Retriever Training – Steadiness using Premack

March 19, 2014

In retriever tests and trials it is a requirement that your dog is steady in the line until sent by the handler to retrieve.  An unsteady dog will fail to mark the fall accurately, particularly if the fall is in cover of some sort, so steadying a dog is one of the skills it is important to master if your dog is to “make the grade”.

Punishment as Motivation – not Recommended

Traditional trainers through the years have used punishment to teach the dog to remain steady.  Some dogs are brought into line wearing a lead which will then bring the dog up short as he runs out and hits the end of the leash.  Some trainers clip their dog with a heeling stick or whip as they run out.  Some trainers “correct” their dogs at the slightest sign of breaking with a helper armed with a BB gun or slingshot shooting your dog in the rump.  As soon as the dog has been hit, you repeat the command “Sit”, smack it on the rump and command “Sit” again.  This is known as indirect pressure.  Later on, when the dog has been conditioned to e-collar corrections, the “Sit” smack “Sit” would be replaced with “Sit” nick “Sit”.  The nick being a short, relatively mild, burst of electricity.

Sadly, these methods are being promoted in some of the most popular gundog training books on the market, even though most dog sports are moving away from punishment as motivation.

Methods such as these obviously work which is the reason for their maintenance within the gundog community – but there is a more humane way.  Even the high drive dog with huge desire for the chase and grab predatory motor pattern can learn to be steady in the presence of gunshot and birds with a bit of patience and a progressive sequence of training goals.

Force-Free Motivation

Initially you will be teaching your pup (with positive reinforcement) the basic obedience behaviours he will need in his career as a working retriever; things like self control, responding reliably to whistle cues, walking off lead at heel and the “Stay” and “Release” sequence.  You will also, in these early days, encourage his inherent desire to retrieve with appropriate games.  The chase and grab games will become intrinsically reinforcing which will trump any extrinsic reinforcement that you can offer and in the early days of training you will not want to kill or subdue this eagerness and enthusiasm for the game by dampening his retrieving spirit with punishment or aversive training.

Eventually, though, you will need to ask your dog to be steady at heel in the presence of the huge distraction of gunshot and either a bird or training dummy as well as somehow harness this self-reinforcing chase and grab behaviour.  This is where the Premack Principle comes in.  David Premack, a psychologist, proposed the rule that high probability behaviours can be used to reinforce low-probability behaviours.  We can use this principle when training dogs very successfully.

High-probability behaviours are activities which are performed voluntarily and which are enjoyed for themselves without the intervention of the handler or owner.  Some examples of this would be playing with other dogs (if your dog is a social butterfly), chasing monkeys or squirrels, barking at the neighbour’s dogs through the fence, sniffing interesting smells, or in the case of our working retrievers, running in on a retrieve without waiting for our signal to fetch.

Low-probability behaviours, on the other hand are behaviours which are often the learned or trained behaviours, such as the recall and walking at heel, or, in our case, the patient waiting at heel for the handler to signal a release so that we can complete the retrieve.

What we are trying to convey to the dog is that if he practices self-control and waits until we release him (low probability behaviour) then he can have the delirious pleasure of the outrun and the retrieve (high probability behaviour).

So, how to apply this in real life? 

First of all we need to proof our Sit/Stay and Release behaviour with distractions such as balls rolled around and food scattered close by, singly and in the presence of other dogs who might be competition for the valued resources of balls and food.  Many gundog trainers these days practise “denials” in an attempt to steady their dogs.  A “denial” is simply not allowing access to the retrieve by removing the retrieve article before the dog can get it.  Access to the retrieve article is also limited by the trainer picking up the article more times than the dog is sent.  This is a relatively force-free way of proofing distractions and it is pretty worthwhile in the early days.  However, there is one problem with this method later in the game that makes it ineffective.  The dog is unlikely to learn the futility of breaking if you have the thrower pick up the bird.  It’s the break itself — the exhilaration of the launch and outrun — that reinforces breaking as much as the retrieve itself.

Once the sit/stay has been proofed to your satisfaction, you can introduce the retrieve.  Have your helper standing a fair distance away (about 50 to 80 metres).  Because the sit/stay is likely to be unsuccessful the first time around, your dog needs to be set up to succeed at this early stage.  Mechanically prevent him from failing by holding on to his collar tab.  Use as little restraint as possible, partly because this can be counter-productive around a prey-type stimulus, and partly because you will want to monitor for any tiny bits (droplets) of self-imposed self control.  It helps the cause to keep the tossing of the dummy as low key as possible.

Put your dog in a sit/stay, lightly holding the collar tab.  You are asking for only a droplet of self control so as soon as the dummy is on the ground and provided there is no tension on the tab, release him with your “Fetch” cue.  Your dog might start to break as soon as he sees that the helper is preparing to throw in which case he must cease his “wind up” and you must remind your dog that he is to sit and stay.  Try again; and again, if necessary.  He will soon realise that the only way to get what he wants (the high probability event) the more he has to stay put and wait for the release (the low probability event).

Once this has happened you can gradually crank up the waiting for the release and with a few repetitions you will find that he is waiting with rapt attention for your magic release cue.

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