June 14, 2016
Most of the dogs I've hunted alongside have always had a good attitude in the blind. But that's not always the case when it's time to train. Their temperament can vary drastically throughout the off-season and this can have negative effects on progress and overall skill level.
Keeping a dog's attitude up and positive throughout obedience drills and advanced training is the key to keeping him truly engaged and ready to learn. To achieve this, it's necessary to understand when to take a time out and let the dog shake loose from the weight of repetitive dog training drills and the pressure to perform.
I look at it no different than how much happier most of us are on Friday afternoon as opposed to Monday morning. If you're locked into a typical work schedule, the onset of the weekend tends to be quite a bit more appealing than the start of the work week. Give your dog that Friday-at-4-p.m. feeling consistently, and you'll be surprised how well he takes to his work week.
Taking a Break
While dogs of all ages benefit from a little free time, it's particularly crucial in young dogs. This is so important that I start all of my dog training sessions with some fun time. This might be as simple as playing with your dog in the front yard, or it might involve a little exploratory walk to the backyard. The fun breaks always involve something simple but exciting, and they always begin with a command so that the dog knows what is going on. I use "OK" to signal that it is time for the pup to play.
For puppies seven to 12 weeks, entire training sessions might last only a minute or so, and then are followed immediately by the OK command and some fun. This is sometimes hard for amateur trainers to understand, because it feels counterproductive to train for such short durations, but that's all a puppy can really handle.
Eventually, as the dog matures and his attention span increases you can then increase the length of the drills, but don't push it. It's easy to get too far ahead of yourself with a developing dog especially after he shows that he is retaining lessons and learning new tasks. Always remember that training is a process comprised of countless baby steps and there are no shortcuts.
As your dog progresses, breaks take on an even greater importance because you'll naturally expect more from him. Over time you'll start to correct his behavior, which adds a level of stress. Some dogs can handle a lot of this, some can't. Either way, they all need to know that the work will result in play and that the stress will go away shortly.
To know how often to take breaks with older dogs, you'll need to gauge enthusiasm levels. This is important to productive training, and you'll be able to tell if you've pushed the dog too far by how he reacts to the release command. If you say it's time to play but the dog doesn't react with a positive change in attitude, this is an indicator that he is stressed out. It won't take long before you realize that your dog is looking at training like it's all work and no play, and then results will suffer.
You'll have a dog that starts to dread training and that negativity will almost surely spiral. This is one of the most frustrating things an amateur encounters, and leads down roads you don't want to travel as a handler. This is also the reason it's so common to hear about a dog being stubborn. In reality, the dogs are just stressed out and unhappy, partially because they likely anticipate that training will make their handler unhappy. They aren't really stubborn, they are just burned out.
At the other end of the spectrum is the dog that is allowed appropriately-timed breaks. That dog will work hard for you because it will essentially learn to control its own destiny by earning a reward for a good performance. I look at it this way: If you worked so hard on a project for your job that your boss gave you an extra day off for the effort, you'd probably be pretty motivated to tackle the next project just as hard.
While taking a time-out to play is a great idea, it also comes with extra responsibility on your part. You'll want to be careful about not letting bad habits develop during breaks. A break can't just be about the removal of rules to let the dog do whatever he feels like.
A fun break might include retrieving a favorite dummy or ball, which is fine. Just don't put your dog into a situation where he might be disciplined for not performing, because that will negate the purpose of the break in the first place. This is one of the reasons I advocate for avoiding anything that might require discipline during playtime.
It's also why I suggest removing the dog from a training area during the break. Oftentimes we work drills in the front yard or a nearby soccer field. This means that the location becomes a place of work to the dogs. When their fun break starts, it might be as simple as taking them for a quick walk down the street, or even into the backyard, as long as wherever you take them isn't the same environment where you train them.
Another thing to pay attention to is it's OK to take longer breaks. I like to do this at the end of a training session and it might involve a longer walk, or letting the dog run a bit, but either way it gives the dog a good chance to relax.
I hear stories all of the time from people having trouble training their dogs. Oftentimes they'll mention a session that got out of hand so they kenneled their dog to let him think about what he did wrong. That's what you and I likely did when our dads disciplined us. But these are dogs. They don't sit a crate pondering how to do better tomorrow. All a dog understands is you put him away unhappy. This is a direct result of pushing the dog too hard without letting him take a breather and have some fun.
Now, I don't mean you shouldn't discipline or correct your dog during training sessions. Instead, create an environment where the correction addresses the infraction and then move on. This is essentially a safety-net system that allows you to train a dog correctly, foster an encouragement-based set of drills, and eventually end up with a duck dog that works better at home and in the field.
All because you let him have a little fun in between the serious stuff.