This is the second in a series of articles on innocent mistakes we make as trainers, that can teach dogs skills that we do not wish for them to learn. This one in particular is a little bit tricky, because it actually involves a dog that is smarter than I would like for him to be! Truthfully, I am glad he is as smart as he is, it just made training him a bit more challenging!
Ruger was a joy to train! He had a high drive and was eager to please. He learned the basic obedience very quickly and before we knew it, he was delivering to hand. We started doing baseball diamond hand signal drills, and it was like he knew them by heart within a couple of days. It literally took no time for him to be very, very solid with them.
So we progressed to whistle stops. I had been using the whistle for sitting at heel, so he had an idea what the whistle was for. But still, from my experience, this is one of the hardest skills to teach. When a dog sees the bumper land, and is in full drive to go get it, it is extremely difficult to get him to stop when you blow the whistle. Even if you use the e-collar, that usually won’t stop them if they are in hot pursuit of the downed bumper.
Typically, I use a long check cord to force the stop. But even with that tactic, usually, when I take the cord off, the dog ignores the whistle. A lot of times, once dogs know what the cord is for, they will stop on their own when the cord is on them, but take it off and they are deaf to the whistle. They know you can’t stop them and they won’t let up on chasing the bumper.
The first time I lined Ruger up for whistle stop work, I had the check cord attached and was ready to use it. I launched the first bumper, sent him, and hit the whistle when he was halfway to the bumper. I was ready to stop him with the rope, but to my surprise, he instantly stopped and looked at me. I never had to physically stop him. I couldn’t believe it!
I then gave him the back signal and he completed the retrieve. We did this quite a few times, with a few regular marks without whistle stops between each whistle stop mark. Each time I blew the whistle, he would stop and look at me just like I wanted. I have never had a dog get the whistle stops down so fast; I was in shock! This was all on the first day!
Soon I began to throw double marks, stopping him on the way to one and sending him to the other. This too was flawless. Everything was picture perfect. I did not feel like I did the same set up everytime, but looking back, I can see that I probably did. Apparently, each time I stopped him, I would send him to the opposite bumper instead of occasionally keeping him on the path to the original one.
Before long, he didn’t need me anymore. He would be going for one bumper, and when I would hit the whistle, he immediately changed and started going for the other bumper. He did this without stopping to look at me. He had figured out what I was doing before I fully realized it! I now wanted to be able to stop him and then re-send him, keeping him on the same bumper But no matter what I did, when I hit the whistle, he changed bumpers and ignored everything else coming from me.
So it was not until after I had him trained on whistle stops that I had to actually use the check cord. The way I fixed this issue was when I made him change directions upon hearing the whistle, I stopped him with the check cord and made him look at me, then I would send him to the original bumper. The good thing was, because of his intelligence, it did not take long for him to figure all of this out. Not a ton of reps was needed before he had understood what I was asking of him. After that, he would stop and look at me when he heard the whistle, just like we all want our dogs to do. And I made sure to change up where I was sending him, to keep him honest with all this work!
This just proves that we have to be careful not to fall into patterns with our training, or our dogs can figure it out before we realize that we have a pattern. And they will start running the pattern instead of focusing on us and following our lead. But, if we keep mixing our training up, it will make our dogs better, and in turn, make us better as trainers.