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Teach- And Reinforce ( Don't Punish)

At Legend, I have a slightly different philosophy and training style than the mainstream Retriever world. In my opinion, this makes me a better trainer than my competition.

The basic principle in this difference is the concept of teach and reinforce, don’t punish. What does this mean? Traditional training methods in the retriever world have a tendency to be very broad, for example, when teaching a dog force fetch- how the dog should hold a bird in his mouth without dropping it, crunching it, chewing on it, to pick it up on command, and to release it on command. Most trainers teach this in a two-step process, first they may put an item, a dummy, in the dog’s mouth and tap on the dogs’ chin to reinforce hold. If a dog drops the item the trainer applies some sort of pressure, usually chin tap or lip pressure. When the dog is through hold and ready to begin fetch, the trainer then usually begins pinching the dogs ear and saying fetch while attempting to put the dummy in the dogs mouth. If you consider what the dog has previously learned (hold through chin tap or lip pressure) and what we are now asking of the dog, this leaves a huge gray area in the dogs mind from what he just learned to how he is supposed to apply this new material. This big jump in concepts left a lot of dogs struggling to understand the middle ground. And when the dog doesn’t produce the desired behavior after the first few tries, generally the trainer raises the pressure. This left many dogs hitting their pressure max and washing out of force fetch. Not because the dog was unwilling, or unintelligent, but simply because the difference between step one and two were so great that the dog couldn’t put together what you were asking of him.

In my teach and reinforce method, I am going to tach the dog every individual step of the process clearly, and concisely. First I will do the work for the dog, manipulate his mouth for example so that he holds the dummy and has no opportunity to drop it. Then, reward him for a proper hold. I may repeat this step 3-4 times until I phase out a layer of help. Perhaps this time I only apply occasional chin presses to encourage the dog to keep holding the item without my help- in this scenario I am doing 75% of the work for the dog. Reward him for completion. Next I will phase out even more of my help until the dog is doing 50% of the work independently, again my next step phases out help until the dog is doing 75% of the work, I am only mildly helping him now to achieve the end goal, until finally I can provide not help and the dog preforms the task independently because he knows what is expected of him and he looks forward to the reward provided for the task.

Once the dog has performed the task independently, I now know that the dog has demonstrated knowledge and understanding of the concept and the command. Therefore, I can begin to challenge him- for example step a couple of feet away from the table while he is holding, or introduce a new dummy to hold. Now, if he spits the item I can apply mild pressure, because the dog has already demonstrated for me that he understands the concept. It is of utmost importance that I not apply HEAVY pressure until the dog demonstrates understanding.

The level of pressure applied should always be appropriate for the infraction. For example, if this is my dogs first time to drop the dowel in hold training, I am going to apply gentle, light lip pressure until the item is back in the dogs mouth. If the dog drops again and it is early in our session- I know he doesn’t funny understand the concept, then I will apply still light, but slightly more uncomfortable pressure than the last time. When the dog has demonstrated a proper hold multiple times and appears to understand at least some of the concept, but then begins to drop repeatedly this pressure will be firmer and last longer to ensure we find a level of pressure that is an appropriate match for the dog to understand that what they are doing is not desirable.

When training my dog it is of utmost importance that I NEVER become emotional. If my dog repeatedly drops the dummy in hold training and I feel myself becoming frustrated with him, my dog senses this and will begin to have an adverse reaction to the training. When I punish my dog out of anger, my loss of control breaks down the relationship between my dog and I. The training becomes personal, this says to your dog, “You are a bad dog, you’re not doing anything right.” And the dog will lose his joy to work with you and for you.

By keeping your attitude and emotions under control, even when I provide a long and intense pressure correction for an undesirable behavior- perhaps a behavior that I have been battling, when the correction is over the handler must return to neutral status in order to keep the dog in tune with working for you. What this communicates to your dog is, “You didn’t get it right that time, but you’re still a good dog. I’m not mad at you, I’m just trying to teach you something.”

Just as the application of pressure is important when your dog requires a correction, it is equally important to praise your dog when he does something right! This communication is vital to the dog to keep them happy and interested in learning. When your dog can see that there is a clear celebration for success and a clear but non emotional correction for a mistake, he becomes more eager to work for you and to try to figure out the puzzle because he knows that the reward is waiting for him on the other end, a big “woohoo! Good Dog!” Is all that your dog really wants from you, which is part of why these creatures and their amazing eagerness to please and work make them by far one of the most intelligent and hard-working animals on the planet.

Contact me to inquire about my training programs that use teaching and reinforcement methods to produce happy and well-rounded hunting retrievers and companion dogs. And please feel free to comment with your questions!