Anyone that trains a dog makes mistakes. Some mistakes are bigger than others, and sometimes you do harm that cannot be undone. Living with your mistakes is part of becoming a good dog trainer.
Bill West began a seminar in Arizona by telling the audience that he’d made more mistakes than everyone there, combined. It was Bill’s way of saying that making mistakes is part of dog training; the more dogs you train, the more mistakes you’ll make. Unfortunately, the fear of making mistakes may hold some amateur trainers back. Some are afraid to use too much e-collar, while others let their dogs get away with bad behaviors because they are afraid to fix them. Both situations can create more problems. To quote Maurice Lindley, “If you aren’t making a few mistakes, you aren’t training hard enough.”
I was working a young dog last summer that had a ton of prey drive and too much desire to chase. After a couple of months, I got really tired of it and turned up the e-collar to see if I could get him to slow down as he was chasing. As soon as I tapped him with the e-collar, I knew I’d overdone it. To say I felt lousy was an understatement. The next day, I was thinking about how surprised I was by his reaction, and for the first time, I realized he was soft when it came to the e-collar. I backed up and shot some birds for him, dropped down a couple of intensity levels on the e-collar, and tried to use the check-cord as often as I could for corrections. It took about a month, and he got through it. I sure felt bad, but I’d learned an important lesson: A dog can be tough around game and at the same time be very soft with the e-collar. I will try not to make the same mistake again.
Anytime you feel you are in over your head, it’s important to ask a pro trainer for help. At a recent seminar of Maurice’s, a training buddy of mine asked Maurice about a problem her dog was having. Instead of pointing, this dog had gotten bad about diving in and trying to catch the bird. Her training birds were not flying well, and the dog had succeeded in catching some of them, and, as a result, had started to regress. Maurice worked the dog on a couple of birds and said he knew what to do to fix the problem; however, he told my friend she had to realize there was a good chance the dog might start blinking (avoiding game). He asked if she wanted to risk it, and she said yes.
Maurice worked the dog on a bird, and when the dog made a dive for it, Maurice waited until the bird was in the air and the dog was chasing it. Then, he came down hard on her with the e-collar. The dog yelped and came around. Not knowing how the dog had handled the correction, Maurice worked her on a second bird. He wanted to see if she would blink it or point it. Fortunately, the workout ended on a happy note with the dog pointing, and when he worked her the next day, she had two beautiful broke finds. Afterwards, Maurice cautioned my friend, saying: “Don’t attempt to fix a problem, especially with the e-collar, if you aren’t equipped to deal with the additional problem you might create.”
Dog training is guesswork. The more experience you have, the better your guesses will be. The hard reality is, you will make a lot of mistakes as you gain experience. Make your best guess and watch the dog; the dog will tell you if you guessed right. And, if you guessed wrong, step back and try to understand what happened.
If you think you’re in over your head, ask a pro trainer for help, as my friend did. Although my friend’s outcome was a happy one, it’s important to understand that this is not always the case. Her dog might have started blinking, and then my friend would have felt terrible. To her credit, she had given the dog a good foundation; even if Maurice had guessed wrong, there was still a good chance the dog would have been fine because the foundation was solid.
Accept that you are going to make mistakes. Take these mistakes as opportunities to learn and move on. As hard as it may be sometimes, living with your mistakes is an important part of becoming a good dog trainer.