Over the course of my forty-year career, I have been blessed to be around some of the most accomplished Field Trial Retrievers our sport has seen. Without exception, every one of those marvelous dogs experienced challenges along the way.
In my early years of training, I thought the great dogs didn’t have problems. I wanted to put these icons on a pedestal. I just assumed that their whole career went without a hitch... but I couldn’t have been more wrong.
I recall a meeting we had at Handjem at the beginning of a winter trip. Mike Lardy, Ray Voigt, and I sat down to discuss the team of dogs we'd be training that season. We went through each dog individually. We looked at each dog's previous year's field trial performance. We spoke in-depth regarding the areas where each dog needed improvement.
This was a very accomplished group of dogs. Many of them were already field champions. Every dog that we discussed had flaws that we wanted to address. Once we identified each dog's weak areas, we set out to develop a plan of action.
This past week we started the 2022 training season for Retriever Day School. Very much like that meeting years ago, I sat down with each owner and discussed their dog’s individual needs. Together, we begin with an objective analysis and honest self-awareness. The biggest challenge for most owners is getting over the emotional aspect of identifying performance problems. That emotional approach tends to skew one's perspective. Some become overly critical, while others might make excuses instead of honestly dissecting the facts. To aid in capturing this information, I put together a form for each student to fill out called a profile analysis. It is intended to help identify areas in your dog’s behavior that require attention. This kind of profile analysis is commonly used in sports psychology. And after all, aren’t we all a kind of canine sports psychologist?
Let’s go back to that meeting at Handjem from twelve years ago. Ninety percent of the problems we identified during that meeting fell under three categories. They are “Go”, “Stop” and “Come”. The “Go” category would include things like popping, water commitment, bailing out when facing big challenges, and anything that displays a lack of conviction. The “Stop” includes all sitting issues. Some examples would include poor stopping mechanics on blinds like loopy sits or even failure to stop at all. Creeping and breaking would be included as well. When I think of “Come” issues, I think of lack of control at a distance. Failure to respect a come-in whistle at the end of a blind is a common challenge with high drive dogs.
When problem-solving, step one is identifying problem areas that require your attention. Step two is designing a plan of action.
When designing a plan of action, we must trace the undesirable behavior back to a corresponding stage from basics. No matter what age of dog I am dealing with, I will review the steps of basics that address the problem. Especially with older dogs, I believe it is a mistake to assume they will understand and respond to correction sequences and reinforcements that were taught many years prior during their original basics training. It is critical that you take the extra time to clarify the process (in the yard) that you intend to use in the field.
For example, say your dog has developed a popping problem or chronically breaks down in scent on long-retired guns. You may determine that you should force a dog on “back” when he displays this behavior. But before you force on 'back' in the field, you must review force to the pile as well as a long-distance force drill. The review will also help you with executing the timing of the correction, as properly forcing a dog at a distance can be a tricky thing to get right. A poorly timed e-collar force will only exasperate the problem.
Another all too common example is a dog that develops a loopy sits on blinds. I like to review stop to the pile at Double T length (100ish yards) with some e-collar reinforcement. Then at a greater distance. Let’s say 200-250 yds. Then I will do a regiment of BB Blinds for a couple of days. After that, I am confident that my dog clearly understands the desired behavior as well as a correction to reinforce such behavior.
I promise it is time well spent to take the time to objectively evaluate your dog's performance, and develop a plan to tackle performance issues. Don't just sweep the irritating behavior under the rug in hopes that it disappears on its own...because it won't! Taking the initiative to deal with issues in a systematic way will keep you from always training in fear. When I have committed to resolving issues in the way described above, the only regret I have is that I didn’t do it sooner!!
I hope this article has been helpful and will embolden you to become a better trainer. Good luck and happy training.
Upcoming Purina Masterclass with Pat Burns
Developing a Plan of Action: Advanced Dog Problem Solving
February 16th, 2022 | 7:30 pm Eastern
Join me as I discuss the detailed strategy I use to diagnose and address training and performance challenges in advanced dogs. Even the most accomplished dogs have flaws, but it's how you address them that determines your future success.
This Masterclass is sponsored by Purina and FREE to attendees, but seats are limited!
Sign up today!