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Electronic Training for the Schutzhund Dog, Part III

By Jim & Phyllis Dobbs, and Alice Woodyard


In the last two articles, we covered selection of equipment and fitting the collar to the dog, and we listed some basics to guide the trainer whenever using electronic collars. We then completed the teaching of the "three action introduction" with the electronic collar.

The goal of this method of introduction-which we recommend for every working dog if the electronic collar will be used in its training-is to introduce the dog to a strategy: obedience to a known command "turns off" mild electrical stimulation.

The "three action introduction" keeps the dog in behavioral balance by teaching it to perform three distinctly different motions on command in order to "turn off" the collar. These motions are come to the handler ("Here"), go away from the handler ("Kennel"), and remain stationary ("Sit"). We have found that even dogs that have no problem obeying these three commands should start their collar work by learning how to turn off mild stimulation by performing each of these three commands.

Dogs introduced to the collar this way are confident and enthusiastic when in training with the collar because they understand that they are in control of whether the collar is on or off. They can "turn it off" simply by obeying a known command.

Each element of training with the electronic collar builds off earlier elements. You should not skip steps. If you didn't have a chance to read Parts II and I review them before proceeding into Part III.

The Retrieve

Once the dog has been introduced to the collar by learning the "three action introduction," we are ready to start using it in the dog's advanced work. We start with the command to retrieve because this is so important for the Obedience phase, and is critically important for training the Send Out and the Blind Search. Your time spent on laying a good foundation to produce an effective retrieve will pay dividends all down the line for the Schutzhund dog.

The Trained Retrieve

Remember what we have said many times in this series: The dog must already know what a command means before you begin teaching it to understand the collar reinforcement of that command. This advice is as true for the retrieve as any other. There are many methods of teaching the retrieve command. We strongly prefer our method, because it flows smoothly into using the collar to reinforce the command, so we will start this article by describing this method from the beginning.

We do rely on negative reinforcement to teach the retrieve command because we have found that this is the only way to produce a reliable retrieving dog. However, we do not use those "force fetch" methods that rely on producing fear and panic in the dog to make it retrieve. We call our method the "trained retrieve" rather than the "force retrieve" because we base it on training the dog to "turn off" mild discomfort by retrieving, rather than making the dog over react to a sudden sharp pain by opening its mouth. By using negative reinforcement in the way we describe, we can train the dog to retrieve reliably but still maintain its spirit.

The Training Table

To teach the retrieve we use a table with a collar attached to a pole on the end. A flank strap and Velcro hobbles are used to keep the dog from pawing and moving around.

We always start the trained retrieve on a retrieve table, rather than on the ground.

Why is this so important? It's important because an attitude of compliance in the dog is important in teaching the retrieve. A retrieve table gives you passive control of the dog. When a dog is up on a table, it feels a little "out of its element" and more compliant. Retrieve lessons will go much more calmly and rapidly. The dog on the ground has far too many options open to it other than compliance and you can get into some unnecessary and unproductive battles.

Designing A Training Table For The Retrieve

A retrieve table provides a surface for the dog to walk back and forth on which is raised off the ground. It should be of a height that is comfortable for you, so you can reach the dog's body without bending over.

It must have an upright post at the end that you can firmly tie the dog to during the early stages of training. By "firmly," we mean the dog's neck is in a snugly fitting flat collar that is fastened to the post. The collar must be tight enough that the dog cannot pull its head out.

A snugly fitting collar is very important. To introduce the retrieve, you need to be able to concentrate on what the dog is doing with its mouth; you cannot be struggling to control its body. Also, the dog needs to be concentrating on the task at hand instead of putting its energy into fighting your efforts or trying to run away.

The retrieve table should also have a cable running the length of it. This allows you to walk the dog along the table with both your hands free to work with the dog.

Exact dimensions are not important, but as an example, we make a retrieve table by cutting a 4'x8' sheet of plywood lengthwise and butting the resulting strips end to end. This produces a long table 2'x16,' which is a good dimension for retrieve work. The table surface is about three feet off the ground, with an overhead cable that is attached to posts at each end of the table. The cable is about 32 inches above the tabletop.

Introduce The Table

Velcro hobbles prevent the dog from pawing at your gloved hand. The dog needs to concentrate on the task at hand instead of putting its energy into fighting your efforts.

