a good thing. Labs are naturally soft mouthed and it's much easier to keep things that way than to try and fix the problem after it's developed. Canvas bumpers are also tricky because of that very issue. Ever seen a Lab with a canvas bumper who bites at it and makes it pop? Think bird bones and you get the idea why they can be problematic. I tend to fixate on the idea that the easiest issue to fix is the one I never let develop. Know your dog and pay attention at all times to what he's doing and what you're teaching. And don't doubt that letting him do something he shouldn't is most assuredly teaching him bad things.

From there we go to dead birds in controlled settings. I usually buy dead ducks that haven't been processed yet. If you freeze them you can use them a couple of times before they get too nasty to use. Introduction is gentle and stress free. Let the dog approach it at his speed, smell it and then mouth it. Tease him with it after he's gotten the idea that it won't hurt him. They work just like the dead duck trainers and wings. After introduction take him and the bird out and in a training setting throw it just like you would a bumper or retriever trainer and let him go get it. Lots of praise and enthusiasm are keys here.

Yesterday Angus got his first dead duck experience and it was totally accidental if not unexpected in hindsight. I was apprehensive at first but it ended up working out well.

We were at the pond, walking and chasing the ducks that are resident there at this time of the year. Angus loves them and swims out in pursuit as we walk along the shoreline. At one point I lost sight of him for a few minutes. When I caught up with him he was in the shallow water near the bank, intensely interested in an object just in front of him. I looked closer and discovered it was a dead duck. Well, actually it was a Grebe but a waterfowl by any other name is just as fascinating to a Lab.

At this point I must apologize. I have this really small camera that tucks into a pocket that I'm supposed to carry around on these outings for just such occasions. Yeah, it was at home so no pictures. Sigh.

I decided to go ahead and let him explore and see what happened. It took Angus a good 10 minutes before he took the actual plunge as it were. He'd circle it, nosing in and out with quick jerks and starts without ever actually touching it. Then he'd run back to me with a "Did you see that? What is it? I'm going back!" look on his face and very, very bright eyes. A dead give away for a Lab that he was having ultimate fun.

Finally he took a tentative nibble at a wing. Remember, we introduced him to the concept of real birds with actual bird wings so he was on fairly familiar ground here. A "Hey, I know what this is!" kind of thing. He got to the point that he started to tow it around by a wing. Good. Then he moved to the feet. Again, this was familiar ground as we'd given him dead duck trainers that have, wait for it....feet! More towing around and much joy was had by all. Except maybe the Grebe but he was dead so he didn't get a vote.

After about 20 minutes I figured we were about done and headed up the bank and back on to the trail, satisfied that Angus' introduction to birds had gone reasonably well. Suddenly a black blur sped by dripping and generally flinging water for miles in every direction. Clutched in his happy mouth was a dead Grebe. He ran up the bank past me and then circled back to proudly display his trophy. "Look what I got daddy! Aren't I a good boy? Huh, huh? Aren't I?!" I laughed, praised him and decided that this warranted an attempt to take the lesson to the next step. Would he go out on command and retrieve it?

Now before anyone goes "Eww, Ick, How Nasty" let me assure you that working with dead birds is all a part of retriever training. It's difficult if not impossible to take a dog from balls to bumpers to wings to trainers to game in the field without adding in real dead bird training in there somewhere. Waiting until you've downed a duck on opening morning 50 yards out on open water is a bad time to find out your dog also thinks dead birds are Icky. 35 degree water makes for a tough swim in underwear and a t-shirt. I know. Sigh.

I took the bird that Angus gave up with no hesitation. This is important and one of the reasons I teach a release command. I use RELEASE but the specific command doesn't really matter. That he gives it up on that command does. Tug of war with a dog over a bird he really doesn't want to give up is messy and makes for a mighty tore up would be meal afterward.

I set Angus up at HEEL on the bank and pitched the bird back into the water. Short because it's his first time with actual game bird and I want success not correction. Angus was watching intently, where that word has the connotation of quivering, whining eagerness, and straining for release. I had hold of his collar because I know my dog and I wanted him to go on my command not his. This is also important. Know your dog but take no chances when you're doing new things and he's amped up on doggy adrenaline. I sent him off on his first real bird retrieve, BACK!, and he went like he was shot out of a cannon.

Out, full mouth on the body of the bird (Not a leg or wing. Yes!) and back to me on the bank. He still tends to overshoot on the delivery and run a short distance past me but as he's eager and enthusiastic and always comes back to me immediately (no "I've got it you can't have it") I'm not horribly concerned. Most of that is youthful energy and he'll get better as I train it out of him and he gets more mature. RELEASE command given and set up to do it again. This time he slipped my grip on his collar and went on the splash. I could have called or whistled him back but as I said it's his first time so I bit the bullet and gave him the BACK command while he was swimming (Reinforcement, reinforcement always reinforcement even if you've screwed up which I had) and he made another picture perfect retrieve and delivery to hand.

