Monday, July 21, 2014

Thinking About the Stand Command

I’ve been getting some questions about the stand command that got me thinking about why it’s so important to the West method. Simply put, the stand command is a non-verbal command to stop and stand-still. From the dog’s view point, the stand command shows the dog what you expect him to do once the bird flushes, and for you, it’s a silent command to teach your dog to pay attention to you and eventually earn his respect.

This summer I had an opportunity to work a two-year old English setter named Molly. Molly was the type of dog that had been allowed to do her own thing for most of her life. A friend described her perfectly when he said she was self-employed. She was self-employed so the first thing I did was teach her that I was part of the team. Besides introducing the e-collar and teaching her to go with me, the stand command gave me a way to gain her attention in the training field.

I used two cues to teach the stand command, a tug of the pinch-collar and a nick (momentary stimulation) with the e-collar and I used them at the same time. Once Molly stopped and I was standing next to her, I showed her that this command also meant all four feet had to be planted on the ground until I released her with a tap on the side. As I watched her feet for any movement, I worked at stepping behind her and in front of her. If she took a step, I combined the nick and tug to ask her to stop. After a couple of workouts it was clear Molly wasn’t paying attention to me. While I could get her to stop and stand, her tail wagged back-and-forth in rapid beats and she was focused on the horizon instead of me.

I needed to do more to get into her head so I began to pick her up by the pinch-collar and tail and set her back about 6 inches for taking a step. If she took another step, I got hold of the pinch-collar and spun her in a circle. The spin didn’t hurt her but it disoriented her.

After a couple of weeks with little progress, I decided to use the nick cue by itself without the pinch-collar tug. By now I was 90% sure Molly knew how to stand still—she just didn’t want to do it. In the next workout and once Molly was stopped, I started to walk in front of her, and when she took a step, I nicked her. I guessed right and she stopped. I continued to walk and as I turned and started back towards her, she looked me right in the eyes. It was the first time she gave me eye contact, and as I petted her up, I chuckled at how pleased she was with herself. While there was still lots to do, she was working for me now and training would be easier and more fun.

Once I had Molly’s attention and she understood the stand command, I was ready to use this command to teach her not to chase pigeons. Molly loved to point a pigeon in a releaser but she also loved to chase it when it flew. Her point was natural, but standing still and letting me walk in front of her to flush the bird went against her every instinct to survive. She saw the bird as hers and my job was to teach her it was mine. When pointing pigeons in releasers, I had let her chase to the end of the check-cord, but now I began to stop her earlier and I set her back about 6 inches and walked in front of her. If she took a step, I spun her and set her back and kept at it until she let me walk in front of her. It didn’t take long before she realized she already knew what I was asking her to do. It was the stand command. The only difference between what I was doing around birds and how I’d taught the stand command was I avoided using the e-collar since the releaser was still on the ground and I didn’t want her associating the e-collar with the releaser.

Molly isn’t steady on birds yet but I’m already imagining the problems I might encounter with her. As training advances, dogs like Molly that don’t readily give you their attention may start to challenge you for the bird. These dogs stand solid on point but start to creep or charge in just as you walk past them to flush. Any time a dog competes with you, chances are he doesn’t respect you and often this lack of respect can be traced back to the stand command and the trainer not being demanding enough. Once a dog accepts training and allows you to walk in front of him, he is giving you respect. If your dog is having problems during the steadying process, many of these problems can be fixed by reviewing the stand command, even with older dogs that have started knocking birds. Maurice Lindley describes the stand command as the glue that holds the West method together. It certainly does and it holds this method together on multiple levels. By making sure you do a good job teaching this command, your dog will understand what you expect of him around birds and you will experience the joy of working a dog that respects you.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Correcting Your Dog at a Field Trial

