The Case of the “Stubborn” Dog

June 22, 2016

Have you ever been in a situation where your dog, for no apparent reason, stops doing a behaviour that he or she has been doing really well in the past?  Is your dog being stubborn?  Is he trying to “dominate” you?  Has he forgotten his training?  Or does the answer originate with you, the handler?

When you require your dog to perform a task the sequence is to give the dog a CUE which is followed by the BEHAVIOUR which you asked for followed by a CONSEQUENCE.  A cue is the “green light” that tells the dog it’s time to do a behaviour. A cue can be anything that the animal can perceive: verbal, visual, environmental, a scent, a sound, or a touch. A cue can be trained—the word “down” is a common verbal cue that means “lie down on the ground.”  Or, a cue can simply be learned from association—when I open the lid of the treat jar in no time I am surrounded by dogs with sad, starving dog faces so I will give them a biscuit.

As Karen Pryor describes in her book, “Reaching the Animal Mind”, a poisoned cue occurs when a dog associates unpleasant things with a cue. Because of these unpleasant associations, the dog will either hesitate to perform the behaviour or not do it at all. We humans think of unpleasant as a reprimand or scolding, or painful, like a jerk on a check chain. But what we think is unpleasant and what the dog thinks is unpleasant are often different. A slight tug on the leash, pulling on our dog’s collar, leaning over the dog, or even a pat on the head, can all be unpleasant – for the dog.

Poisoned cues are more common than you think and are often the culprit when a dog is thought to be stubborn.

In the following scenario, a dog who was previously coming when called in response to the cue “Come” and a treat, for no apparent reason stopped responding to the cue, and when called ignored the handler, avoiding eye contact and sniffing the grass.  In this case the “Come” cue had been inadvertently paired with a scolding.  The “Come” cue had been “poisoned”.

In another scenario, a dog who had been delivering a toy very nicely to the handler’s outstretched hand for no apparent reason started dropping it at the handler’s feet.  What the handler had been doing was to “reward” the dog for delivery by patting it on the head which the dog didn’t enjoy.  So he started dropping the dummy thus avoiding the pat on the head.  The outstretched hand which was the cue for delivery was poisoned by the pat on the head.


So, before you label your dog as being stubborn, look at yourself and your behavior.  You might be inadvertently poisoning your cues.


Honouring in Retriever Training

August 25, 2014

Honour: A dog that waits while another retrieves is said to have honoured.

Depending on the temperament and drive of your dog you will either sail through the honouring part of your training, or will go into line when you have to honour in a state of dread and anxiety, knowing that there is no way your dog will remain steady while another dog is running out to retrieve that oh-so-desirable dummy or bird.

Dogs Honouring

Some of the watch points would be –

  • The futility of “cold” honouring: What many handlers do when teaching the dog to honour is to do many “cold” honours. A “cold” honour is when you let your dog watch other dogs working over and over again. I don’t believe that has anything to do with teaching a dog to honour. What your dog needs to learn is the sequence; first you run the series, then you honour the next dog. (Every once in a while the judge will play some games and not have that kind of honour, but that usually only happens in the higher stakes).
  • Picking up the bird or dummy if your dog breaks: Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the dog is learning 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. In order to avoid this train your dog with a tab attached to his collar so that when you’re in line you can hold the tab inconspicuously. By doing this when your dog is inclined to run in he won’t be able to move, and so cannot be reinforced by the launch and outrun. The tab is not meant to punish in any way, it is only meant to stop your dog from going anywhere. This is why I prefer a short tab to a long leash where if the dog does launch itself and manages to get up some speed before hitting the end of the leash, could be severely injured. It is worth bearing in mind that it is better to stop behaviours becoming a habit than to try and fix behaviours that have been reinforced so many times that they have become conditioned. So, don’t be in a hurry to get rid of the tab…
  • Get into the habit of leaving the line after honouring under control. Practice heeling away from the line by doing a U turn (turn into the dog) and heeling off lead a few paces before putting on the leash.

