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Reflection and Recriminations.Sun, 28 May 2017Dog trainingJim GreenwoodPuppy
This last week, I have been mostly looking forward to this coming week. After the realisation that my mood was not great, in fact it was positively explosive, I had the experience to know that it is those I love that would bear the brunt and I needed to sort it out. So, what was the problem? Simple really, it was me.
A dear friend who has been there for me in the past in her passive/aggressive way, simply asked “when was the last time you had a proper break, no phone, no emails, no anything to do with dogs?” “Ten years at least.” I replied. Her silence said all I needed to hear. So this week, I am having time off and have even got tickets for a festival, you can’t beat The Men They Couldn’t Hang for working out any anger issues.
As last week progressed, I felt more and more in the need of the break. Perhaps it was just that I knew it was coming. The visits that week seemed to all be inter-pack problems. A couple of examples to illustrate :
Two bitches who after five years together, could not tolerate each other and reacted very aggressively at the sight of the other. Another two dogs who used to live together but now when they meet, will fight. The owners need them to get on, as the dogs will be moving in together due to a family bereavement.
As many of you will know, these cases carry a high degree of emotional baggage and are a real test for the trainer. So people skills need to come to the fore, as you need to be able to diagnose what is going on and it’s not always what the owner thinks is going on. You have to see past their emotional response, and yet see what, if any, affect this response is having on the situation.
I knew the format would be to watch the dogs all of the time and provide the owners with achievable goals, often starting with some counter conditioning and game orientated training. The first visit went well and subsequent reports from the owners were very positive. The second visit went not so well and was the final nail in my decision to take a break. I just was not connecting what I was being told by the subtle behaviours I was seeing. This I hasten to add, was no fault of the owners. Everything they were telling me rang true and there was also some evidence to suggest it. Still the little bell rang in the back of my head – “WRONG” I ignored it, I never ignore it.
Consequently, while I was explaining to one of the three owners and NOT watching the dogs, a fight started. I managed to get a finger in the way. No damage to the dogs and a little scrape on my finger. Worse still, was the little voice in my head saying “I told you.”
So I have a week’s break now to enjoy. It is a shame that my finger is bruised near the knuckle joint and holding a fly rod is out of the question just yet but I am sure it will be right by mid week.
Now the owners are using a combination of calm meetings, parallel walking, counter conditioning and a few other case specific measures, the reports are encouraging but it’s still early days.
Added here is a wee bit on marking and enhancing behaviours. Enjoy!
Training a dog to mark is a relatively simple exercise. Just make it rewarding to find a particular scent. It makes little difference to the dog what that scent is, it can be drugs, explosives, rabbits etc. In fact currently, research is being done on a variety of diseases that can be detected by dogs using scent, for example diabetes. The key being, that the dog finds it fun and gets rewarded. That reward can be being given its rubber ball, a food treat or catching a rabbit. The principle is the same.
I like to start training when the pup is around eight weeks, beginning with gentle tug games and then hiding the object from the pup. As soon as the object is hidden, I say “find it”, producing the object if the pup is close to it, or before it finds other amusement for itself, thus keeping the game going. At this stage, the object is anything small enough to hide in my hand or something the pup was playing with.
All I am doing is “marking” the behaviour at this age, no more than that. I will, over the coming months, use these words each time I play the find game.
The next element I throw in, is two plant pots. One has a rabbit skin under it, the other does not. I start by letting the pup, (now around ten weeks old), sniff the pots. I use the words “find it” and as soon as the pup shows interest in the pot with the skin beneath, I reward it. I maintain this sniff/ reward stage, until I see that the pup begins to seek out the rabbit skin. When I get to this stage, I begin to withdraw the reward. The hoped effect of withdrawing the reward will be to get the pup to pick a new behaviour. It can walk away, or can nudge the plant pot, or paw the pot. It may even sit. Whatever the chosen behaviour is, if it is an attempt to alert me that it has found the scent, I reward the behaviour.
I can now begin to hide the skin about the house and garden, never making it too difficult for the pup to find. Help is given by guiding the pup with some pointing and encouragement and of course, when it finds the skin, it is the best puppy in the world. Then we do it again. I now have a young dog that knows when I say “find it”, there is a fair chance that if it finds the scent of rabbit, it will have done well and might even get a treat.
I take this training gently, as there are a great many distractions and new experiences for a young dog to learn. It is important that they be allowed to explore the world with its sights, sounds and of course scents. (That is once it is old enough to come out with us on our walks.)
When we reach twenty weeks or thereabouts, I step up the training a little and begin to hide the skin when we are out. In the winter, I heat a stone on the wood burner and when we are on a walk, wrap the stone in the skin (mimicking the body heat of the rabbit and increasing the odds of the pup finding the skin). Placing it somewhere it will be easy for the pup to find, it does not take long before I am putting the hot skin down rabbit holes in the local park and asking the pup to find. Once again, I am now waiting to see which body shape the pup will give when it can smell the scent but cannot get to the skin. When I see this mark, I reward it. I will use a hand warmer in the summer to achieve the same stimulus with the rabbit skin but a hot rock in your pocket on a bitter cold day is hard to beat!
For the next few months, I will use the adult dogs to confirm any marks I see from the youngster, watching the pup for a mark if I have seen an adult marking. I have used a pup as an illustration of how to teach the mark but the principles can be applied to any age of dog and for any scent. The aim is that the work done in the early stages, gives me a solid foundation for the future work the pup has in front of it.
Making finding the scent a rewarding experience prior to when the pup enters the field, will help the pup take those first important steps when working in situ. It already enjoys the game, knows what it is looking for, which allows it to differentiate between all the other scents that it comes across. Now it gets to exhibit its natural behaviour, learn the many lessons the field has to teach and this will increase the odds of success.
Training is the application of principals not myths. One will give you results, the other will give a long list of failures. Give your dog a head start and you will reap the benefits for years to come.