Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Training a Retriever Positively

I know I've been blabbing about Mac and dockdiving, here, on flickr, and on twitter, but it was an educational day for me. Check out that picture (even if I've already shown it to you because I love it so much). That's Mac in line, being happy as a clam. We waited in that line for ever- probably 1/2 hour- for a practice jump. And Mac pretty much did that the whole time. He smiled and wagged at every person who came near (he's smiling at M in this picture, who is holding the camera), and did his best to ignore the dogs that were everywhere around him. He paid attention to me and worked for food or attention. Now look at the yellow lab behind him. That dog looks shut down (he was) and stressed. His owner hardly ever paid attention to him, and he took every chance he got to stare at Mac and whine. His owner told me that he is a "compulsive humper" and I believe it. This yellow lab was wearing some kind of correction collar but his owner was fairly low key and appropriate with it.

Note: I am not opposed to prong and choke chains, when used fairly and appropriately. I have never used an ecollar and probably never will use an ecollar. I don't consider myself anywhere near a good enough trainer to use one in a way that isn't detrimental to a dog (if there really is one) and I'm not convinced that all of the training other alternatives aren't better. I do prefer positive methods, and, as I've stated, relationship based training. I almost wish I had been trained to train two years later than I was, because maybe all compulsion based training would have been omitted from the curriculum, but in the meantime, it's part of my repertoire, and I'm still working to figure out when/how to phase it out.

So, being at splashdogs was informative. There were some seriously wound up dogs, in high arousal modes with lots of drive. It was pretty awesome to watch. Their theme song clearly wasn't "doodeedoo" like Mac's. So cool to see that their owners had found an outlet for their drive- chasing kongs and balls and all sorts of other things into a pool. And such a contrast to see them manhandling them. M made a great point- the dogs were in a huge state of arousal, and control was key- it *was* much more difficult to control the dogs that were actually in drive than to control Mac. On the other hand, the overhanded handlers that I saw were not giving corrections for particularly appropriate things- if there is an appropriate thing to correct for when a dog is in high drive, at an event where you're asking that of your dog. On handler corrected her lab each time the lab jumped on her. The dog would hit the ground after the correction, pause a few seconds, then jump on her again. Not only inappropriate, but ineffective. Another handler was correcting his dog with harsh corrections for barking. The dog was not the only dog barking and was frantic to get in the pool. I was annoyed at the barking, too. Maybe I should have passed dude some earplugs. One of the most distressing corrections I saw was on the dock- a man asked his dog to stay. He walked towards the end of the dock, looked back, and the dog had inched forward. He walked back to the dog, repositioned her where she had originally been, then gave a trainer-who-shall-not-be-mentioned ear pinch. I actually thought he was going to alpha-roll her, he was so intent on the correction. Bad timing and very physically abusive. Ineffective, and inhumane.

I was disturbed and reminded of another post I read- actually the comments- on Gina Spadafori's Pet Connection about distance retrieving and E-Collars. It appears there is a culture of believing that retrievers need correction: they're hard headed and stubborn, and when in drive, in need of correction. From one of Gina's own comments:
But again, if you think you’re getting the attention of a hard-driving, hard-headed field-bred retriever on a mission at 300 yards with anything other than shock from an e-collar … well, you will be giving lots and lots of seminars to all us wimpy chicks who’d love to know how you did it. Because we would if we could.

Then there's Retriverman, who explains he is not a lab person (neither am I) and says:
The American trial Labrador is usually a very hot-blooded animal with lots of spirit and more than a little stubbornness. Some can be scatty, and others are furry lunkers that can’t be controlled without judicious application of the e-collar. A lot of these Labs also lack retrieving instinct and must be force-fetched. (The average working gundog should never need to go through it. It should be a natural retriever.)

GunDog Magazine explains that you should eliminate choices when teaching your puppies to retrieve, and then to make sure it works as best as possible, add an ecollar:

I doubt if there is a successfully field-trialed Labrador retriever in the country nowadays that was not force trained to retrieve. Retriever trialers have learned the stakes are too high to risk having a dog refuse/fail a retrieve in a trial, especially when force retrieving is so reliable.....Fact is that there is little “force” involved. Part of the beauty of force/conditioned training is that again, the method eliminates choices; pup can do only what you want him to do or he cannot move."

The final thought provoking this blog is Patricia McConnell's question in her blog today.
I’m curious if any readers have some advice for me and a friend of mine. She and her husband have a young German Shorthaired Pointer they’d love to train to hunt, but are having problems finding any professional trainers who don’t use ear pinches, forced retrieves and a basic attitude of “Do it because I say so!” This is not the first time I’ve been asked about positive trainers in this field, whether for retrievers or pointers, and I haven’t had a lot of luck finding professionals who take dogs in and train them using primarily positive methods. If you know the world of hunting dogs, you know that there is a long history of “positive punishment” and dominance-based training in the field, perhaps more so than any other, at least in my experience.