Correcting your dog at a field trial is different than correcting him in training. Anytime you are training, your dog wears an e-collar, and if he knocks a bird, you can make a timely correction and stay in control. Since dogs aren’t allowed to wear e-collars at field trials, correcting your dog becomes more complicated. You need to get to him quickly to give a correction that makes sense to him, and the correction must be physical. Making a physical correction is tricky because most judges don’t allow you to make corrections or do any “training” on the course.
Over the years, I have made a few corrections when no one was looking that included a horse rein, biting an ear, and half-choking a dog with the ID collar once I got hold of him. Fortunately for my dogs, these corrections didn’t work, and I moved on to finding better ways to keep my dogs honest. I decided to build better habits during training so my dogs needed fewer corrections at trials. One of the first things I did was to wait longer before I ran a dog in an adult stake. A dog’s manners had to be good in five or six consecutive training sessions before he was ready to enter. Also, I didn’t enter him in multiple stakes during a weekend trial until I could count on him getting around the course with clean bird work in a single stake. A lot of dogs get so excited after they run the first time that running them again in the same weekend is like pouring gasoline on an already out-of-control fire.
If you think about it, the level of energy at a field trial can be off the charts. Handlers are yelling and blowing their whistles, horses are snorting, bracemates are running wild, and your dog has probably been confined in a crate or on a stakeout chain for most of the weekend. His adrenalin will be pumping when you break him away making it even harder for him to remember the training. Some suggestions to help your dog remember the training at a trial include arriving early and running him before the trial or staying late and running him after the trial when it is permitted. Training with other people or putting on a mock field trial can be very productive. Try to put your dog in as many situations as possible that are similar to a field trial but where your dog can still wear an e-collar.
Be consistent with your dog at a field trial and realize his success has a lot to do with you. As a handler, you need to be able to read your dog and don’t allow him to get away with mistakes. I’m sure you’ve seen handlers who want to win so they let their dogs to get away with breeches of manners. Maurice Lindley trains dogs for amateur field trialers and gives his clients some smart advice, “Don’t excuse your dog’s bad manners at a trial. If your dog does something at a trial that you wouldn‘t excuse during a training session, you need to pick him up. Don’t wait on the judge. Go ahead and pick him up. It will go a long way to keeping him honest at trials.”
During a field trial, poorly timed corrections and severe corrections may work for some dogs once you ride them down and get your hands on them, but these dogs get harder and harder to catch and you can ruin a lot of good dogs this way. Some may lose style or become afraid of you. Now, that’s not to say you don’t do anything when your dog knocks a bird. If I can get to my dog quickly, I might whoa him and make him stand still before collaring him back to the horse or whatever. Putting him in a roading harness or on the dog wagon may seem minor but it puts you back in control and stops your dog from getting into more trouble.
Even when you’ve done everything right and worked hard to keep your dog honest, some dogs still get into trouble. One reason is because a dog has to want to be steady. He has to buy into the training. I have a dog that was rock solid in training but she continued to chase birds at trials. I ran her for two seasons and never got her around clean. By the third season, I was feeling very discouraged. I talked to a pro trainer who knew her well, and he told me to hang in there and be patient. “Some dogs just take longer,” he said. The third season was almost over when I finally got her around clean. She had a beautiful run with three finds and took second place. Who knows why it took her so long but the switch had finally turned on.
Field trialing is a tough sport and not every dog is going to make it. Some of your dog’s success is because of his breeding but a lot has to do with you. Over the years, I have come to believe there is no good way to correct a dog at a field trial. The path to having a winning dog doesn’t include cleverly delivered corrections when no one is looking. Instead, it begins with building good habits in your dog during training, entering him when he’s ready, and picking him up when he makes mistakes. If you set up your dog for success and avoid having to make many corrections at a trial, you give him a good shot at being in the winner’s circle.


Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Good and the Bad of Training with Homing Pigeons

It’s hard to beat homing pigeons as the bird of choice for the early stages of the steadying process. They are easy to obtain, easy to keep and they return to the loft. Pigeons don’t hold for pointing dogs so you have to restrain them in some manner. While you can make a pigeon stay put by dizzying the head and tucking it under its wing or tying a cardboard tether to one of its legs, homing pigeons act too tame in these situations and will teach your dog bad habits by allowing him to creep or crowd them before they fly.

