How To

Dog Training: Breaking Bad Behaviors

Jetta sitting

By Larry Saavedra

Dogs are creatures of habit. I know this to be true only because I’ve experienced it on many occasions, especially when I began handling dogs in the higher levels of AKC competition.

Sit Means Sit

Most dogs won’t break on a bumper, but there are plenty of dogs that will do it with a “live flier.” I’ve seen it many times at AKC Hunt Tests and I’ve had to fail my fair share of competitors because of it. Heck, it even happened to me…no one’s perfect.

For whatever reason, my dog Jetta had behavior issues that increased as the level of difficulty got harder. I just couldn’t get her from creeping or breaking off lead when I was waiting for the bird(s) to go down. She would rocket to retrieve a bird without being released.

I knew it was a training issue in the field, but I didn’t know how serious of an issue this was until I started asking some of the pros for help. What I learned is that dogs break because they can get away with it. In other words, the dog has either been allowed to leave the “sit” position prematurely once before, or he or she has never been taught to sit correctly as the bird is in the air. My situation continued for the longest time and I didn’t know enough about training to stop it.

I finally turned to Carol Kachelmeyer of Run-A-Muck Retrievers in California. Carol is an incredible trainer, and she is much appreciated, especially when it comes to correcting a behavior like breaking.

What Carol said to me is that I had to pull my retriever out of competition until she didn’t move a muscle, even if a duck flew right in front of her nose. My dog has a lot of drive and so not flinching would be next to impossible I thought. But I decided to give it a try.

Attrition Training

What I did was first figure out whether Jetta even knew what she was doing was wrong. She did. Jetta understood how to sit and stay until being released, but she was never denied a reward if she didn’t get it right. Instead, she was allowed to push the limits of the sit command, and that started a chain reaction of behavior issues.

After 12 agonizing months of not letting Jetta retrieve a bird unless she sat perfectly idle, I can honestly say the process wasn’t easy on her or me! But it was just the type of attrition training she needed. If she moved at all when the bird was in the air, I would simply ask the gun stations to pick up the bird and then walk away—to the disbelief of my Lab. One time I even out sprinted her to the bird, just to deny her the satisfaction of having it!

Jetta was head strong, and I had to make my point by taking her back to the basics and starting again with sit. I used limited pressure, mostly I let her know that I was “watching her every move.” I didn’t want to create a negative environment for her. It meant doing a lot of mock hunt setups and knowing when and how much pressure to exert, and why I was doing it. I never used pressure unless everything else failed. My dog was willfully avoiding the command to sit because I allowed her to develop a habit of moving on the line.

I would like to make it clear that you never use pressure first, no matter what you’ve been told. You’ve got to know when to apply pressure and ask yourself first if the dog knows and understands what you are trying to teach it. You can break the spirit of the dog if you apply pressure, where attrition training is really needed.

Some dogs are soft. Not Jetta. I had to constantly warn her verbally and then I couldn’t release her until I counted to five slowly, once the bird was down. After a while, she figured out that if she sat perfectly still, and I remained perfectly calm, for a few seconds longer, she would get the bird. That was exactly what I was trying to get her to understand.

Learning to sit patiently at the line also encourages a dog to take a good mental picture of the mark (bird or bumper) in the air. If they creep or break, often times they “flash” the mark, don’t even see where it lands, or it creates head swinging. Those are other issues altogether.

Breaking and creeping can also be an extremely dangerous scenario. Dogs get shot this way by running to the mark as the gunners are still firing. Don’t let it become a habit. You have to recognize it early and never let breaking, or even creeping become a problem.

Even though I’ve always done a lot of my own training and I suspect others also do this as well, there will be times where you can get in over your head and you’ll need the advice of a professional. I knew just enough to get into trouble, but I also realized that there are a lot of great pros out there that will be happy to work through a problem with you. Incidentally, my dog went on to win four AKC Master hunt tests in a row. Carol helped me turn around the behavior by taking away what Jetta wanted most…the duck.

Even if you don’t compete with your retriever, you absolutely want your dog to exhibit good obedience at all times in the field. If you’ve ever been in a duck blind, where your trusty retriever starts to creep forward, or leaves the blind before being released, then you’ve got to get back into obedience work immediately, and try to determine if you dog truly understands your commands.

Getting a dog to respond like a started gun dog that can fetch multiple marks and long distance blinds, and then deliver them to hand, must be accompanied by weekly obedience training. It’s not all about shooting waterfowl, and letting your best friend fetch them up.

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