August 05, 2021
By Tom Dokken
I’ve been training dogs for nearly 50 years. This has allowed me to witness plenty of changes in how we do things, and what tools we have in order to do those things. While the dogs haven’t changed much in the last five decades, the training tools certainly have. This is no more evident than if you look at remote collars. When they first hit the scene, they were pretty crude. Designed mostly for use with hounds, the earliest e-collars offered one setting, which was an absolute burner. Because of this, you couldn’t use them with 99-percent of the bird dogs out there.
Eventually, manufacturers started to develop newer options and increase the functionality of e-collars. In fact, I’ll never forget the first time I saw a collar that could change its level of correction. It was a lightbulb moment that signaled that we could finally train softer dogs with them. While that advancement was a game changer, those collars were designed so that you had to use a certain plug in the receiver to produce a specific level of correction. This meant that if the dog took off and displayed some behavior that required a higher level of pressure, you had to catch him and swap out the plugs.
This, obviously, was not ideal. But it did set the wheels in motion for more improvements in e-collars, including the earliest versions that allowed for level adjustment on the transmitter. After that, I didn’t think things could get any better because we could then work with any breed, temperament, or training situation and simply adjust the collar to the needs of the moment.
Today’s remote collars are even better. They offer more range, the ability to handle multiple dogs at one time, and a host of other features that benefit handlers. This is a good thing, of course. But they also require an understanding of training as a whole, and more specifically, what situations call for a correction and which ones don’t.
Whether this involves reinforcing steadiness in the blind or establishing a rock-solid recall no matter where your retriever is working, an e-collar can function as your invisible leash. Just make sure to truly understand what your chosen model is capable of and apply that to what your dog has been taught. Or to put it another way, the latest and greatest remote collars offer an awful lot of options, but a simple rule still applies—corrections with them should only be issued at the lowest level that will produce results. And they should only happen when you know your dog understands what you’re asking but isn’t delivering.
Invisible fencing has been around for a long time, and it’s a great tool for keeping dogs safe. The advancement in this technology has gone from a simple underground barrier that corrects a dog when he crosses it, whether he’s going out of the yard or coming into it. Nowadays, they are built so that a dog only gets a correction when he is leaving the yard, not returning.
While this might not seem to have much to do with training a duck dog, I learned a long time ago to ask my clients if they have an invisible fence at home. This is because, if they do, the dog has undoubtedly learned to back up when it gets a correction. This is a simple conditioned response from walking toward the invisible fence and then realizing it needs to back up to get rid of the pressure.
When it comes to working with these dogs and developing recall, this is a problem. You want your dog to head your way when you tell him, not instantly put it in reverse and recoil. This is fixable but requires some e-collar work to help the dog understand that they can move forward into a correction. We do this by using a very light level on an e-collar and a check cord. The goal is to get the dog to understand it’s okay to move forward when it feels the pressure, and since you’re using a check cord, it doesn’t have a choice. It’s really an easy thing to address and remedy.
Next Level Tech
Aside from e-collars and invisible fencing, there are plenty of other high-tech training tools that have changed how we work with our retrievers. Remote operated bird launchers are a great example for the upland crowd, with drone training something that can absolutely change the game for duck dogs. Before this option, dummies, dead birds, and live birds all originated from us or the ground. This is not the best way to get a waterfowl retriever to understand where he should be focused. With drones, we can change that and replicate real-world duck hunting situations.
An obvious benefit here, besides the noise associated with drones that draws a dog’s focus skyward, is that you can fly a drone in from any direction and drop a dummy from the air. Any approach that might happen with live ducks (which is pretty much any approach) can be mimicked with drone flight and offer a dog as close to on-the-job training as he can get. It truly is a next level option for rounding out a retriever’s skills.
Technology is a part of our everyday lives in so many ways. There are arguments that can be made for or against that, but when it comes to training dogs, I place a lot of our new gear in the ‘win’ column. This gear not only contributes to the development of our duck dogs, but their safety as well. It just might take a little familiarization with the latest tech to really understand how to use it correctly. After that, the sky is the limit.