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Puppy Retrieving (Part 1)

Encouraging Natural Retrieving in Puppies

In order to be able to train a dog it has got to want to learn and be trained. Some dogs have a natural learning drive and high intellectual ability, others may be willing but have no aptitude for certain tasks and some will have the ability but no willingness, no desire to learn or to please.  A few will have neither. There are varying degrees of all this willingness and aptitude and that is what makes training a dog so interesting and challenging. Everyone is different requiring slightly differing approaches, attitude and technique.  So the trainer has to understand and read each individual dog’s strengths and  limitations whether they are training for obedience, agility, Frisbee, hunting or just as a family pet..

All dogs can be motivated and encouraged to learn in some way, but whether they learn at the pace you feel is acceptable for what you are teaching or they learn correctly is another matter. What gives a dog the desire to learn and to work for you? What makes it learn quicker and retain that learning? If we consider why a particular dog wants to work, play or learn, then there are a variety of reasons.

As a  trainer one has to know the dog he or she is working with, the dogs individual  motivation and the general breed character.  Even within  breeds, differing  bloodlines can dictate  degrees of  willingness and ability to train. Any dog will work and learn from experience to obtain the basics in life, – food, water, air, shelter. It will protect itself from danger and being hurt. Then its emotional needs, yes – emotional needs, have to be met – belonging, pleasure, enjoyment, exercise and fulfilment of natural abilities.  It will learn how to obtain these needs by itself, through working with the owner or by  even experimenting with actions to get the response it wants from its trainer or owner. I also believe some dogs, once they have their basic, safety and emotional needs met,  try for greater achievement and more recognition for their efforts. They seem to be able to focus on their training and put all their energy into jumping higher, running faster, finding hidden objects quicker, getting the undivided attention of the audience at a show and are ultimately  rewarded for their efforts by recognition from us (clapping, applause, whistles, whooping, praise etc.)

In training we train through repetition but with these clever ‘high fliers’ we have to recognise their abilities and balance the repetitive training  with a variety of  increasingly challenging games, exercises and problems, to stimulate their intelligence and their motivational demands.
If we consider therefore what the individual  dog we are training  wants from life and what motivates it, we can then comprehend what will be a reward for doing the work we are going to do. If we study the basic and natural instincts of this dog and then add to it the challenge that he may need and many dogs need, one of the real reward forces to utlize is retrieving .

Although food is a basic requirement of life and definitely a reward, I am often left wondering whether we are underestimating the intelligence of many dogs. Children will often do small chores, even homework, for the bribe of candies, but as they get older and grow in their needs from life then even candy may not be an inducement to do their homework. For puppies, food may be the ideal introduction to minor controls and it is an easy way to get required responses, but in the long run does it create the bond required between handler and dog? Does it provide leadership for the handler? Does it generate respect for the handler from the dog or for the dog from the handler? Does it create affection and a loving relationship? Reward (and the occasional reprimand) has to be in a form which does all these things. It also has to create and enhance a partnership where handler and dog are linked mentally through confidence, trust and understanding. I have found that food, if given, should be a small additional reward, not the main reward nor part of the main reward.

Reward  for  the dog, like us, comes from two emotions. Firstly reward comes from the feeling of doing a job well and enjoying  it – this is an INTRINSIC REWARD. Secondly, it comes from an EXTRINSIC REWARD – something completely independent of the task – food, ball, ragger, tugger given in  addition afterwards, ‘payment’ for doing the job asked. Actions and learning which are enjoyable to the dog and the dog obviously wants or is seemingly compelled to do because of its natural instincts, are easily rewarded and need only be further reinforced through recognition in the form of praise. Work and training routines that need encouragement and which may be slightly more tedious or boring to the dog are often better rewarded at the end with something which is enjoyable – such as food or a fun retrieve. However, should routines be boring? Or as trainers can we make the majority of them far more enjoyable by using extrinsic rewards as an integral part of the training exercise? The reward  then becomes the exercise and the training session, which when additionally reinforced through praise and recognition of a job well done, develops the dog’s mind much quicker. The bond between trainer and dog also grows stronger at an increased rate.

You will find that rewards and their intensity will vary from dog to dog.  I have trained dogs which do not want conventional praise with voice or hands. Their  reward is the hunting or retrieving of bumpers or balls which they get during the training exercises itself.  You only have to watch dogs playing ball or Frisbee  either as just a game or in competition, or watch amazed at the work of sniffer dogs to understand that their main reward is the retrieve.
Think through a training exercise or game before hand so you can  run it to help the dog succeed. With structured fun training you keep the fun and reward built-in (intrinsic).  If you keep the  training within the dog’s ability, do what that individual dog really enjoys and can succeed at,  and then  increase the complexity gradually,  the dog  will learn intelligently and happily. Nothing succeeds like success.

