May 11, 2012, 5:55 AM EDT
By Jerry Sather
When I describe what happened at the hunt test with Versus Country Raider last week, I tell people the honoring dog that broke and my actions to stop the dogfight about to happen “got in Raider’s head.” That’s why when we came back to the line for his rerun he wasn’t the same dog, and ultimately gave a “no go” on the blind that ended our day.
As dog owners/trainers we can get into our dogs’ heads positively or negatively depending on what happens to put us there.
How the dog views the world and life goes all the way back to its socialization as a puppy. When a puppy is born, you can think of it as a perfectly clean hard drive in a new computer. It has no experience on which to base any action or reaction. However, from the puppy’s very first interaction with a human, its view of humans (which are ultimately owners, trainers, masters) starts to be molded. This is why it’s critical to the development of a well-adjusted dog that it feel the touch of human hands, hear the sounds of human activity and smell the smells of humans every single day from its first. And those interactions need to be consistently positive and reassuring.
From those earliest days, a dog begins to build a memory bank of experiences. Each one is sort of like an individual file on a hard drive. A well-socialized and trained dog gathers millions of individual files during its lifetime. When it encounters a “new” situation, the dog’s internal computer sorts through all the existing files in search of the one that says, “Ah, I’ve seen this before. I reacted this way, and this is what happened.”
If “what happened” was positive, the dog should respond in the same way it did in the previous encounter(s). If “what happened” was negative, the dog should respond differently to avoid the same negative outcome. This is how dogs learn.
However, if there’s no corresponding file of previous experience, that’s when you’ll see a dog’s confidence sink. The dog is “worried” because it doesn’t know how to react. This is why and how we train. Introducing new experience files in a controlled, managed and positive way is the whole point of training a retriever or any dog for that matter.
It’s imperative the dog’s trainer/handler be able to read the dog’s response and body language to understand what a new situation is doing between the dog’s ears. This is where an experienced pro trainer is at a huge advantage. Having dealt with hundreds or even thousands of dogs during the course of a career, we see similarities in reactions and use those to predict what a dog will do before it does it.
But there will always be those scenarios like what happened at Raider’s test. It was not a totally controlled training environment. It was the “real world” of competition. My reaction prevented a dogfight and probably injury to one or both dogs, however, it was “all new” to Raider, so it was no surprise that it got in his head and hurt his performance.
I’m happy to report that after several days of training following the negative new experience, Raider’s confidence is back and he is his old hard-charging, work-loving, alpha male self. We will chalk it up to “experience” and be back on the hunt test line in a couple weeks … this time with another important experience file logged in his memory banks.
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