To say I was ecstatic is a vast understatement. This was a crucial step in Angus' development as a potential field dog. A dog who refuses to retrieve real dead birds is useless as a hunting retriever. Not as a good dog because no matter what I love that boy and always will but if we want to hunt together he must not only be willing but excited over the prospect of a swim and a mouth full of feathers and warm bird. He has proven to me and himself that this retrieving birds stuff is pretty cool and that makes me a happy man. A good field retriever would rather fetch than eat. It's really that simple and Angus has discovered that joy. It's also a critical step because a Lab who retrieves nothing but balls and bumpers will eventually tire of the game. Retrieving birds is a treat not a chore. Give a dog a job, the thing he was born and bred to do, and you'll have a happy and content companion. One who has far fewer behavior problems and is easier to teach and train.

By the second retrieve the Grebe was beginning to lose it's neck skin. I know, Eww, right? I decided the lesson was over so I tossed it and whistled Angus up so we could finish the hike with plenty of praise and love and general good feelings. He was one happy and proud of himself dog. With tail high and a light step we headed back to the truck and home.

I'll go ahead and buy some dead birds (Ducks are preferable but even chickens will work in a pinch) and we'll continue his lessons. Eventually we'll move to wing clipped live birds to simulate cripples. That's an important step for a good dog because they must be willing and able to take on a crippled bird if you're going to be an ethical hunter. But that's for another day. For now I'm content with where we are.

There is real joy in training a dog and watching his progress. When I got that little bundle of black fur and sharp little teeth he was acting out of pure instinct and in response to his environment. Now he's biddable, responsive to input and learning hot only how to do his job but what his job is. A whole new world is opening up for Angus and he's excited at the prospects. I envision many a wonderful day spent with a wet, happy dog in a duck blind or a Pheasant field.

Yeah. Joy is where you find it and when it's with a warm, furry, devoted friend it's sublime. It was a good day.


05 March 2012

Hey Dad, What's This Thing? A Puppy's Tale

I heard Lu chuckling as she came into the living room. "There's a pigeon on the roof of the outbuilding and Angus is going crazy". By the time I got to a window the bird was gone but Angus rushed into the room to breathlessly let me know what had just happened. I patted him on the head and gave him a Good Boy.

A few minutes later I heard the ruckus begin again. Sure enough Mister Pigeon was back. He was just sitting on the edge of the roof, watching Angus with a haughty look on his face. I watched for a minute and decided that Angus needed a little back up.

This is Angus being subtle. "Look, look! See? I told you. There he is right there! What is that thing?"

"It's a bird my son," I told him.

"A bird huh? Let me think on this for just a bit. Hmmm. What do I do now?"

"I know. I'll wag my tail and invite him down to play. Hooray, I'm a genius!"

"No huh? Now what?"

"OK fine. I'll go back to barking and running around like a crazy dog. Maybe that'll work."

But no matter how hard he tried, for some reason Mister Pigeon never came down. He just sat there and sat there and taunted poor Angus.

Until Daddy got his BB gun. And let that be a lesson to all you Pigeons out there. Don't taunt the bird dog and the guy who owns the bird dog. And a gun.

Of course Daddy missed but it's the thought that counts.

Damn flying rats.


28 February 2012

Angus Training Update: OVER And Doubles

I know you must be thinking to yourself "What's up with Angus' training? Why hasn't Six updated us? Is he shirking again or just a lazy bastard"? Well fear not my intrepid readers I have another training post. With pictures! As always, click on the picture for a larger view.

So. Angus is now reliably (more or less) tri-lingual. Voice, whistle and hand commands. His vocabulary includes everything I currently need him to understand to go where I want him to go and do what I want him to do. Mostly. He is still very young and has the concentration of a hyper active gnat on Red Bull. Our training is now geared toward focus and repeatability and we're adding new things slowly. On this day we did add something new; Doubles. Doubles is two birds (note: I use bumpers and birds interchangeably. It's a quirk) in more or less a line with one near and one far. He must retrieve one, deliver, sit and then retrieve the other. We've also introduced him to OVER, which is similar to BACK except given away from the handler and it sends him to the side instead of straight back. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

First up a warm up. remember that the dog has a very short attention span. He must be taken back to Kindergarten from time to time just to keep him sharp. In Angus' case we do some Kindergarten work every time we train. I also keep the training time limited to 5 or 10 minutes per exercise and no more than 20 to 30 minutes total. At this age (he's 9 months) anything longer and he tends to lose interest and goof off. That's bad because I want his natural energy and enthusiasm to be at the forefront. Control is easy when he's ready and nearly impossible when he's not. As he progresses that control will become a natural part of his retrieving life but at this stage everything is fun and wonderful and happy with limited corrections done as gently as possible. YMMV, this is just how I do it. First we go through the basic commands in all three 'languages'. Then he gets some free retrieves where he's allowed to just go get the bumper with almost no control, just a simple BACK command. When he's all nice and warm and eager for the festivities we begin.

