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Q&A with a professional dog trainer

4/26/2005

Editor's note: Mike Stewart has nearly 30 years of experience breeding and training sporting dogs and is currently training Drake, the official Labrador retriever of Ducks Unlimited. To learn more about Wildrose Kennels and the training methodology used by Mike, visit www.uklabs.com. If you have a training question, email Mike and he may answer your question in an upcoming column.


Dominance problems

Mike,
This is not really a training question but I am having a power struggle with my two German Shorthair Pointers. They are both males, one is seven (Sawyer) the other is three (Moose).

Moose seems to be or wants to be the dominant dog. They have been fighting quite a bit, to the point were I have to keep them apart.

Is there anything I can do, or is this just something I am going to have to deal with?

Thanks for all the training tips on ESPN.

Mike Condit


Mike,

There are a few guarantees that I can make to you about all dogs. First, from birth they are looking for a leader. If they cannot identify one, they will attempt to establish themselves as the pack leader, often in dysfunctional ways. Secondly, dogs will often "test" the pack hierarchy attempting to challenge the leader or restructure the pack order.

With this background in mind, let's look at the possible causes of Moose's specific behavior:

1. Genetic aggression — I don't think this is the problem.
2. Pack challenge — The dogs spend a good deal of time together and Moose could be asserting himself to establish dominance over Sawyer.
3. The lack of leadership on your part — Moose does not see you as the pack leader. To be a good trainer and control your dogs, you must establish yourself as pack leader … dominate in the pack. Then Moose will comprehend his place.

Likely you have a situation involving both #2 and #3. The answer to your troubles lies at first in #3. Separation alone won't necessarily work. They will just retest dominance when they meet.

Work the dogs together and involve lots of obedience, with you as the sole handler and totally in charge. Be judicious in your standards. You will be amazed what can be accomplished with a lead, choker, and a rigid program of obedience (heal, sit, stay, come by name, etc).

Get absolute control from the point of exiting the kennel to returning to the kennel. No play time between the two. Keep them separate initially; only together while in training under your control. Don't relax these standards until you see habits being formed and you are totally respected as pack leader. Then when you intervene at the slightest sign of aggression from Moose, your reprisal will have meaning. You are their leader.

The whiner

Dear Mike,
I never thought I'd find myself on an ESPN site, yet here I am. I located your name through a search about training and was wondering if you could offer a bit of advice on a problem I'm having with whining — at home, in the car and meeting people with my female 1 1/2 year old collie (Lassie type). I've got another dog, a husky/shepard male.

They grew up together and I've done fairly well with the basics, yet am just not sure what to do with her when she whines. I've tried using the command 'quiet' and complimenting her when she is, yet it doesn't appear to be working well. Any advice you are able to offer would be fabulous.

Best Regards,
Demetria


Demetria,
Your dog's whining is a symptom. To find reasonable effective solutions at resolving an animal's dysfunctional behavior(s) we must always begin by looking for root causes. When these causes are identified and addressed, the chances are better than just trying to act on the symptoms (in this case, whining).

What could be the cause?

1. Genetic — The parents were whiners, barkers or otherwise noisy dogs. Like produces like. If this is the reason, rectification can be troublesome. You may be able to suppress the whining by an abrupt correction (i.e. a surprise swat with a hat or handy soft object). You may suppress the behavior initially but it will still exist.

2. Excitement — Here obedience training will help teach counter skills. When your dog meets people, condition her to sit quietly. Practice patience in all things. Avoid over excitement. Don't get overexcited yourself. Be calm and keep a slow pace with your dog.

3. Habit — She whines from habit. The whining has gotten her attention from you and others previously so the condition was reinforced. Your correction was likely more of a plea to stop the nuisance behavior and not seen by your dog as a correction at all. More whining produced more attention and a "habit" was born.

My bet, although I haven not had the opportunity to study the dog, is #1. I have seen dogs that are vocal and seem to "talk." This influence of the parents combined with the issue of not being addressed as a pup and likely a habit thrown in for good measure. And there you have it — a tough behavior to correct.

Best bet is to begin with a good obedience course and correct each whine promptly in the short session. Work outward from the initial sessions adding different circumstances a bit at a time when success is realized. It would be a mistake to try and correct whining in all situations from the start. Build upon and reward each small success of silence.

Secondly, teach the counter skills previously mentioned. For instance, if a dog jumps on strangers when they enter the house, teach the dog to sit when someone comes in. Dogs can't jump on people if they are sitting. Think of some possibilities applicable to your particular situation.