In small steps show the dog what you want it to do and when it succeeds let it know how pleased you are with what it achieved.  SMILE! Laughter from you can be one of the biggest rewards for many dogs.

In training dogs with genetically inherited  working backgrounds such as sheep dogs, hunting dogs, working dogs, and  even terriers, all of which have been bred for their natural ability and instincts, the extrinsic reward process easily becomes an integral part of the training exercises. Recognition through praise reinforces  the dogs pleasure at doing the job well and strengthen the learning process. Many dogs enjoy retrieving, chasing, or just carrying an object. Some as puppies may have to be encouraged, but once the habit and pleasure of the action is imparted the problem may be  to stop them. With creative training exercises, any of these rewards can be built into a training program and depending upon the dog, the trainer will probably find one that works better than  another. Once one reward is found to work, the others can be made enjoyable simply by chaining the rewards.

A good example of this is the training of drugs detection or ‘sniffer’ dog. The training starts with encouraging the dog to be a keen retriever. Gradually the retrieve object is made more and more difficult to find until finally it is hidden. The dog now enjoys the hunting because it knows it will result in the ultimate reward – the find and retrieve. I trained two of my dogs to do this for fun in the house, a Jack Russell and a miniature poodle and recently a client’s dog which is a Polish Lowland Sheepdog. Using a ball we get them interested in retrieving and then in small stages we begin to hide it and encourage them to ‘find it’. The Polish Lowland Sheepdog, Huntley, lives in a very large house. Guests are invited to hide the ball, while Huntley waits. He is then told to ‘find it’ and off he goes checking out every nook and cranny. If he has problems we can step in and help by giving hand signals. The occasional ‘Find it’ keeps him going for up to half an hour or more and rarely does he fail. The way he sits and waits, for the ball to be hidden and when hunting constantly keeps checking back with the owner is a delight to watch. Rarely do I go to the house without Huntley disappearing, only to reappear with a ball that he wants me to play retrieve with or hide. If I ignore him he just lies down with it and waits, or follows me around carrying it patiently waiting in case I decide that I want a small game. Huntley is no retrieving breed and as a puppy he was most energetic and at times unpleasant. But now he is the perfect gentleman. There is no doubt in my mind and of his owner that the rewarding games using retrieving have helped channel his herding instincts in another direction that is acceptable behavior for a household dog.

Rewards and the response to them is relative to the experiences the dog has of being rewarded. A dog which constantly gets a ball thrown may not see it as a reward, may even get bored with the exercise or so excited by it all that control and training becomes impossible. Another client of ours had a Fox Terrier, Duke,  that was an obsessive tail chaser. He did it his owner told us for no real reason but it was more likely when the doorbell  or telephone rang. The vet had tried drugs but it still continued. It was felt that the tail might have to be totally removed due to chronic infection, if the behavior could not be extinguished. During our consultation we asked the client what games he played with Duke. The answer – “Ball” . So we asked him to show us. We went outside where immediately the little Fox Terrier started barking and jumping up at a tennis ball which was jammed in the fence about five feet above the ground. The owner encouraged the excitement even more with “Do you want to play ball?” After several jumps Duke would stop and spin, and then growl and bite at his tail. The owner naturally laughed at this ridiculous ritual and immediately  took the ball out of the fence and threw it for the dog. The dog raced after it picked it and then went away to some grass, put the ball down and started sniffing totally ignoring the owner and us. When asked how often they played this game we were told – “Whenever Duke wants to!”  We then discussed and  went through the whole procedure of controlled retrieving explaining how to make it fun for both of them. This way  the owner would be taking charge and controlling the game, rather than Duke (who was being rewarded for all the wrong actions). Within two weeks using structured retrieving as part of his ‘rehabilitation’ program the dog was no longer tail chasing and both Duke and his owner were going  through positive and pleasant transitions.

I only have to watch owners and their children playing fetch in the park to realize how much others  and their dogs enjoy retrieving. Therefore why not take the opportunity to get  the dog learning  from it? It is not difficult to use the retrieve and all the rewards it provides to have a dog heeling, watching you, sitting and waiting, coming when called, comfortable around people and other dogs,  even ignoring them and focusing only on you. Retrieving and all the activities involved can be so much fun for both dog and owner. It does not have to be regimented,  only controlled so that the dog  learns from you.

I love to see dogs that come out of their ‘home’ wanting to be with me, asking ‘What fun thing are WE going to do’, and wanting to work together. They are responsive and their minds become blotting paper for learning, soaking up what I want to teach them. Make your training sessions short, productive and fun. You, the trainer, must be the instigator and provider of fun training, and retrieving can provide the foundation for fun training.