We started the day with practicing his OVER. This set up is called the Infield. I have bumpers at First Base, Second Base and Third Base. Angus is placed at SIT on the pitchers mound and I'm at Home. Here's what it looks like. Note that I'm still keeping everything very short. I want him to get the basics before we spread things out and really challenge him.

The command OVER is given with a clear arm movement toward the correct dummy. Here he is doing it very well.

After the retrieve I took him back out to the pitchers mound and a SIT. Then the command BACK and my arm straight up. This picture is fabulous because it shows a behavior I badly want but that is often hard to train for. On the BACK command Angus turned and went back but he'd either lost the bumper or gotten confused. He 'Popped", that is he stopped but he did exactly what I want, no need, him to do. He stopped, faced me and waited for a command. He looked to me for guidance. This shows that he is getting the whole command thing and trusts me to guide him to the prize. This trust is critical for success.

I gave him the BACK command and arm movement again and.....Success!!! I did the happy dance. He did this exercise as perfectly as any 9 month old dog could. I am sooo happy.

And now a quiet interlude with the obligatory artsy picture. My camera person was the lovely Lu. In this photo we can see the ultimate folly of man in his relationship with the world. It might just be Lu feet and fingers with an Angus leg. With Artistes one can never be sure.

A quick word on being flexible in your training and smarter than your dog. Don't get pigeonholed by trainers and books and how everyone else does it. There are times to be creative. You are (probably) smarter than your dog, Use that to your advantage. Case in point. Angus loves to retrieve. He's a stylish and enthusiastic retriever. But. In his enthusiasm he tends to over run, both on the retrieve and in the delivery. When he delivers he runs past me (approximately to Fresno) before turning back. It's a little frustrating and a No No in the retriever world. I want him to come to me, circle behind me and come back to heel. What to do?

I set up with a fence behind me. In order to keep him from crashing into it I gave him some free retrieves and slowly worked us back until the fence was just a few feet behind me. By that time Angus could see it, knew it was there and had to compensate for it.

The result? Better. He wanted to veer off but a quick COME command and HEEL brought him to where he was supposed to be and he got the message. Slow down, focus and think.

Now it was time for Doubles. Remember, I'm keeping things short and fun. In between evolutions he's getting to run, free retrieve and generally play. Lu was there with the kids so he had plenty to do in between rounds.
Here's the set up. If you look closely you'll see two bumpers in this picture, one long and one short. The short is just to the left of the center of the pic and the long just to the right of that and a little further out. I threw the long bird second for a couple of reasons. I want Angus to focus and he needs to be able to bypass a bird or bumper to concentrate on the one he's being sent for. At this stage and age he'll naturally mark the last bird he's seen better than the first one. By throwing the long second he'll more naturally tend toward it when he's sent and it'll give him  chance to see but ignore the short bird. The short bird is then an easier mark precisely because it's short and I'll be better able to direct his focus there and not confuse him. Less chance of a Pop. Make sense?

And here we go. Angus after the long bird. He completely ignored the short bird. Joy! You can see the over run on the retrieve here. It's something I'll address as he progresses but for now I give his enthusiasm and energy a freer hand. Better an over enthusiastic but lesser controlled dog than an over controlled dog who's had the joy beaten out of him. Want to ruin a good dog and crush his potential? Excess control, correction, discipline and training at this stage will do it right quick.

Here's something I learned and highly recommend. When your dog is delivering, or when you're teaching COME, kneel down. You are so much taller and bigger than he is that it's natural for them to be a bit intimidated, especially if they've done something wrong and know it. Kneeling down brings you to their level and makes them far more comfortable. Remember, Angus is still very much a puppy. As he matures and progresses this will be less and less necessary but for now the watchwords are FUN, HAPPY and NONTHREATENING and having Daddy kneeling down on his level sends that message loud and clear in a language all dogs understand.

Here you can see Angus passing the short bird (look just below his neck), ignoring it completely and focusing on me. This is where the whistle can pay big dividends. I whistled him all the way in. If he had paused or veered I'd have waved my arms, jumped up and down and increased my whistling from COME to FRANTIC. Anything to focus him away from the short bird and onto COME. Fortunately Angus handled it like a champ.

Success and on to the short bird quickly. I heeled Angus, refocused him and sent him. He picked up the short like he'd been doing it all his life.

After some Doubles I wanted to work some longer retrieves, as long as I could throw them. At some point I'll have to use my lovely assistant to throw bumpers while out from us but for now my throws are long enough.