Shock collars

Mike,
We have a 10-month-old Italian spinone. My husband plans to use an e-collar to train him to hunt. A trainer has told him he should 'escape train' him.

I am not happy with this idea.

What is your opinion on escape training. This is a very good, compliant dog we have. I am afraid my husband just wants to skip the basic training and I am not in favor of ruining this dog.

Thanks,
Andrea


I, too, would not be happy about training a 10-month-old pup with an e-collar, just to skip or short-cut basic training.

First, realize there are no successful short cuts to training your dog. Getting the basics thoroughly entrenched will make your advanced training and experiences in the field more successful. Collars should only be used to polish known commands when absolutely necessary.

Secondly, don't begin in the middle of a training philosophy as your husband is considering. Train in a logical progression, building on the basics. Likely you have not laid down the necessary basic obedience training vital to any working dog.

Next, understand there are two basic core animal-conditioning methods: avoidance and reward.

Avoidance training has its place after skills are taught and understood. Correct only known commands.

Reward methods create a better retention in dogs and should be the primary methods of training, the option of first choice.

My advice: Drop the escape training idea and put the e-collar on the shelf for perhaps later use. Take the time and have the patience to properly train your dog through consistent repetition. Set him up for success and reinforce good behaviors with rewards.

The outcome will be that you will build an unbelievable relationship with your dog and will have a truly trained, happy dog, not one conditioned to act only when the collar is tightly secured to their neck.

Delivery to hand

Dear Mike,
I have a two-year-old Springer spaniel that has terrific
hunting instincts. He is very aggressive and has grasped the concept of what we are looking for (quail hunting in Arizona).

My main problem now is retrieving the bird to hand and roaming out too far
during our hunts.

Do you have any suggestions or training tips to help my pup and I improve our hunts?

Thanks Mike — I enjoy all the articles.

Michael Gann


Michael,
Let's address one problem at a time. Too often handlers try to address two or three problems simultaneously with poor results. Correct the most important problem first, which is delivery to hand.

If you allow your dog to continue poor delivery, the habit will become even more entrenched. By using our "Condition to Hold: Delivery to Hand" (Part I, Part II, Part III) sequence, we eliminate the delivery to hand problem first. We get nice clean deliveries of birds from land and water (if you're going to involve water).

While you are working on delivery to hand, you can do a few exercises to improve quartering and keeping the dog within range — primarily, whistle stops and hand signals, getting the dog to go left and right, stopping to the whistle and recall. Getting the dog really smooth on hand signals and whistle is going to help your dog to "bend" or make crisp turns within gun range when you come back to the quartering aspect.

Once you have the dog delivering to hand properly, start putting bumpers to the left and the right in grass lanes cut in a field about 30 to 35 yards wide. Walk in a zig-zag pattern from side to side of the lanes.

Instead of walking straight with the dog that pushes the dog deep, get the dog to start quartering by you going to the left. When you get to the outside, peep your whistle (2-peeps on the whistle), get the dog to turn, look at you, give her a hand signal to the right and start walking back to the right to the outside edge.

As the dog gets to the outside edge, peep the whistle again, give a left hand signal, and go back.

Every time the dog gets out of range, recall the dog. The dog will finally get tired of getting recalled back and through attrition and wear, the dog starts staying within range because he knows he gets to hunt freely within that range. Once he gets out of that range, he's going to be turned or pulled back.

The zig-zag pattern is the key. The birds/dummies must always be found to the outside, on the left or right of the pattern or the lanes; not straight ahead.

Also work the dog with birds into the wind. If we work into the wind, the dog is going to smell the birds much further up and they will tend to line out further from you. So if we have live birds out, we're going to keep the wind to our back. If we're using dummies, we'll get the dog to quarter into the wind.

Dogs don't generally like to work into the wind, so we can get them to bend much easier if there is no scent out there. A lot of trouble is going to come when you have a scent out in front and they can smell the bird at a distance, it starts pulling them out further.

If your dog does get too far out of range, peep the whistle, recall and change directions. The dog is going to get tired of having to come back to you. If you're going down the field and the dog gets too far out. Turn at a 90-degree angle or a 180-degree angle, and start going back up the field in the opposite direction. The dog will learn pretty soon to stay with you.

Hopefully these tips, applied over time, will assist in keeping your dog within gun range.

Best of luck!
Mike