Sunday, 29 January 2012

'Old school' v 'new school' dog training methods

In the shortish time I've had Uly, I've come across a number of Gun Dog trainers through the clubs I've been to. There seems to be many ways to train your dog, but always, of course, with similar aims. In the past I understand that methods have been extremely firm. I've heard that some Gun Dogs have become traumatised by their training and consequently never make the grade. 

Fortunately, I've never witnessed any really harsh handling. However, training methods vary considerably and I can honestly say I have learnt things from every trainer I've come across.

The 'new school' methods practised by the two trainers I admire most seem to be based on a deep understanding of canine psychology and produce excellent results. Importantly, the training must match the age of the dog and the stage it's at. It can be really counter-productive, to try and teach a dog things it isn't ready to learn.

First and foremost, I've been trying to work on the basics of: Sit, Come, Wait, Heel. Get these right and I'll have an obedient dog.

Famous Labradors no. 1

File:Nigger (dog).jpg
This is Nigger, the black labrador that belonged to Wing Commander Guy Gibson and mascot of 617 Squadron of the 'Dam Busters' raid.

Nigger died on 16 May 1943, the day before the raid, when he was hit by a car. He was buried at midnight as Gibson was leading the raid. 'Nigger' was the code word Gibson used to confirm the breach of the Möhne Dam.

Interestingly, in the 1955 film The Dam Busters, an RAF dog was used to portray Nigger. Apparently he was a brilliant canine actor, only causing difficulties on a couple of occasions. On one time, when filming on location at RAF Scampton, Nigger and Gibson were to stroll through a group of RAF men waiting outside of a building for a briefing. The dog could not be persuaded to move off one spot, or even dragged past it on a lead. It later transpired that the spot was the site where the real Nigger had been buried, some 8 years before, whose gravestone had been temporarily removed for filming. In the end, the scene was filmed without the dog.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Delivering dummies and the 'Hold' command

When I want Uly to pick up or hold on to something (a training dummy, for example) I tell him 'Hold' or 'Hold it'. Recently, I wonder if I've overdone this because Uly seems to drop what he's holding as often as hang on to it. Perhaps I've repeated 'Hold' so many times that he's getting confused over what it  means, especially as the time between me saying 'Hold' and then 'Dead' (Give) is very brief. In all, it is probably one of the more anxious moments, when Uly's bringing something back to me, will he drop it? Will he run off and monkey around? I think I'm going to leave out this command for a while, see if I can calm things down and get a better result....

UPDATE: I stopped using the 'hold' command and indeed things have calmed down. A case of 'less is more', I'd say.

SECOND UPDATE: With Uly still being reluctant sometimes to give up his retrieves (prey), I've decided to get tough. It's been going on for long time now and whilst steadily improving I feel he is old enough, mature enough to be delivering properly. Today, this week, I am determined to crack this and I'm going to use it by administering the 'Bed!' punishment.

THIRD UPDATE: Had the chance to administer 'Bed!' punishment this morning when Uly decided to start play chewing a dummy he was retrieving to me. In fact, I speeded the process up by getting him to retrieve his most exciting toy-thing, a sort of blue tennis-ball-on-a-rope (I should say that he does not have any of his own 'toys' as such, they all belong to his master (me) and he gets  to retrieve them at certain times, I know this may seem a bit unfair to some dog-lovers but it seems to be the done thing when training this type of dog).

Anyway, he was duly told off and slunk off to his bed per the command.

Half hour later I again got him to retrieve the blue tennis-ball-on-a-rope. Result? Well, he was confused and dropped the thing on the way back, he was clearly worried he was in trouble for picking it up or that he was going to get told off again.

So, without further delay I did a couple of retrieves with a plain dummy – with plenty of encouragement and a light tone to my voice he brought them back perfectly and I gave him lots of praise. Next, I tried the blue tennis-ball-on-a-rope again, gave him lots of encouragement and he brought it straight to my feet and dropped it. Another retrieve and this time his confidence is coming back, with encouragement he held it and delivered it pretty much to my hand. I think we may have got this cracked!

