I have a confession to make: I lose my cool sometimes. I went training with a couple of friends last week, got upset at Momo's shenanigans, and lifted him off the ground by the scruff of his neck, took him 15yds, put him down and heeled him back to the truck for a time-out. Wasn't pleased. Especially with myself.
I'm owning up to my mistakes in public because, like all the other sophomoric mistakes I've made, I hope others will recognize potential error in what they're doing and hopefully not have to go there. I do also believe that sometimes and some dogs do require a more physical intervention -- what I called 'leverage' in this article about my first month with Bill Gibbons -- whether it's spinning a dog during the breaking process like Bill, Dave Walker, and Maurice Lindley do, alpha-rolling a dog, or indeed pinching a puppy's jowl under its teeth when it tries to gnaw on you. Some of these physical interventions provide the dog with a literal sensation of what it feels like for them to keep doing what they're doing, some really are about asserting yourself as the top of a hierarchical social order, and the various forms of 'leverage' are much more about providing just enough of an external cue to prick the dog's consciousness, remind it of its working relationship with you, and ask it to merely repeat what you have shown it and which it has demonstrated numerous times (which in the West method is almost exclusively to stop-and-stand-still).
But this was not one of those times. I can make excuses about the dog, but the fact is that aside perhaps from taking a time-out, this wasn't the way to correct his behavior.
While I was out with Bill this summer, I would watch him intently while he was working dogs with the checkcord and pinchcollar -- short of actually wearing them myself, I was trying to see his 'touch' on the dog. As I wrote in the Strideaway article above, Bill uses a different pinch-collar a little differently than Dave Walker, in particular. Neither is necessarily better, although I understand clearly why Bill does it his particular way. As opposed to the combined pressure and acoustic cue that Dave Walker describes, Bill is pure pressure -- but it took almost two weeks before I could see him apply it. When a dog had stopped, but moved slightly to the side when the bird was flushed -- as Bill would say, it knew it couldn't go forward so the motion it wants to make comes out in a different direction -- he would reset the feet using the pinch-collar (and the tail if necessary) to reset the dog. He would chastise me when I did it, saying that we're not trying to dump a dog like it's a load of dirty laundry, that we need to show it respect. I've already admitted here that I used a heavy hand last week, but what I'm trying to convey now is that I was trying desperately hard to mimic what Bill was doing but somehow he was seeing me do something a little different. The best I could translate what he was physically doing was that he was pivoting the dog in a single fluid motion rather than lifting and turning (and potentially 'dumping') the dog.
Touch is learned through experience.
What I realised even as I was hoiking Momo off the ground was that I was frustrated, frustrated with the call from work that told me someone had managed to blow-up a deal I had been working on for several days, frustrated from what felt like a lack of help from the folks I was with, and frustrated at the high humidity making the johnny-house quail run rather than pop nicely. As for the lack of help, I realized that I also hadn't given enough information to my helpers for them to be useful. Now again, I've been that helper before, presumed to know something I've never been shown or had explained to me -- so you would think I would have figured that out! But the point of this post is to say that it is important to train to a plan each day you go out and make sure everyone who is supposed to be taking part knows what the plan is. Keep in mind that you may be working with people who are very well intentioned but have no idea what they don't know and shouldn't therefore be expected to ask for help.
Train to the plan and stick to the plan. One of the reasons Momo is less than immaculate is because he was trained by a complete novice using whatever method made sense at a given time. There was no long-term plan or vision: I had no idea what I was training towards. The same applied to some extent with Jozsi: I realized I had a really nice, powerful dog but had no idea what my long-term goals were and therefore how I would train to that larger, overall goal. I'd already made some mistakes with him and tried to apply what turned out to be poor advice before I came to the West method. If you have a long-term plan, you can then do two things: figure out the overall strategy for getting there, and break it down into more manageable chunks.
So, for example, I hope Jake will turn out to be a great broke dog capable of competing in a variety of different trial formats (ie. walking, HB, maybe cover dog, but certainly quail trials). If he never shows the ooomph to be a great trial dog, he will still be a stylish hunting dog and loved all the same. Style is critical for the FT game and a dog should be broken in a way that maintains that dog's style to the highest degree possible. In my opinion, the West method is that method. Now I've never owned a pointer but I do know his pedigree and what he might be capable of in terms of run; we also live in a city and while we have access to more space than most, a dog without a handle is likely to end up in serious trouble. I have therefore spent the majority of my initial time with him developing a handle on him, birdwork has come second, and breaking him to the gun has come third.
While I may well still run him through a Junior Hunter title, it will be to stoke the fire, encourage the run, and get him used to the brace format -- it will not be before I've started any significant steadying work with him. I debated whether to run him at the Cape, and even at the Westminster Kennel Club hunt test this past Sunday, but I have seen how long it takes to rehabilitate a gun-shy dog -- and so, running him without feeling like he has enough gun time on him really doesn't make sense. I have seen nothing to make me nervous about him, but I have no control over other handlers' gun manners and have been standing next to, judging, a very experienced hunt-tester inadvertently fire a gun close to another dog's head when it raced in from our blindspot having ditched its handler elsewhere in the birdfield. The long-term goal has to outweigh the short-term fun.
And this same logic has to apply to each training day: for example, if you want to work on your dog not breaking at the shot for the retrieve, how do you plan to stop it if it does break? Is it conditioned to stop with an e-collar command? Do we need a checkcord, even if the dog just drags it while it locates the bird? If the dog appears to be steady with a pop-gun, should we then test it with a 209 primer in a shotgun? Will we, and if so under what criteria, shoot an actual bird for the retrieve? And if I'd taken the same time to initially talk through what I wanted to achieve with Momo with my two helpers as I did with each of their dogs, if I'd taken that time to put the dumb work phone-call out of my head, maybe I'd not have gotten so pissy with the Mominator.
On the upside, the shock of my over-reaction created a need for a time-out for me and The Mominator. I have been working on a few things with Mr. Enthusiasm and, if it works out, I'll post more about it. But I knew I wanted to test him with small coveys of johnny-house birds to give him lots of scent to work through in a finite area and potentially get over-amped on. Again, Jozsi knows his cues and I can stop him with the e-collar so that part of the plan was all set, too. (I know I'm writing here about training to a plan: the thing to keep in mind here is that Jozsi has had at least two different plans and one set of bum advice worked on him. So I'm being a little coy about what I've been experimenting with because the problem isn't the West method, as an example, but that various other things were already ingrained in him before we got to it.)
And as much as I anticipated correcting him, he looked as good as he has in a long, long time. I mean, really really good, like exciting, dynamic, and honest good. The kind that makes a judge sit up. Again, there were still a couple of tail issues which we've been working through for well over 18mos -- but even when there was still some tail movement, the magnitude of those, too, was diminished and at the invitation to move up and relocate, everything went super solid. I was so very pleased with him.
The other major highlight of the morning was taking young Jackson out for his first introduction to birds. Jackson is from my dear friends, Jennifer + Dennis Hazel, bred from their truly wonderful bitch, Sally. I had no doubts recommending them to Jackson's owners, Jeremy + Katie, and was so pleased to hear that I was going to be able to keep tabs on one of their dogs. Jackson is all of 11wks old: he tracked and found this johnny-house bird all by himself -- to the point that we were still walking ahead when I realized he had stopped in his tracks behind us. He held long enough to get this and a couple of other pictures before ripping out the bird. But I'd say his future looks pretty rosy!