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Where did the fun go?

For training to be successful it is much easier if the dog feels at ease in his surroundings. If treats work to help accomplish that feat, then use them. 

Many decades back, when I was a student at the University of Arizona, our Ski Club regularly took weekend bus trips in conjunction with the local Tucson Ski Club. We would go to Sierra Blanca ski area near Ruidoso, New Mexico; we often went to the Arizona Snow Bowl outside of Flagstaff, and even took a trip to the newly opened Purgatory Ski Area at Durango, Colorado. The U of A kids pretty much sat together on the bus and the "older" town folks generally stuck together and visited in their own little groups.

But there was one old gentleman who would walk up and down the aisle and make a point of greeting and talking to every person on the bus. I remember his name was Henry, and (now, folks, I am going to date myself) I could never forget his baggy wool ski pants and "reindeer" sweater. And he skied on (out of date, even for that era) long wooden skis with screwed-on metal edges and old "bear trap" bindings.

On one trip, after greeting and socializing with some of the locals, he moved along and began, as he always did, talking to the students. After a few minutes, he looked straight in the eyes of the leader of the group of young hotshots (you know the kind — racing stripes on their pants, the latest leather buckle boots and aluminum laminate skis) and exclaimed, "You know, fellows, I am the best skier on this bus!" After a few long moments of uneasy silence and muffled snickers, he followed it up with, "Because I have the most fun! And, when you boys get to be my age, you will understand what I mean."

Now I have reached an age where I understand exactly what Henry meant.

So what does this have to do with training retrievers? Well, I had a visitor recently who was so deeply entrenched and well versed in technique and ideology that he had forgotten that dog training — like hunting, field trialing, and hunt testing — is supposed to be fun!

He was so uptight in his actions and commands (the guy barked orders at his dog like a drill instructor in the Marine Corps) that the dog had picked up on this demeanor and, honestly, was afraid to put a foot down — right or wrong!

I didn't see any indication of physical abuse, but the dog kept his tail about halfway tucked between his legs, his head was down, and his ears drooped. These were obvious body language signals that the dog was not enjoying the experience. And I would guess that the owner wasn't either.

Where the heck did the fun go?

If you have ever seen these body language indications from your dog, then you know exactly what I mean. Of course, you always must be consistent in your commands and movements and follow good fundamentals, but there is no reason to make training drudgery for either of you. So, with that in mind, let's take a look at some ways to keep your dog (and you) working happily.

10 tips to keep training fun

1. Keep his tail wagging

Even if you don't know how to recognize your dog's other body language signals, it is tough to mistake a wagging tail! Likewise, it is easy to read a tail that is tucked as indicative of a dog that is not particularly happy and would probably rather be somewhere else.

I teach "mouth conditioning" and force-fetch on a training table. And, I continually monitor each dog's attitude by watching his tail. Just being out of his element and on a table is unfamiliar and uncomfortable to most dogs, and going through the force-fetch process requires a lot of mental pressure. It is tough, sometimes, to always keep a dog happy, but it is not impossible.

If you find that your dog is getting depressed, simply shorten the sessions, work with him until he makes some small bit of progress, and then back off. If he is having difficulty grasping a concept, back up to something he does understand, praise him for a job well done, maybe give him a good brushing, and put him away for the day.

2. Quit while you are ahead

Don't belabor making a point or increase the level of force when he simply isn't going to catch on. Always put your dog away happy. If you put him up happy, there will always be tomorrow; if you put him up apprehensive, distressed, and exhausted, you may find that he doesn't want to come out of his kennel tomorrow.

Take the time you would have spent training to think about what you have been trying to accomplish, and analyze why he didn't grasp the concept and how you might change the training next time to help him understand. Try to remember: Make it difficult to make mistakes and easy to do things correctly.

3. Train with your head

Keep an open mind and teach yourself to see things from your dog's perspective rather than solely from your own position as the trainer. For some reason this is a difficult concept for people to grasp. When the training isn't working, stop your current line of thinking and try to see the challenge presented by the drill from your dog's point of view — and try a different approach.

4. Stay mentally focused and concentrate

I call this staying in "mental contact" with your dog. You see, dogs have a level of ESP or whatever you want to call it — and they know when you aren't paying attention, when your focus is elsewhere. And once you lose this mental contact with your dog while training, you may as well just put him up for the day. It's tough to get back in touch.

I constantly tell people I'm training with to, "Watch him, watch him, pay attention to your dog," because often the person turns to ask a question or say something, rather than concentrating on what their dog is doing. After finishing the drill, then ask the question — but not while your undivided attention should be on your dog.

5. Think well ahead of your dog's actions

Teach yourself to recognize your dog's actions and learn to anticipate what he will do before he does it. This allows you to act and perhaps avoid a mistake rather than being forced to react after he has made the mistake.

6. Make yourself aware of your body language

Dogs are masters at reading body language — it is the first language that they learn from Mama. What signals are you sending to your dog? He probably recognizes your signals better than you do; he learned to read you early on!

As an example, try bending over or kneeling down when he is on the way back to you rather than standing stiffly upright in a more intimidating position. Just be aware of your actions and try to consider the signals you are sending — from your dog's perspective.

7. Establish yourself as the "leader of the pack"

The more I am around dogs, the more I'm aware of the importance of hierarchy. All animals establish a pecking order early in their relationships as a way of trying to avoid confrontation or possible injury from one that is stronger or more aggressive.

I have found that dogs that are shown clear and strong leadership by a human at an early age are more willing to learn the lessons asked of them in training. Those that aren't shown that a human is the leader of the pack are either confused as to their standing in the pecking order or may come to believe that they are the leader. Either way, this makes for tough training.

8. Keep your temper under control

Put your ego in your pocket. Boy, I sure know how tough it can be sometimes to not lose your temper when you know that a dog is capable of doing the work and is either being defiant or simply refuses to catch on. Every time you lose your temper, you take a step or several steps backward — at least that's how your dog perceives it. You get upset, and he has controlled your actions — he wins that session (and he knows it).

9. Slow down, calm down, and quiet down

This goes for your day-to-day training and also your actions, your movements, and your voice. Humans have a tendency to up the heat when something starts falling apart — they assume a more intimidating posture, get louder, and begin increasing the pressure on their dog. All of these are counterproductive.

10. Do what works for you

Don't allow yourself to fall into the trap of competing with your training partners or against a perceived standard or time-line that you feel you must meet. Also, don't fall into the trap of feeling that one particular ideology, technique, or program must be followed to the letter. As an example, just because your training partners scoff at using treats as rewards, if it works for you and your dog, why not try it?

In closing, I feel the need to point out one final thing that seems to be overlooked quite often among retriever trainers: Praise your dog when he makes an effort.

Even if he didn't do everything exactly as you had expected, remember that if you praise or reward an effort today, he will try hard to please you again tomorrow. You will make more progress if you keep it positive and keep it fun — for both of you.

This column was excerpted from Butch Goodwin's CD and book, "Retrievers…from the Inside Out."
Click here to purchase a copy.