Summer time for me is a subtle switch in gears. I take a few weeks away from thinking about school and put a great deal of focus on my dogs. This is the time of year to polish up a dog for hunting season, or in the case of two of our dogs, finish up some important training in preparation for hunting tests.
This blog is primarily for talking about teaching, and I promise to bring it around by the end of the post. This evening, I was training a young dog named Colt. He is well named, as at 80 pounds he is very horse-like. We were preparing for a section of his HZP hunting test that is referred to as the search-behind-the-duck. In this section of the test, the dog and handler stand on a shore line. Prior to their arrival, a duck, who is unable to fly but can readily swim, was released about 25 meters into the marsh. The dog’s job is to enter the water, swim around until if finds scent of the duck, track the duck hopefully to the point that the duck is recovered. When you think about it, this is a pretty complex task. How do you train a dog to do this?
There are 3 main methods that I have seen to teach this. One method is very scripted. It starts out on land. A white 5 gallon bucket is placed a distance away. The trainer sets the dog on a stay, walks out to the bucket, and drops a retrieving bumper. He then returns and commands the dog to retrieve the bumper. This is done over and over again, eventually the dog doesn’t have to see the handler drop the bumper, he simply knows that the bucket means there is a bumper nearby and can be sent to retrieve “blindly.” This idea is transferred over to water, the whole sequence is repeated. Eventually, the bucket is even removed, and the dog is supposed to cross the water and search.
Another method is more streamlined. Here, a duck is released without the dog’s knowledge. Then, the trainer crosses the water with the dog in a kayak or canoe. Eventually, the dog works out in front of the kayak and finds the scent. Hopefully, the dog follows the scent on its own, and learns that the key is to cross the water without the help of the trainer’s canoe or kayak.
Our method of training is a little different. If anything, it is a little like the first method. What we do is rely upon the dog’s innate desire. Our dogs have been bred for over a century to want to go out, search for, find, and retrieve game. I don’t have to train them to go to a bucket. All I really need to do is find a way to light the fire inside them. What typically works is to work with 2 people. The handler/trainer is next to the dog at the shoreline. The helper appears on the other side of a small marsh. This person usually stands out, and the dog easily sees this person. An alive, but flightless duck is thrown from that opposite shore. The dog gets to see the splash, see the duck flap its wings a few times, and is more than ready to go across. From here, the dog isn’t really sent to go search, instead he is simply released. The dog typically crosses the shore, and since it has actually seen the released duck, rarely gives up until the duck is found. Dogs in this situation make all kinds of mistakes. They have to teach themselves to focus. They over run the track sometimes, they focus on too small of an area sometimes. Because they know that duck is out there somewhere, the persevere.
This idea is repeated, with the helper taking a smaller and smaller role. Before long, the dog can actually be hard to control when you approach any water. They simply think there is always something to find if they go searching long enough. As a trainer, I do two things. First, I don’t try to hold back the excitement, if anything, I try to encourage it. When we approach the water, I whisper, “Do you want to get the duck.” They get amped! Also, I have to be sure to not let them down. There has to be game out there to find every time they are sent. I certainly can make it challenging, but success has to be within their reach.
When I look back at these three methods, I think of dogs that I know that have been trained in each of them. I will say that our dogs love searching for ducks. They usually do really well, and I attribute at least some of it to our approach. One of our good friends does the “bucket method.” Their dogs tend to struggle. They look at the duck search as work. They are commanded, or sometimes almost forced, across the water. In the end, their scores are similar, but there is something lost. Their dogs are more robotic, and less fluid.
As I came home today, it was hard to not think about how this relates to kids. Our kids come in with a ton of curiosity. They want to learn. They want to figure things out. I think of the times when I have held kids back until just the right moment, and released them to go do a task. They make all kinds of mistakes, but they learn so much. I think of other times, when I teach step-by-step….the bucket method. Both approaches have their time and place, but I try to think of how I can build on their desire first.