Put the dog up on the table and lead it up and down on leash. Let it get used to the surface and the elevated height. If it likes food treats, let it find one at each end of the table. This will get it walking up and down the table with pleasure.

Once the dog is relaxed about being on the table, fasten its neck snugly to the post at the end of the table. Fasten straps around its front feet as shown in the photo, in order to completely remove its option to struggle.

Teaching The Meaning Of "Hold"

Many retrieve problems can be traced to the dog's failure to understand how to "hold" properly. We teach the dog the command "Hold" before we expect it to retrieve on command. By teaching "Hold" first, we can calmly introduce the dog to the idea that the dog can prevent mild discomfort by holding something in its mouth. A dog that knows this is not stressed when you introduce the idea that it must not only hold on command but must also reach out and grasp something with its mouth to relieve itself of mild discomfort.

Begin by putting a sturdy leather glove on your hand. With the dog tied to the post, slip your hand into the dog's mouth, with two fingers right behind its canine teeth. As the dog proceeds to try to spit your fingers out, just keep them calmly in its mouth.

When the dog finally stops fussing and becomes momentarily motionless, immediately reward it by removing your hand from its mouth. This teaches it to associate the act of holding calmly with pleasure (getting rid of your fingers). Give your release command, "Out", as you remove your hand.

You'll notice we didn't tell you to command "Hold"" or "Bring" or say any other word before you slipped your hand into the dog's mouth. This is important any time you are using negative reinforcement to teach a new behavior to the dog.

Since the dog does not yet know how to hold on command, if you say the word and follow it with something the dog finds to be unpleasant (your hand in its mouth) you will simply condition the dog to experience anxiety whenever it hears the "Hold" command. It is true that an anxious dog might freeze up and not chew for this reason, but this is not the same as teaching a dog to hold. This is training by fear rather than by understanding. Training by fear will set back your training program because frightened animals learn more slowly than confident ones. Fear training will eventually produce a dog with a bad attitude about being trained.

You will also notice that we are placing the gloved hand into the dog's mouth at this stage. We are not requiring the dog to reach out, or even to voluntarily open its mouth. This comes later. Right now we are just teaching the dog to hold calmly and not drop, and to associate pleasure with these two actions.

To get the fingers into the dog's mouth, always come in from the side just behind the canines. Do not try to brush your fingers along the front of the dog's teeth to get it to open its mouth. This just produces resistance in many dogs at this stage.

One final "don't." Do not make your repetitions too close together. The teaching method we describe here is based on comparison, and the dog cannot identify what it did that "worked" if you start another repetition immediately after removing the fingers. Give the dog some "breathing time" after each repetition.

When the dog will hold your hand calmly begin saying "Hold" in a calm voice as you slip your hand into its mouth.

After several repetitions of this initial stage, you should see the dog stop chewing. This reflects the dog's understanding that having a calm mouth leads to pleasure. When you see this, begin saying "Hold" in a calm voice as you slip your hand in to the dog's mouth each time.

Now that the dog knows that holding calmly leads to the reward of getting something out of its mouth, it is ready to advance to the second stage. In the second stage, you begin by extending the length of time from when the dog first stops chewing until you remove your hand from its mouth. If the dog begins chewing again as you extend the time, grasp the skin on the back of its neck and squeeze firmly. This has a calming effect on the dog and encourages it to continue to hold calmly.

If at any time, the dog is unwilling to release your hand, just wiggle your fingers as you give the release command and the dog will let go.

When a dog releases an object on your command, you want to see the dog pull its mouth away from your hand, rather than you pulling your hand away from the mouth. This reflects the dog's understanding that it should willingly release objects on command.

When the dog will consistently hold your hand without any chewing for a period of about thirty seconds, it is ready for the next stage.

Now instead of using your hand inside a glove as the object for the dog to hold, use a 15-inch length of wooden dowel. Hold one end of it and slide the other end into the side of the dog's mouth right behind the canines. Again, start each repetition by placing it in the dog's mouth.

Say "Hold" as you insert the dowel.

Take hold of the dog's ear and apply mild pressure as soon as he drops the dowel.

