Aug 10, 2012, 1:01 AM EDT
By Jerry Sather
Achieving success in teaching dogs with a training collar is more of an art than it is a science. Used correctly the training collar should teach concepts to dogs that already understand what it is they are supposed to do, or in other words, refine the dog’s training not instill it.
You can easily tell dogs that have been brought along under the instruction of trainers who view the collar as an enforcement tool. These folks only know one level of stimulation – high – and they use it to punish the dog for mistakes whether the dog knows what it’s supposed to do or not. In competition and in the field, these dogs generally perform the tasks they are directed to do, but they are tail tuckers. They move at half throttle. They almost slink into the water or heavy cover. They are constantly looking back to the handler for direction. In a word they look like “worried” dogs.
I don’t want my dogs to operate like that. Especially on marked retrieves, I want my dogs bounding toward the bird always in the direction of the mark. They look happy, in fact thrilled, to be doing what they love the most in life! Water entries are spectacular because they are full speed ahead. I want my dogs to appear confident in what they are doing because they are confident in what they are doing.
Yes, absolutely, I use the electric training collar. It’s on every dog in every training session from Day One. The difference is in how we use the collar and what it’s used for.
Helping a dog stay honest on water marks is a perfect example.
Any dog’s natural tendency will be to run the most and swim the least to pick up a mark. What we’re training them to do is make the straightest possible line from the handler to the bird and back with it. The reason we demand this is because it makes for the most efficient, surest retrieves. If the dog stays on line with its vision locked on the bird, then it will bring the most birds to hand in the shortest amount of time.
In teaching the dog to do this, we’ll need to move them away from their natural tendency. In training scenarios, I’ll do this by “making the point hot.” That sounds a lot worse than it is. Here’s how it lays out.
We’ll set up a marked retrieve across a body of water in which the correct line keeps the dog in the water, but comes temptingly close to a point of land or goes down the center of a narrow channel. We bring the dog to the line and throw the mark. We align the dog’s head, spine and attitude appropriately then send it on its name.
A dog that’s learning the game will nearly always suck into that point or one of the banks of the channel to get out of the water early. I let the dog get a few steps on to shore, then correct with the collar a setting or two below what I’d normally use for a serious infraction of obedience training. It “tickles” the dog as a reminder not to deviate from the straight line. Then we bring the dog back and throw the mark again. We repeat until the “light goes on” and the dog stays honest in the water on a straight line to the mark.
Then we come back and repeat the same set up a couple days later to ensure the lessons have taken in the dog’s brain.
Depending on the dog’s level in training we use additional helps to keep the dog honest. For example, we’ll start beginning dogs right at the water’s edge and move farther back from the shoreline as skills and confidence advance. Likewise, with young dogs we’ll throw the mark to land right on the water with a big splash. That really helps them lock in and stay honest. As they gain understanding, we’ll have the mark land on shore, then progressively farther back from the shoreline, too.
Teaching concepts with the collar yet maintaining enthusiasm and building confidence is an incremental process. We just take it one step at a time, but the results are definitely worth waiting for!
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