Maurice Lindley developed a method using remote launchers and homing pigeons for steadying dogs (see Training with Mo: How Maurice Lindley Trains Pointing Dogs by Martha Greenlee). Launchers work best for training setups such as stop-to-flush and backing where the dog doesn’t have scent of the bird. If you want your dog to point a launcher, you need to be careful. If your dog gets too close, the launcher may scare him when the bird is ejected. Another problem is the dog knows the launcher is unnatural and he quickly figures out the bird isn’t free to move around. If you let your dog point too many launchers, he can turn them into a game filled with bad habits. I had a training buddy whose dog started out pointing launchers, but because she trained on them too long, her dog stopped pointing and started charging as soon as he smelled one. He wanted to make the bird fly.

A Higgin’s remote releaser works best for pointing setups. It is a metal cage with a lid that opens remotely so the bird is free to go when pressured by a dog. Dogs relate to releasers differently than launchers. While a launcher is usually planted in thick cover so the dog can’t see it, a releaser is planted in lighter cover. The bird can see the dog coming and the dog can see the bird, usually when the lid opens, and realizes he can catch it. The bird knows it better fly or else and if the dog makes a dive for the bird, he knows he’s the one putting it in the air.

In Maurice’s method, you use homing pigeons to develop your dog’s point, teach basic commands and introduce the e-collar during the first couple of months of the steadying process. You are building the foundation and all of the hours you spend in the training field will boil down to achieving one major accomplishment—teaching your dog the e-collar. You should be able to stop your dog with the e-collar as he is chasing a bird, and once he stops, you should be able to walk out in front of him while he remains standing. Once this accomplishment is achieved, your dog is ready to advance to loose birds.

The hardest part of training with homing pigeons is giving them up. Maurice puts it this way, “Launchers are great tools for a very short period of time.” Unfortunately, some amateur trainers get so comfortable with the control pigeons offer that they continue to train on them to the detriment of their dogs; or they return to pigeons after their dogs have already advanced to quail. Last month I watched a dog barely indicate a pigeon in a releaser. The dog looked miserable as his tail slowly wagged back and forth, his head turned away. The owner couldn’t understand why the dog looked so bad and described how beautiful he had looked pointing wild quail earlier in the year. I tried to explain that his dog was beyond pigeon work.

Once you move to loose birds, you don’t go back. Loose birds, usually quail, are more challenging to use and the training gets harder. More things have to go right to have success. You need good flying birds, proper cover, fast reflexes and skill with the e-collar. You no longer control the flush—the bird does. And you are going to make mistakes, lots of them, but your dog is going to handle them because you’ve already built a good foundation with homing pigeons. It’s easy to understand why some amateurs hesitate moving their dogs forward or they return to pigeons after their dogs have advanced to quail, but sometimes you have to bite the bullet. Sometimes you have to think about what is best for your dog and leave your comfort zone and the bad habits that result from training with pigeons too long. When your dog is ready to advance, you need to advance with him. It may be hard to do, no doubt about it, and you’ll miss the control you had with homing pigeons, but loose birds will make you a better trainer and your dog a better bird dog. 

Thursday, August 1, 2013

On Birds and Around Birds

Good pointing dog trainers have an overview of the steadying process. They think less about specific training steps and more about training in broader terms. A good example is Bill West. If you ever spent time around Bill, you heard the terms on birds and around birds. When a dog was on birds, the dog had scent of a bird. When a dog was around birds, the dog knew birds were in the area or he saw birds fly, but no scent was involved. The difference between on birds and around birds may seem insignificant, but if you think about it, most training situations take place either on birds or around birds, and you may be surprised at how these two simple terms can help keep your dog happy and manage his level of excitement as you go through formal training.

One of the first rules in the Bill West method is to train a dog in a field where the dog is around birds. The dog thinks he can find birds so he is happy to be out there and in a good frame of mind to learn. When he does a good job, he is rewarded by being worked on birds. This bird contact increases his level of excitement, and he will look for birds in the next workout. Unfortunately, dogs that are worked in the backyard, where they haven’t found birds, rarely enjoy training and some lose interest altogether.