Gently take hold of the dog's ear between your thumbnail and forefinger. As soon as the dog drops the dowel, immediately apply mildly uncomfortable pressure n the ear by rubbing your thumb and forefinger together. Calmly reach down, pick up the dowel, and slide it back in the dog's mouth (now you see why you need two hands free-let the table and post hold the dog for you!) The moment the dowel goes back in the mouth, release the ear pressure.

Again, you notice that we are not telling you to try to keep the dog's mouth closed with your free hand. Let the dog take responsibility for holding the dowel, and let it make the comparison. Holding the dowel is comfortable, spitting it out leads to immediate discomfort.

Make sure your timing with the ear pressure is precise. Pressure first, then reach for the object. That's the sequence. Don't be in a hurry to get the dowel back in the dog's mouth. Remember that the dog is learning something the whole time it is out of its mouth. Make sure, also, that you do not for any reason release the ear pressure until the dowel is back in the mouth. You might want to have two dowels handy, since the one the dog dropped may have bounced too far to conveniently reach.

How much pressure do you use? That depends on the dog, remembering that your goal is to give the dog a comparison between comfortable and uncomfortable, not to get the dog to open its mouth by making it yelp. For most dogs, you should see by the dog's facial expression that it is physically uncomfortable, but the dog should not be vocalizing (whimpering or yelping). Some dogs do vocalize at any little discomfort, however. Do make sure that if your dog does vocalize at the pressure, you press less hard the next time, rather than back off some on the pressure at the moment the dog vocalizes. Many people back off unconsciously, and doing this just rewards the dog for vocalizing, and the dog therefore learns to do more and more of it.

When the dog has held the dowel calmly for several seconds, give your release command and take it from the dog. With each repetition, extend the time you leave the dowel in the mouth by a few more seconds, until the dog can hold it quietly for about half a minute.

Now begin tapping the dowel gently to see if the dog will tighten its mouth a little to try to resist letting the dowel fall out. This is your signal that the dog understands that it is in its interest to keep the dowel in its mouth until your release command.

When you and the dog have become comfortable working with the dowel, you can begin using the dog's regular retrieving dumbbell. As with the dowel, place the object in the dog's mouth. Don't expect the dog to open its mouth on its own at this stage. When you place the dumbbell in the dog's mouth, lift its upper lips clear of the canines and gently open its mouth.

Teach the dog to understand that your hands reaching toward its face for the dumbbell is not the cue to drop it. It must wait for your release command. Sometimes move your hands around the area of the dog's muzzle but don't take the dumbbell. Correct the dog with ear pressure if it drops the dumbbell because it thinks you are about to take it.

Repeat the steps you used with the dowel with your regular dumbbell. When the dog will tighten its grip on the dumbbell in resistance to your gently tapping it, the dog is ready to advance to the next stage.

Introduce different retrieve objects to strengthen the dog's understanding of "Hold."

The next stage is to introduce different, harder-to-hold, objects. You are doing this to deepen the dog's understanding that it really wants to hold onto whatever is put in its mouth when the command "Hold" is given. You might be a little inventive here. Try such things as an unbalanced object like a dumbbell with one end missing, a heavy object like a piece of three inch diameter log and an awkward object like a piece of a protection arm sleeve collar. You should also introduce your heavy Schutzhund III dumbbell to the dog at this time.

Tap on the object to encourage the dog to resist dropping these unusual objects. Any time something is dropped before you give the release command, use mild ear pressure until the object is back in the mouth.

When you see the dog trying to hang on, despite tapping and even if the object is a challenge to hold, take the dog out of the snug collar on the post and free it to move its head around. Do keep it loosely tied to the post and cable so it cannot jump off the table. Repeat the dog's lessons with this freedom of motion.

Now begin walking the dog up and down the table with the dog loosely fastened to the over head cable. An important part of "Hold" training is teaching the dog that it can walk and carry calmly at the same time. If you skip this step, the dog will have a problem when you expect it to retrieve and it must carry the dumbbell back to you without chewing.

Again, use the ear pressure any time the dog drops what it is carrying. If at any time the dog begins to chew what it is carrying, verbally remind it to "Hold".

Have the dog hold ands carry each of the more challenging objects up and down the table until t is comfortable and successful with each of them. Praise it quietly for carrying successfully, and for delivering willingly.

