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Grady Istre – FIELD DOGS

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Wednesday, May 08, 2019
Training attitude


The small things
Aside from experience, one of the major differences between professional trainers and amateur trainers is that a professional is interested in the many small details of dog work. A pro knows that if he can form a rapport with a dog in the simple drills done in the yard, that the dog’s trust will be gained and training is apt to go much more smoothly when it comes time for more complex work in the field.

Starting a new dog in the yard, just heeling on a leash, tells the trainer a lot about the characteristics of the new pupil. The dog’s reaction to a click of the leash, how quickly he sits when told to, and if his tail is held high with confidence — all these details are important. The dog’s body language will reveal a lot about his intelligence and his willingness to learn new commands. An interest in these small things is usually either not noticed or cared about by a novice.


I believe this is the main difference between a pro and an amateur. For example, in teaching a dog a new command, lots of patience is required. First, a professional takes care to explain a new drill without any pressure. He makes sure the dog really knows what is expected and to what standard he must perform. The dog’s body language is watched at each step. For example, often, a dog will work slowly or carefully while learning and when he “gets” it, he will speed up and perform with confidence.


I probably do more drill work than most professionals. This gives me an opportunity to work on details such as these: a dog not coming back to a proper heel position, a dog not holding the bumper properly, or a dog trying to decide which bumper to pick up from a pile (“shopping”). Dogs are con artists, and most of them are damned good at it. Dogs will use your reluctance to correct details such as these as a sign of weakness.


So, when a dog who has been force-fetched comes in from a retrieve and drops the bumper at your feet instead of delivering to hand, not stopping to work on “hold” is a mistake. Getting away with even this small misbehavior may make the dog relax into other bad actions such as breaking. Soon, he may decide to take off when you just lift your gun to take a shot. Dogs notice everything you do, and lack of discipline at the moment of unwanted behavior can lead to other, even more flagrant, misbehavior. My point is this: if you let dogs get away with small things, pretty soon you may be working on the large things.


However, it’s important to separate confusion from dis­obedience and for an amateur that can be difficult. It’s easier for a pro because of his experience with a variety of dogs over the years. The professional can more easily “read” a dog. That is, he can distinguish whether a dog is trying, confused, or rebellious. For the dog, receiving correction when he’s trying to learn a command or a drill can be a real setback. So, becoming sensitive to dog’s body language is something to study and watching a professional work a kennel full of dogs can be enlightening.


Unfortunately, I’ve found that most dog owners don’t take advantage of this opportunity. They may not take in the details they see, or — and this is common — they are only interested in their own dog. Sometimes I’ll be working a dog and ask a client, “Did you see that?” when the dog suddenly “gets” the correct action. For me, it’s an “aha” moment. Maybe the dog has wagged his tail or is running at full speed now. It’s these details that make working a dog a pleasure. Of course, each dog is different, and each one has individual ways to communicate with the trainer. Their differences are part of the fascination with training a variety of dogs.


For a long-time professional such as myself, even working basic obedience on a leash remains interesting. Every time a dog puts a foot down, he’s telling me something about how he’s feeling, what he’s thinking, what he’s going to do and how he’s going to do it. I’m sure you’ve heard of “tells,” in poker, and dogs have “tells” as well. Learning to read your own dog will make you a better trainer and handler. And, I recommend watching other people’s dogs every chance you get. If you attend field trials or hunt tests, watching dogs perform is another way to learn about dog behavior.

Observation leads to knowledge. Knowledge leads to confidence. And, best of all, confidence brings success in the field. Always have fun training.


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Grady’s columns generally appear every other week in WON and he can be reached at reibar.com.


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