The Sequence

The event style of honouring goes smoothest if it makes sense to the dog. If you practice the sequence he can see that the cues differ from those that predict he will be sent. Also, for a young inexperienced dog it is possible to design the session so that the stimuli are not so overwhelmingly exciting that he can’t think about what’s going on and what he has seen.

So, for the young dog with a lot of retrieve drive, begin by making things simpler for him than a “formal honour at the line”. Once he has delivered his retrieve, heel him away from the line – far enough away so that it really does not look like the “line” to him and so “dilute” his excitement level a little. You are taking away the environmental cue of being in the line means a retrieve. You will also let him watch the “working” dog come into line as this will also become a cue that the next retrieve will not be for him. The departure of that dog to retrieve will also be a cue to relax and expect something different than being sent.

The moment the working dog is sent and after your dog has seen it take off, get your dog’s attention and get him focussed on you. Don’t even worry about getting him to sit – this will come later – he can just be standing there on his leash, still excited because he has just retrieved and wondering what is happening next. He hears gunfire, sees another dog take off, and instead of thinking about running out to get the retrieve he immediately orients back to his handler.

Orienting to you can be rewarded by giving him a treat as soon as you see him notice the other dog’s departure. After a couple of sessions once he is offering you his focus when the other dog departs, you can start cueing him to sit when he resisters the working dog’s departure, followed by a treat. If he won’t accept treats in this circumstance, substitute some praise or petting. Then walk him quietly away on leash “under control” so it is good to not develop habits that are the opposite of control.

With repetition you will see your dog visibly relaxing the moment the other dog is sent and voluntarily (no cue from you needed) turning his attention on you since he expects that a departing working dog means focus on my handler now. At this stage you can occasionally dor a formal honour where he is a sit adjacent to the line.

If you have a dog that is still going crazy even after you have left the area of the line, then move him to an area where he does not actually see the throw, but can hear the gunshot and hear the working handler’s release cue.

Training 8 January 2011

January 9, 2011

Time:  7.30 a.m.

Weather:  Sunny with light breeze

Venue:  The Duke’s Farm, Eston

The training set-up was for Novice/Open level dogs.  As our trialling season still has a few months to go before it gets underway, I’m still breaking set-ups into manageable chunks so that the dogs can succeed.  I do not want to be in the position where I’m having to go out to correct what seems to be bad behaviour or disobedience in case the dog is  either not understanding what is expected of him or is confused by the terrain or the scenting conditions.

The first set up was a nominated double consisting of a long (50 metre) blind retrieve through long knee-high grass  and a mark with both the thrower and the fall behind a thick screen of shrubs and small trees.  The fall was on a track and clearly visible when the dog broke through the cover.

I worked on the blind first.  Although the dummies were placed in relatively short grass, there was a barrier of longer grass which had to be negotiated before the dog could collect the blind.  There was a slight slope down from the line to the blind and to the right a reed bed containing water.  This would, because of the hot day, be very tempting for the dogs.  I built up the line to the blind by increasing the distance in three stages.  At each stage the dogs were driving straight out and returning straight back without a problem.  The dogs observed the placement of the dummies, and I ran the most experienced dog first with the less experienced watching.  At this stage I am not running cold blinds at all and will only do so two weeks before our first trial.

I have also been working on the dogs sit and stay off lead in a group with only the dog who is called coming to me.  This usually works fine when we’re working obedience or just at home as a game, but out in the field with everyone jockeying for position it’s not that reliable.  However, it’s great training for steadiness.

I build up the marked retrieve in the same way – building distance in three stages.  For a beginner dog I would let the dog see either the thrower or the fall for the first stage and then move further back behind the barrier, but with the dogs I’m working with at the moment this is not necessary and all I’m doing is building confidence and trust.

The final product is putting the two retrieves together as a nominated double.  I line up the dogs to face the marked retrieve, and when it is down and I’m happy that they’ve seen it and marked it well, I turn them towards the blind, and send them for that first.

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