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Notes on the command 'Back'

I was puzzled by this one at first. Why 'Back', I asked? Well, it needs to be considered alongside the command 'Come'.

When you command your trained dog to 'Come', you expect it to willingly come running straight to you, but what do you say you want him to run away from you? That's when 'Back' is used. One could as easily use the word 'Away' or anything else that's appropriate, but in Gun Dog circles round these parts it's usually 'Back'.

You can see why one experienced handler took me to task when I first arrived at Gun Dog training. When Uly pulled ahead on the lead I would sometimes exasperatedly command him 'Get back!' (meaning come to heel). It's easy to confuse a dog so I was very grateful to be put straight. 

Remember: 'Back!' to go. 'Come!' to return.

Should you use your dog's name in the command? Well, it seems to be a matter of personal choice (though one trainer was dead against using dog's names in commands). "Poppy, back!" or just 'Back!"? It seems to be up to you but I can't really see any advantage in lengthening a command more than needed, so in this instance, I aim not to use my dog's name.

Notes on 'Wait' and 'Stay'

The 'Wait' command is one I seem to use all the time: telling Uly to 'Wait' at a gate or stile while I pass through first and so he doesn't push past... 'Wait' on individual steps one-at-a-time as we descend a staircase... 'Wait' while speak to the postman. For us it works really well and I like the sharp reaction 'Wait!' seems to invoke in Uly. 

Someone told me recently of a dog that was sitting, untethered, outside the entrance to a cathedral. There were lots of people milling around outside and some had tried to feed the dog with sweets. However, the sweets were untouched and the dog remained stock-still until his owner returned from visiting the cathedral. I am certain the owner had used the 'Stay' command.

You can see from the descriptions the differences between 'Wait' and 'Stay' commands.

Gary, one of our best Gun Dog trainers, has shown me a method of really teaching a dog to obey the 'Stay' command and I will be writing this down shortly.

Gun Dog Commands

I pondered which commands to use for some time when we first got Uly. I knew we had to have a set of words and signals that Uly would come to understand and respond to, and that everyone in the family was going to have to use the same ones.

Fortunately Claire at Gun Dog training knew the best words to use and set me straight by kindly writing down a list one evening. I've made a few minor changes to those original words to reflect what I have found works best for us, so here is the list of 'Uly-language'...

Basic dog commands every dog should know:
'Down' (lie down)
'Wait' (wait for a command)
'Stay' (until further notice/I return)
One word that wasn't on the original list and that I've found really useful is 'No!'.

More specific Gun Dog commands:
'Back' (go away in straight line)
'Out' (go right or left)
'There' or 'Lost' or 'High Lost' or 'Find it'
'Close' (come in closer to me)
'Go-run' (release word to say go and run around - you're a free doggy!)
'Load-up' (get up into car)
'Hold' (hold thing in mouth – dummy, ball, pheasant, whatever)
'Dead' (or 'Give') (dog to let go of what it has in its mouth)

Whistle Gun Dog commands:
One peep = 'Stop'
Three peeps = 'Come'
Two peeps (peep-peeeeeep) = 'It's There' (use when dog is very close to prey/dummy).

There seems to be quite varied commands to tell your dog to empty its bladder/bowels. I caused some amusement at training by using the most basic, namely...

It's up to you!

Stopping on the Whistle

I would say this is an advanced command, the idea is that Uly will stop (and sit) at distance when I give the command. In this case the command would be either a single short-ish blast on the whistle (alternatively one could use a spoken command 'Sit' or perhaps 'Stop'. 

I want to use the whistle as it can be easily heard by Uly at considerable distance (much further than my unaided voice would carry) and in bad weather (heavy rain and wind for example).

Now, as I've learnt, the 'Stop' command is used to halt your dog in the field when you want to give it to change direction or take any other command. It becomes more difficult to enforce the further away the dog is. Clearly, when teaching dog command it's going to help to keep things close-by to start with.

Like most of the things I'm training Uly to do, it takes longer than you might first think. I often seem to get an early result, but for consistent, reliable obedience, it seems to be  case of just keep chipping away, don't give up, you get there in the end (hopefully).