As training progresses, these two terms help you manage your dog’s level of excitement the same way you adjust a thermostat. Not hot enough, you work him on birds. Too hot, you work him around birds. Anytime your dog is around birds, he is calmer and you need less pressure to gain his attention.  Here is where the majority of teaching takes place and where your dog learns to be obedient to your commands. Take the stand command. Teaching this command is basic obedience work, which most dogs find boring, but if your dog is worked around birds, he is in a good state of mind to learn and he stays relatively calm. And because he’s not on birds, you can get your hands on him, set him back, spin him or stroke him and you’re not coming between him and the bird.

If you make a mistake or notice your dog is less excited about being out there, you can work him on birds and quickly build back his excitement. Just last week, I was working a young dog and teaching him the e-collar cue for the stand command. About the third time I nicked him with the e-collar, he became concerned. As soon as I saw this change, I took him right to a bird and let him point it, and he became excited again.

Sometimes you have a dog on the end of a check-cord that is dragging you around and too excited to focus on training. You can lower his excitement level by working on obedience around birds, not on birds. It may take a couple of weeks of simply asking him to go with you and come to you on the check-cord, but until you gain his focus, he isn’t ready to work on birds. If you begin bird work before your dog is focused on training, you will have to use more pressure to teach him and this extra pressure often shows up as problems later on.

Bill West had two well-known students, pro trainers Bill Gibbons and Maurice Lindley, that developed their own unique methods for working dogs on birds and around birds. Bill Gibbons worked dogs in a procession where each dog, guided with a check-cord by a handler, followed behind another dog. The dog in front was brought in to point a bird while the other dogs were stopped and allowed to watch from behind. These dogs were around birds and this is where the basic obedience commands were taught. Maurice Lindley brought Bill to South Carolina to teach a seminar, and after watching Bill’s procession, he developed a launcher program to simulate Bill’s method of working around birds. (See Training with Mo: How Maurice Lindley Trains Pointing Dogs by Martha Greenlee).

As you gain a better understanding of the terms on birds and around birds, you’ll see how managing your dog’s energy level gives you a broader view of the steadying process. Whenever your dog seems too excited, you can work him on obedience around birds to regain his focus so you need less pressure to teach him, and if your dog seems bored or isn’t up for training, you can work him on birds to rekindle his excitement. During each workout, you are constantly making adjustments to the thermostat, turning it up or down, as you react to what your dog did or anticipate what he’s about to do. And as you learn to keep him happy and manage his energy level, you will discover that you are leaving far fewer fingerprints on your dog than ever before.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Reading the Tail

Understanding a dog’s body language separates good trainers from mediocre ones. A dog’s tail is one of the most expressive parts of his body and knowing how to read the tail is like looking through a window into his mind. Recently, I had an opportunity to observe a variety of tails when Maurice Lindley presented a pointing dog seminar at our kennel in Virginia. For three days, I watched Mo work a total of twenty dogs of different breeds, ages, sexes and levels of experience, and while their looks and actions were varied, their body language was the same. It was the universal language of pointing dogs.
On the first day, Mo evaluated the dogs by putting a pinch-collar and check-cord on them and walking them around the training field. Initially, some of the dogs tucked their tails as they walked indicating they were uncomfortable. As Mo began asking them to stop and stand still he stroked them a couple of times for praise before moving them on. After being stopped and stroked a couple of times, most of the tails began to come up. Mo explained, “When I first start walking a dog around on the check-cord and pinch-collar, I watch how he carries himself. A dog that isn't confident may tuck his tail until he figures out everything is OK. After I work with him a couple of times, the tail starts to come up at least to level with the back, which tells me the dog is becoming comfortable and ready to learn.”
Two of the dogs held their tails up in a more confident manner. As Mo began to walk them around the field and asked them to stop and stand still, both dogs stood still with all four feet planted on the ground except for their tails which were going around in little circles at ninety miles a minute. Mo explained, “Some dogs see everything that moves in the field. There is a lot of looking around and a fast circular tail action which tells me they are in a different world and not focused on me. These dogs take extra work to prepare for training. I’ll have to work hard to gain their attention and get them in a submissive state of mind so they accept me as their boss. A dog has to submit and buy into the training before I move him forward and this is before I get to bird work.”
On the second day, Mo planted quail and turned loose some of the older dogs, one at a time. Most of the dogs had tails that cracked with a happy animated action indicating they were thinking about birds and focused on hunting. One dog ran with a flat tail and acted like he was more interested in running than hunting or listening to his handler. Most of the dogs pointed with intensity but one dog was so jacked up and intense on point that his tail quivered with excitement. It came as no surprise that he charged in to flush the birds at the same time as the handler walked in. Another dog pointed staunchly but then his tail loosened up and began to flag in a slow back and forth action as the dog lost confidence that a bird was there. Once the handler asked him to move up, the dog went forward and pointed rock solid.
Reading your dog’s tail takes experience, but the more you pay attention to the tail, the better trainer you will become. As you go through the steadying process, your dog’s tail will tell you what is going on in his mind. You will start to see when your dog is ready to learn, when he’s happy, when he’s confused, when he’s not paying attention, and when he needs his confidence built up. And don’t just limit yourself to looking at your own dogs; go to a training day or a seminar or field trial and watch as many dogs as you can. I knew a National Champion that always ran with a high tail except when he was getting ready to knock birds. I used to chuckle when I was riding his brace and saw his tail drop because I knew exactly what he was about to do.