The Delivery

Now is the time to build on your dog's desire to come to the front of you and present you with the dumbbell. This is easy, simply don't take the dumbbell from it until it comes and sits in front of you. Since the dog knows it cannot drop the dumbbell until you allow it to, it will try to seek you out to get rid of the dumbbell. Help it find the position in front of you by guiding it along the table to you with body motion. Tell it to "Sit", encourage it to make eye contact with you, then reward it by taking the dumbbell. Praise it.

The Retrieve Command

At some point in the training on "Hold", you will see most dogs open their mouths voluntarily to accept the object back into their mouths, just to hurry you along and get rid of the ear pressure. When you see this, you can begin using your retrieve command, "Bring", instead of "Hold" each time you put the object in front of the dog's mouth.

The "Bring" command is different from the "Hold" command. "Hold" means hold calmly and don't chew. "Bring" means reach for the object to take it. From now on, do not feed the dumbbell into the dog's mouth. It must reach for it.

Now your dog is ready to begin learning to retrieve objects as well as hold and carry them. We like to introduce this idea to the dog with the toe hitch. A toe hitch (see the photo) is created by a cord fastened above the dog's carpal joint (we tie it around a Velcro strip as this makes it easy to put on and take off). The cord is then wrapped in a half hitch around the dog's two middle toes with you holding the free end. When you pull this end, the half hitch applies pressure to the dog's two middle toes.

The toe hitch works very well to introduce the "Bring" command (the "reach out and grab" response) because of a dog's tendency to bite towards a pressure point. With the toe hitch, you can pull the foot forward and put the dumbbell between the dog's foot and its mouth. The moment the mouth is on the dumbbell, the toe pressure stops. This is a less stressful way to teach a dog to reach out and grab-especially when compared to such methods as the tie back.

Pull the foot forward and put the dowel between the dog's foot and its mouth. The moment the dog grabs the dumbell, stop the toe pressure.

Fasten the dog loosely to the post at the end of the table. Apply the toe pressure by pulling the cord and stretching the dog's foot forward. Give your retrieve command and place the dumbbell between the dog's mouth and the foot. Relieve the pressure the moment the dog's mouth is on the dumbbell and praise it. Repeat this several times, giving the dog time to settle between each repetition.

Now take the dog to middle of table, fastened only overhead cable. Again apply toe pressure as is in motion and slide dumbbell between its mouth foot. Let carry each time up down table so it can feel successful after retrieve.

When the dog will grab the dumbbell quickly, begin putting the dumbbell on the surface of the table twelve to eighteen inches in front of its feet. Command it to retrieve and pull the cord. Then gradually extend the distance between the dog and the dumbbell, up to about six feet. Let the dog carry the dumbbell up and down the table after each pick up and praise it.

Introducing The Electronic Collar

You can see how, under the above program, the dog has learned to hold firmly and calmly, to hold and carry without anxiety, to retrieve off the table surface and to "turn off" two forms of discomfort, ear and toe, by retrieving. The dog is now thoroughly prepared to begin retrieving on command to "turn off" the collar.

With the dog on the retrieve table and again fastened loosely by the rope around the post, start by placing the electronic collar so that the contact points are on the top of the dog's neck. The dog should still be wearing its toe hitch arrangement.

Wrap the cord around the transmitter so that you can conveniently pull the cord and press the buttons with one hand, leaving the other hand free to present the dumbbell.

Using low level stimulation, push the button and pull the cord as you give your retrieve command and present the dumbell. Release the cord and the button the moment the dog grabs the dumbell.

Press the low button on the transmitter, pull the cord, give your retrieve command and present the dumbbell all at the same time. Release the cord and the button the moment the dog grabs the dumbbell. Repeat this many times, even though the dog is grabbing the dumbbell eagerly. You must give the dog sufficient repetition for it to learn to associate grabbing the dumbbell with turning the collar off. Give it calm praise every time it gets the dumbbell.

As the next step, remove the dog from the rope around the post and fasten it to the overhead cable. Repeat the procedure, but place the dumbbell on the table. After the dog is quickly picking it up off the table, you can remove the half hitch from the dog's toes, but leave the cord still fastened to its leg, and pull the cord a few more times as you press the transmitter button and command the dog to retrieve. Having the cord on its leg helps the dog through the transition.

