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Training tips and ideas

Focus

Having the dog keep her attention on you at all times is critical. Teach this first, and teach it thoroughly. Start by teaching her to make eye-contact with you. You can do this at home, informally, even as a young puppy. Show her a treat or a toy, but don’t let her get it, wait for her to get frustrated, and look to you to give it to her. Reward her immediately by giving it to her. Build on this, and build up the time. Eventually, you will have a dog that seeks to maintain eye contact as you work, creating a truly beautiful picture. To turn this into the heel, start with her maintaining eye contact with her in front of you. Then, start to position yourself to her side, with her in the correct position.

Remember, most dog "language" is "body language."

She used to sit straight, and now she is forging ahead? Check your shoulder position. She has probably learned to orient off your shoulder, and now that you are confident she is in the right place and you are no longer dropping your shoulder to look at her, her "landmark" has moved into a new position. She is doing the same thing she always did - it’s you that changed. Is she anticipating the sit in motion? Check your body language. Remember, body cues are considered "handler help" for the dog and you will lose points for it in a trial.

Don’t rush for a trial

Don’t fall into the "I have a trial in 3 weeks and I have to fix this and this and this" mentality. Don’t introduce new techniques the week before the trial. Plan ahead, but be pro-active, not re-active. "I have a trial in 3 weeks, but his long down isn’t secure, so if it hasn’t noticeably improved by the end of this week, then I will either withdraw, or just enter for the experience." If you have 3 weeks to go and you have a lot to fix, then you aren’t ready and won’t be. The dog can only learn so much so fast.

Increasing a dogs speed

Increase a dog’s speed in an exercise by frustrating her for her reward. Want her to drive into you for the front sit? Run backward, calling her, while another person holds her back. Call her name and have your assistant release her to race toward you.

 

Teach, Practice, Proof

The three steps in learning something, anything, for either dogs or humans, are to:
  • First, learn the basics
  • Practice makes perfect
  • Proofing - learning to do it when conditions aren’t optimal
For instance, teaching the sit. First, start with your puppy (hopefully, an adult dog already knows how to sit!). Start with a piece of food and move it up to the puppy’s nose and over his head until he has naturally sat in order to see it better. Associate the word sit and praise the dog. Do this over and over - -but not all in one session. Check your progress, say the word "sit" and see what he does. You have crossed into the practice zone. Keep practicing. The reward doesn’t come every time now. If you say "sit" and he comes to you and sits - don’t worry about it. Time to fix that later. By now your pup is maturing. Time to confuse him. Tell him to sit, and with the leash on, tug gently and pull him a little toward you. He’ll get up and come to you. Now you are proofing the sit. Take him back to the location he was at, put him back in a sit, reinforce it with "good sit" and back off again to the end of the leash. Again - say "sit" and tug on the leash. Repeat as necessary until you see that he is actually pulling against you when you tug. Praise lavishly. Eventually, when you tell the dog "sit", you should be able to pull on the dog as he fights to stay sitting, digging his feet in and pulling back.

 

End on a high note

Always end with a success - that last exercise is what the dog will take away in her memory as being the strongest. Even if you have to go back and do something that you know the dog knows and can do, like a nice simple down or sit.

Never associate a negative with a command.

A command from you should be a good thing, a permission to do something. Watch your dog’s ears. Are they pinned to his neck or upright and alert? When you say "heeeeel," does he spring to your side, ready for the adventure? Or slink to your side, in anticipation of hours of forced marching up and down the field or random and arbitrary leash pops for something he thought he was doing right? Training should be fun for the dog. When he does the command well, praise him verbally and use the command word to reinforce the positive association. As he heels beside you, reach down and pat his flank and say "Good boy, good heel." Down let him stop heeling - but if gives a little bounce upwards with his enthusiasm, let him do that. Just let him know that you are pleased and that heeling is a good thing. If he misses a command, correct him without using the command again. If he gets up from a sit, don’t yell "No! SIT." Take him back to the location he was at, put him back into a sit and then praise. "Good dog, good sit."

Play with your dog

Play with your dog - ultimately, her best reward will be to be with you and play with you. Find something she likes, fetch, running, finding you, pulling on a toy or a tug. Pulling is particularly useful for training as it keeps the focus on you and allows you to work in relatively small quarters. It also has the advantage over food that it is always available. Remember to let her win the tugging contest and carry the tug away, feeling proud and confident.

Don’t give a command you can’t back up.

Don’t give your dog a command that you can’t back up. Don’t yell at him to out as he bounds, collarless, across the back 40 with your roast in his mouth. He’s no idiot - he knows you can’t catch him.

Never call a dog to you to punish it.

This is so basic it should be ingrained, but never, ever, ever call the dog to you and punish it. If you slip and forget and call the dog and he comes to you - he got a freebie. If it’s a situation that you have fix, say the dog slips by you at the front door and charges into the street - set it up so that it can happen again and be ready to fix it. .

Keep the dog thinking

If you dog gets so frantic or worried about an exercise that you see he has stopped thinking and is now just panicking, stop. Let him cool off, regain his senses, and try again. Sometimes you may have to wait a week or two to give him a chance to let the negative associations fade.

Training in drive

Get your dog’s drive up before starting training. Play with her, tease her with her toy, then give her a command. The response will be much quicker than if you go straight to work, and then offer the toy as a reward afterwards.

Teach one thing at a time.

Don’t confuse your dog by teaching too much as once. Break each exercise down into individual components. Expect that the parts of the exercise that the dog does know will get worse until the dog is clear on the new portion. Don’t worry about it - they’ll come back quickly enough.

Be consistent.

So basic, but it bears repeating. If you ask for straight position when you ask for a sit, then a sit is always a straight position, not rolled onto a hip. If you don’t care about it sometimes, like around the house, then use a different command.

Keep it short

Don’t bore your dog - two short sessions beats one long one. One short session is more effective than one long one. See also "ending on a high note".

Break it down

Break down the exercise, teach the portions separately, then put them together. For instance, the “retrieve over a 1-metre hurdle” is a very complex exercise. It consists of heeling, for which you need the focus and the position; the retrieve, which consists of going and getting the dumbbell, bringing it back, and coming in for a straight sit, and holding the dumbbell without mouthing it. Teach all these elements separately before attempting to put them altogether.

Does the dog know what you think she knows?

Does you dog absolutely understand the command? Stand in the middle of the lawn at home and give a command, with out attracting the dog’s attention first or giving her physical cues. Does she do it? Did you think she would?

Practice everything!

Including a crowd of people applauding, showing his tattoo to the judge, and climbing up and posing on the podium.

Problem-solving

Something has gone wrong and your dog isn’t performing the way you want or expect. Analyze what it is that is going wrong. Don’t rapidly try every single suggestion or training tip, but if something hasn’t shown any signs of improving the behaviour after 4-6 tries, then it’s time to try something else. Go back to making sure that the dog understands what you want. Make sure there is nothing else happening either. If the dog isn’t biting confidently, make sure that it isn’t a bad tooth.

Train yourself

Don’t forget to train yourself. Watch videos. Go to other clubs. Attend seminars. Go to trials at levels above your own competitive level. Your dog is only as good as you are. (Actually, mostly our dogs are better than us - so it behooves us to try and get better and better all the time.)



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