Saturday, June 1, 2013


Praise is one type of reward you use to train a dog. Food treats, tossing a ball and an excited voice are examples of other types of rewards. Trainers who compete in dogs sports such as obedience, agility and tracking use a variety of rewards to let the dog know he did what the trainer asked. However, training a pointing dog is different. These dogs are bred with a strong desire to find birds, so finding birds is already a powerful reward, and it gets them excited. The key to training a pointing dog is to give praise as a reward when your dog does what you asked. Unlike most rewards, praise can be given in ways that don’t increase your dog’s level of excitement. The calmer you can keep your dog around birds, the less pressure you will need to redirect his focus back to training.
Years ago, a field trialer told me a story that illustrates the complexities of rewarding your dog around birds. Mike was having trouble getting his dog around clean at field trials. After exhausting every piece of training advice he’d been given, he decided to reward his dog with a chunk of hotdog every time the dog stood steady on a bird. The training was going great and Mike was ready to enter him in a field trial again. On the first find, his dog stood rock solid. Mike walked in confidently, flushed the bird and fired, but as he started back to his dog, he noticed the dog’s entire rear-end was wagging in anticipation of the hotdog. The judge informed Mike his dog had started wagging as soon as Mike walked in front of him. Since wagging on point is frowned on in field trials, the judge ordered Mike to pick up his dog.
Bill West got it right when he gave praise as a reward around birds. In the Bill West method, anytime your dog does what you ask, you silently praise him with long gentle strokes of your hand. This type of stroking is different than patting. Pats get your dog excited while strokes help him calm down. To stroke your dog, gently slide your hand along the entire length of his body beginning at the withers. Using your hand in this manner not only makes your dog calmer but it also builds his confidence. When you go to praise your dog, be sure to approach him in a slow and easy way so you appear calm and confident and then stroke him a couple of times.
Timing of praise is critical and varies with each situation. In the early stages of formal training, you praise your dog immediately after he gives you what you want. You aren’t looking for perfection; rather you are looking for opportunities to encourage your dog and make the training clearer. For example, if you are teaching the stand command and you ask your dog to stop with a pinch-collar tug, the moment your dog stands still, lean down and stroke him a couple of times. If he chases a bird to the end of the check-cord and stops, stroke him as he is standing still. If you are teaching the e-collar and he stops when you cue him with momentary stimulation, stroke him after he stops to let him know he did what you asked.
As your dog becomes steady on birds and he’s pointing or backing, don’t interrupt his concentration. Wait until the situation is over and then stroke him a couple of times as he remains standing. As training advances and he is working birds further away from you, you may begin to notice that when you walk back to him, he has a new air of confidence about him. Not only is he calmer but he seems pleased with himself. When you see this change in your dog, you know he is accepting training and wants to work for you.