Why is this? Why has the culture of other dog sports changed while it seems that sports involving retrievers lag behind? Or is this just my very, very limited glimpse of the situation? Newer sports, like Rally-O, do not allow physical corrections and encourage communication between handlers and dogs. Agility is run off leash, which makes training-tool based corrections hard, and in AKC rules, pinch, choke, and ecollars aren't even allowed on the grounds. More people working their dogs are using prey drive to train for schutzhund, instead of defensive drive brought on by fear. And obviously canine freestyle is too ridiculous to take seriously enough to use force. So why do some sports- and some breeds?- remain stuck in the ecollar era?

Addendum: I realized that in my hurry to go to bed last night, I missed another comparison. I think that some of the links I made are good: SplashDogs to freestyle, agility, etc- these are dog sports. But I forgot the other half of the analogy: field work is not always a sport (though it is sometimes- Gina Spafadori was talking about trials not hunting)- it is work. So a better comparison might be to dogs doing stock work, or herding. Herding and stock dog people discuss teaching a focus on the handler. They discuss using a "line" which sounds an awful lot like a leash, and having it nearby if necessary. One trainer, from the stockdog website, talks about starting puppies right, just like from Gun Dog magazine, and not giving the pups too many choices. Her methods are a little different:
Next the dog must learn to respond to me while working. With dogs that don't much care what I say or want I will gradually escalate my attention getting techniques until the dog notices and finally responds to me. First I will yell. Then I will throw something at the dog (a glove or my hat or a small branch). If this doesn't work I will put the dog on a line and use the line to stop the dog and get its attention while it is working. In this case I usually end up teaching the dog "lie down" instead of "get back". It doesn't matter which command or action the dog learns first. The important thing is to teach the dog to respond to the trainer while working the sheep. Once they learn that the rest is relatively easy.
It's true, she might throw her hat, which is, in my language, a "gift from god." I've been known to do the same. It's just enough to distract the dog from whatever undesired behavior he's doing and and have him look around to where the handler can go "oh, back here, bud, let's do something constructive." It's not a negative- it's just a distraction that usually is enough. And if it's not enough, the trainer rights, she limits the dogs choices.

I don't know enough about herding or fieldwork to keep on in this vein, but it's what I've noticed, and apparently Patricia McConnell has noticed it, too. Oh, to have a thought on the same wavelength as a guru! Does that count as a claim to fame? I'm blushing. Anyway, it's thought provoking for me, and I'd love to hear your thoughts!


Sarah said...

I think there are a lot of people out there who still think that rewards-based training is not serious training, and that positively trained dogs aren't reliable.

I'm not opposed to correcting dogs when neccesary, but the thought of physically punishing a dog for being excited is heartbreaking. I don't think corrections have a place in any dog sport.

I love training dogs in drive, and it's amazing what you can accomplish if you focus on channeling that drive instead of supressing it. An excited, motivated dog is the easiest to train - why use compulsion when there are so many other ways to motivate the dog?

I took Sunny to a splashdogs event several years ago, and she was through-the-roof excited and wound up for an hour before it was finally her turn. It was not hard to keep her under control while we waited - she knows how to follow commands when excited, and I know how to keep her focused by giving her stuff to do. It's not rocket science, it just takes practice, and a belief that dogs can control themselves when excited without the treat of pain.

EmilyS said...

AKC obedience is still full of "you can't get a reliable retrieve unless you use an earpinch" (you can't get an OTCH title unless you use an earpinch") trainers. The justifications are all pathetic, and full of lies. These techniques are about pain, or the threat of pain to "force" the dog to comply. They don't like you to talk about that.

Running With Dogs said...

I have seen extremely amped up agility dogs - amped to the point of barking and nipping at their owners - and I have never seen anyone give any form of obvious correction for this. I get reprimanded in class if I even use the word "no". And this is a sport where the dog's enthusiasm is encouraged (and bred for) and these owners find a way to use that enthusiasm positively.

The problem with using force - or removing choices, you remove the dog's ability to think. Sure that might get the job done faster.But it won't transfer to anything else. You will have to use force to teach each and every step.

However, if you use reward based training, and teach your dog to think, you have an easier time at teaching something else later. If a dog learns that it must do B (obstacle) in order to have A (reward) you will have a dog that has a high probability of doing B. But you also have a easier time at reaching a high probability of a dog that also does C. Eventually doing B or C (while using A) becomes so *fun* that B/C itself becomes the reward.

example: Mole and the dog walk: I have rewarded Mole so often and frequently for while doing the dog walk, that he will off course to do the dog walk. This huge/scary thing has become great fun - and is sometimes the reward for doing another sequence of obstacles.

I am not against correction, but I am against correction based training. Punishing your dog before you fully teach it something is inhumane and unfair. And hurting a dog in order to teach it something is down right cruel.

Anonymous said...

I was reading through my CPE rule book and found that you can get a 5fault penalty or be dismissed from the competition completely for: foul or abusive language, display of anger, extreme frustration or excessive harshness. Many of the groups do not allow prong collars at the events. Imagine if that was the case for all these dog sporting events.

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