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.


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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