Anytime you teach your dog something new, be sure to give him praise when he has success. While it’s fine to get more animated and tell your dog, “Good boy” and pat him up when you call him to you, you might save these excited types of rewards for the end of the workout. During the workout, try not to increase his level of excitement. By rewarding him in a way that helps him calm down and also builds confidence, you will need less pressure to train him, training will go easier, and your dog will be a lot happier. 

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Using Physical Correction

There are two basic ways to correct your dog during formal training. One way is with stimulation from the e-collar and the other is using physical correction. Physical correction was the primary form of correction to teach the steadying process until the late 1980s when Tri-tronics came out with a variable intensity e-collar. Unlike the “hot” single button e-collars that were the norm, this new e-collar had low, medium, and high buttons and five intensity levels. For the first time, you could adjust the intensity level of the e-collar to fit the situation and use it around birds without causing blinking problems.
As trainers experimented with these new e-collars, articles began appearing in some of the sporting magazines on how to use them in formal training. I really liked the idea of using a variable intensity e-collar and decided to buy one. At first, it was almost too easy to teach a dog to stand birds and not chase. After I’d taught a couple of dogs to be steady with the e-collar, I realized something was missing in their training and that something was respect. My dogs didn’t respect me. By relying solely on the e-collar and foregoing any type of physical correction, my dogs had learned to respect the birds but not me.
If you think about it, physical correction is fundamental to how dogs learn. I was watching a momma dog with her pups recently and one of the pups began pulling on her ear. She gave a warning growl, and when he didn’t quit the behavior, she gave him an immediate bite that sent him howling and running away. She showed no concern or remorse and continued about her business as if nothing had happened. Eventually, the pup returned, but this time he was much more respectful. His approach was low and crouching, and he rolled onto his back and tried to lick her lips. The momma dog corrected the pup swiftly and without emotion to teach him that his behavior was unacceptable. At the same time, she earned his respect, and as a result, the pup would think twice before trying the same thing again.
I decided to incorporate some of the physical corrections used in the Bill West method along with the e-collar corrections I was already using. Over the next several years, I saw a big difference in my dogs. Instead of standing broke from e-collar pressure, my dogs were standing broke for me. They weren’t competing with me to flush the bird and seemed more obedient to my commands. In other words, respected me and wanted to work for me.     
 In the Bill West method, trainers use the pinch-collar and check-cord and their hands to correct a dog and earn his respect. Pro trainer Maurice Lindley explains, “A dog learns to respect me when I get my hands on him. I begin training with physical pressure and mold the dog with my hands as I teach him to stand still. Once the dog is comfortable with physical pressure, I’m ready to introduce physical correction.” Two examples of physical corrections Maurice uses are setting a dog back and spinning a dog (see Training with Mo: How Maurice Lindley Trains Pointing Dogs by Martha Greenlee). These corrections aren’t meant to hurt a dog and are done swiftly and without anger to let him know his behavior is unacceptable.
If you have been depending on the e-collar for most of your corrections, you might consider adding some physical corrections to your training program. Be sure to use one type of correction or the other, not both together, so as not to overwhelm your dog. As training progresses, be careful and try to match the severity of the correction to the situation. Just as e-collar corrections have different intensity levels, physical corrections have different intensity levels too. Some physical corrections are given gently and resemble nagging while others are given more forcefully in order to get your dog’s attention.
The timing of a physical correction is the same as an e-collar correction and must be delivered quickly before your dog’s brain has time to move on. If you have to wait to correct your dog, it is best to skip the correction so you don’t confuse him. If it’s hard for you to get physical with your dog, realize that you are communicating to him in a language he already understands. And any time you feel yourself becoming angry, remember to stop training. Getting physical with your dog isn’t about hurting him. It’s about getting down on his level and teaching him the same way his momma taught him.
You can gain a dog’s trust by being nice to him, but you won’t earn his respect. If you can find the right balance between physical corrections and e-collar corrections in the training field, your dog will learn to respect both you and the bird, and once you have his respect, you will have a dog that wants to work for you and is a brag dog to train.