As we entered the training field I noticed Candy was pulling a little too hard on the checkcord. I asked her to stop and stand still for a moment hoping she would lose some of her excitement and start to focus on me. Once she appeared to calm down, I tapped her on the side to release her and we moved forward. She resumed pulling so I turned, gave a quick tug on the checkcord and said, “Here” as I walked in a new direction. We did a few of these turns and tugs until she calmed down and started paying attention.
A dog has to pay attention to you in order to learn. Just as children learn best when they are sitting at their desks and not roughhousing in the playground, dogs learn more when they are calm and able to focus on you and the training. Research shows that dogs use two distinct parts of their brains – a rational or thinking part, and a more primitive or instinctive part (the amygdala). In Candy’s case, she was using the primitive part - fired up and not listening, so I moved her into the rational part by giving her a couple of commands that made her pay attention and lowered her “thermostat”.
There were two launchers in different areas of the training field. Each one was loaded with a homing pigeon. We were in the early stages of Formal Training and I was teaching Candy to be Steady to Wing and Shot. I needed her reasonably calm before taking her to a launcher so she could focus on the training, as well as remember what she had learned in previous workouts. She was still pulling hard but after a few more repetitions of stop and stand still and “Here”, she was ready to take to a launcher.
Carefully I maneuvered Candy crosswind to the first launcher. She hit scent about 20 feet away and froze into a beautiful point. I remained behind her, got a good grip on the checkcord and launched the bird. When the bird flew, she launched herself towards the bird and came to a stop as she reached the end of the checkcord. I got to her quickly and gently stroked her as she watched the pigeon fly off. To say the pigeon excited her was an understatement. Clearly the predator in her had been aroused. Her pupils were dilated, her mouth was salivating, and her whole body was quivering. To put it another way – the thermostat had been raised. In an instant she had moved from the rational part of her brain to the primitive part.
Before Candy was ready to work on the second launcher, I wanted to lower the thermostat. I needed her to come back to paying attention and thinking, not just reacting. As a long time follower of Bill West and the West method, I’ve learned the concept of on birds and around birds. On birds means a dog has sight or scent of the bird. Around birds means the dog knows birds are around but does not see or smell them. Around birds is the time to lower the thermostat by moving the dog from the primitive part to the rational part so the dog can calm down and think. As I had done earlier with Candy when I first entered the training field, I worked her on stop and stand, asked her to go with me and corrected her accordingly. By getting her to think about what I was asking her to do, I got her refocused on me and paying attention again. As soon as Candy’s thermostat was lower, she was ready to work on the second launcher.
Reading a dog’s thermostat is key to being a successful trainer. While Candy’s thermostat needed to be lowered in this session, there are situations when a dog needs the thermostat raised. A while back I made a poorly timed ecollar correction with a dog. During the next workout I noticed that he was not excited as we walked around the training field. In fact, he remained at my side. One of the best ways to raise a dog’s thermostat is to shoot a bird. Shooting a bird brings out the predator in dogs and moves them into the primitive part of their brain. So for three workouts I took this dog straight to a bird, shooting and bringing the shot bird back for him to carry. It was not long before he was pulling hard on the checkcord again and I was back to trying to lower the thermostat.
Raising and lowering the thermostat does not just take place in the training field. You should carry this concept with you anytime you interact with a dog. A friend was teaching his four months old pup to handle and we were running the pup in some big hay fields. “Hey, hey”, he yelled asking the pup to go with him. The pup was settling down, staying forward and doing a good job of paying attention. My friend was clearly proud of the progress. He asked me when he could start putting out quail for his pup to find. I reminded him about the thermostat and told him that it was not a good time to work on birds when he was teaching his pup to handle. I explained that birds will raise the thermostat and his pup will stop listening. It is not fair to the pup to expect him to handle when around birds.
Some dogs get excited from running. This excitement builds as they run and before long the thermostat is raised and the rational part is replaced by the primitive part. Any time that your dog stops listening and you find yourself yelling or using higher levels of ecollar stimulation, first try to lower the thermostat before correcting him. Remember that the most effective way to get him to listen again is to ask him to pay attention to you. Whether you are on foot or horseback, get your dog’s attention by changing direction and asking him to go with you. Help him settle down and start thinking again. But for a dog that does not venture far and is often checking in, you can build confidence by following him and working him on birds. Before long, birds will get him fired up, he’ll start running, and the primitive part of the brain will kick in.
As you become more proficient at raising and lowering the thermostat, you will automatically be gauging your dog’s level of excitement. “I need to calm her down” you tell yourself. Or maybe you’ll notice she does not seem very excited today so you work at getting her more fired up. Over time you’ll discover that training has become a whole lot easier. You are using less pressure to correct her and she is retaining what you’ve taught her. She even acts proud of herself and you find yourself feeling proud too and, without realizing it, you’ve become a better trainer. Who knew it could be so easy!