Angus is fairly fast and runs after a retrieve like there's no tomorrow. That's something that cannot be taught, he either has enthusiasm for his calling or he doesn't. Pick your breeder carefully.

The catch. Again, the 'come hither' posture from the semi-competent trainer.

And the delivery to heel. What a Good Dog!! Praise and love at this stage is also critical. Do it every chance you get.

Remember, all work and no play makes Angus an unhappy boy. Besides, are there two more suitable companions than a dog and a child? The Girl is learning the ropes of dog training. She's mostly just watching and asking questions for the nonce but I include her whenever I can and that will increase as Angus and she progress. She's already a fine handler and developing her command voice. Hey, gotta pass along the love whenever you can. For Angus, he considers play a natural part of training. It's all the same to him and that's the environment we're trying to foster. If he feels pressure he'll be more likely to fold. If he sees the whole thing as fun he's much more likely to rise to his potential. Give him the tools to succeed and watch him perform.

What's next? We'll be working many of the same exercises until Angus gets the concepts down pat. I'll be adding some complexity and distance as we go but slowly and always going back to Kindergarten from time to time. The next thing for him to learn will be blinds. A blind retrieve is one where he neither sees the mark nor fall. He has no idea anything is out there. That's where the bond and trust we've built up will come in. He'll learn to trust me completely. If I send him after a retrieve he'll go, confidant that Daddy will find him a bird. And that's the reward for a good retriever, that bird. We started him down that trail with the doubles. We'll also start spreading out the doubles so we have to re-position for the second retrieve.

I'm excited. Angus is learning and performing beyond my expectations and hopes. He's fast becoming a stylish and competent retriever. I may even go back on my oath and find a Retriever Field Trial and enter him as a Derby Dog. I think he could do very well right now. We'll see.

I hope you find these posts of value. I admit to being a bit obsessive/compulsive where it comes to my dogs and training. It's fun for both of us and I've always said that a dog employed doing what he was bred for is a happy and content dog.


27 January 2012

Complex Dog Behaviors

I got sharply reminded yesterday that dogs are sometimes smarter and more complex than we realize, or remember at least.

Angus has been house broken since he was 10 weeks old. From that time he could be relied upon to understand his need and where he was to do his business. But I forgot that habits can alter as time passes and circumstances change. The change that precipitated my epiphany was twofold. I've graveled the side yard, where the Pirate Ship is located. It's a large yard and Angus spends a bit of time out there. Not to mention doing a bit of his business there as well. Second, I installed a gate separating the side yard from the back yard. I did it when the side yard was dirt and turned into a sea of mud when it rained. Angus, among his other charming and frustrating habits, is a digger as are many Labs. I decided, in my folly, to go ahead and keep the gate closed whenever he had unsupervised access to the side yard area to keep the holes in my gravel and underlayment to a minimum. That's the set up.

Yesterday morning Angus followed me and Lu into the bathroom. Since the rest of the house was still asleep, and Angus figures that if he's up everyone else should be as well, we decided to keep him in there with us. Showers done we found that he had piddled on the floor. Odd but I figured it was my fault. he'd needed to go and with no access to the backyard had let go on the floor. Clearly an accident. I hauled him outside, gave him a fairly mild scolding and watched until he went on the new fake turf. Done and done right? Not so much. Later in the evening I watched as he stopped between the kitchen and living room and promptly squatted and started peeing on the carpet. I jumped up with a very loud NO!, grabbed him and hustled him to the backyard. Since I caught him in the act he got punished and temporarily banished until clean up was done. Lu, the DO and I talked it over but didn't come to a consensus. DO thought it might be a urinary infection or other problem. I thought it was Angus rebelling a bit. Some dogs do that at about his age. Lu was of the opinion it was something else, perhaps a more complex behavioral issue involving the shutting off of the side yard. Along with the earlier incident it might be that he just hated closed doors, a behavior that Chrisi has in spades.

I gave it some thought and decided to test her theory. I took Angus to the gate, opened it and let him into the side yard. He took off and immediately took a very long pee on the gravel with a definite "Finally!" look on his face. Problem solved. We've had no further peeing on the floor incidents.

What apparently happened was that Angus has transferred his potty instincts from the back yard to the gravel area. I believe that if I had a gravel patch in the back yard the issue would have never come up. Angus now associates relieving and gravel. I missed it completely and Angus paid the price for my ignorance. It's a good lesson and one I should have seen coming from a mile away. Luckily Lu, once again, showed that her instincts and knowledge are better than my own.

It's something to think about and remember. If a dogs behavior suddenly makes a sharp turn it's time to slow down, investigate and give it some careful thought. Maybe the problem is both simpler and more complex than it seems and a quick reaction might be a wrong one. Food for thought.