Once the dog will move forward and grab the dumbell with you holding it, place it on the table. The absence of your hand changes the picture and will confuse some dogs so you may have to touch the dumbell at first and move your hand further away with each repetition.

As the final step on the table, use just electrical stimulation without the toe cord as you command the dog to retrieve the dumbbell from the surface of the table. Release the button when the dog has the dumbbell in its mouth. Build the distance up until the dog will move confidently to retrieve a dumbbell that is about six feet away on the table. Give the dog plenty of repetition at this stage and praise whenever it succeeds in grabbing the dumbbell.

Transition To The Ground

Because the dog is thoroughly prepared and understands how to retrieve in order to turn off the collar, the transition to the ground under our program is one of the easiest steps for the dog and handler.

Take the dog off the table and put it on a 6-foot leash. Work right next to the table. Being in the same area helps the dog understand what is expected.

Place the dumbbell eight feet in front of the dog. Walk with the dog toward it as you press the low button and command it to retrieve. Release the button as it takes the dumbbell and praise.

Repeat this sequence many times. When the dog is confident and does not hesitate to go for the dumbbell, reduce your walk toward the dumbbell to a single step to get the dog moving, then eliminate the step so the dog is starting on its own.

Retrieve Only On Command

Next you must teach the dog that it may retrieve only when you command it to, not whenever it wants. Place a row of three dumbbells beside you training table, about twenty feet apart. With the dog on leash, heel it alongside the dumbbells. If it tries to go for one before you've commanded, restrain it with the leash command "No." "Heel." Periodically, when you are about ten feet in front of a dumbbell do command it to retrieve.

As the dog completes the retrieve, heel it in a circle to allow the dog time to carry the dumbbell and feel successful. When you have circled back around to the place where the dumbbell was, stop and take the dumbbell from the dog. Drop it from behind you as you heel away.

This exercise teaches the dog that it is not to retrieve everything in sight. Retrieving is a command behavior and you, the handler, are the one who decides when the dog will retrieve.

Also, because the dog is anxious to retrieve, this exercise builds controlled expectation in the dog and thus a fast response when you finally give the retrieve command.

Leaving Your Side On Command

Remove the leash at this next point. Start with short tosses of the dumbbell for each retrieve, gradually increasing the distance. Now you should release the transmitter button the moment the dog leaves your side, rather than holding it down until the dog picks it up. If the dog hesitates along the way, press the button again and repeat the retrieve command. In this case, do not release the button until the dog picks up the dumbbell. Praise the dog every time it picks up the dumbbell. Praise it again for the delivery to you.

Developing A Prompt Return

Now is a good time to teach the dog that it must come back from a retrieve very promptly. To do this, place several retrieving objects at the same location, and reinforce "Here" with the electronic collar when it slows down and tries to choose among them. The objects need not to be identical; in fact, this exercise is more meaningful to the dog if the objects are all different, because different objects will tempt the dog to try to check them all out. You might use your regular and heavy dumbbells and a retrieve toy of some kind.

Place the objects about twenty feet in front of the dog and spread them about eighteen inches apart. To help the dog understand that it is to retrieve, the first time you should throw one of the objects to the pile. For subsequent repetitions, just send the dog back to the pile with your command "Bring."

Be sure to have your finger ready on the transmitter button and immediately reinforce "Here" with the collar if the dog should hesitate at all in coming right back with an object. The first time you do this, the dog may drop the object in surprise. Don't worry, this won't become a habit. Just move the objects to a different location and repeat the procedure. The next time, the dog will be ready for the correction and won't drop the dumbbell.

Work In Several Locations

Now work the dog in at least five different locations away from the area of the training table. Add retrieves of greater and greater distances and gradually increase the level of distraction. Work with both the regular and the heavy dumbbells, and consistently enforce a prompt return with both dumbbells.

Over a week's time of working in various locations, phase out the use of the collar when you give the first command. Allow the dog to beat the stimulation, and use the collar only if the dog makes a mistake, being sure to repeat your command when you press the button.

Coming In The Next Article

Now that you have a reliable and spirited retrieving dog, we will show you how we use the collar in training the "Send Out", and we will introduce the jumping exercises.



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