If you have a young retriever and you’re looking for a great summertime training exercise, I’ve got one that’s super-simple but is also productive and educational for both you and your dog.
The drill I’m going to describe is pretty basic as a “de-cheating” method, but it actually accomplishes much more than that. What is de-cheating? Most retriever trainers use that term when they’re talking about training to ensure that their dog runs or swims a straight line on the way out to a bird and takes that same line on the return.
Your dog should run and/or swim a straight line in the direction you send it rather than make its own decision on how to get to a bird. If you’re training a dog for a hunt test or field trial, you’ll want to demonstrate that your dog does what you direct it to do because you’re in control. A dog that runs around cover rather than through it, or runs the bank as far as it can before jumping into the water, isn’t really doing what you directed it to do.
If you’re a hunter, you might say “so what,” as long as my dog gets the bird, that’s all that counts. That’s fine if that’s your decision, but I would think that if you want your dog to be the best it can be that you’d want to work on drills that help you more effectively communicate with and direct your dog to take your commands, not rely on luck.
My de-cheating drill accomplishes multiple things. First, it gets you comfortable with using your SportDOG Brand e-collar. I meet a lot of retriever guys in my training seminars who are afraid to push the transmitter button for fear of ruining their dog. This drill will help get you past that.
Second, this is a fun drill to do in the summertime. Water training is a safe way to exercise your dog when it’s hot without the risk of overheating it.
Lastly, this forces your dog to really pay attention to your commands as it learns to respect you and the e-collar.
One very important note: Before you begin this drill, your dog must have already been introduced to the e-collar. That means 1.) Your dog must understand that obeying a command is the way to turn off the correction, and 2.) You have determined the minimum amount of e-collar pressure needed to get your dog to respond. We offer many articles and videos here on the SportDOG Brand web site to help you learn proper techniques for introducing your dog to an e-collar.
It’s best to run this exercise on a square pond, or at least one that has well-defined corners. I use a pond that’s about 50 yards square. Here’s how the drill works …
Start at one corner with your dog sitting at heel. Toss a bumper out toward the middle of the pond. This isn’t meant to be a challenge; it’s just an initial warmup swim. (I’m assuming here that your dog has already been introduced to water and genuinely likes retrieving in it. If not, you aren’t ready for this drill.) Now, with your dog sitting at heel again, do another toss, but this time throw the bumper 20 to 25 yards parallel with the shore so it lands 5 feet or so from the bank.
Now, when you send your dog, it’s very likely that it will run around the edge of the pond and down the bank to get to the bumper. No big deal. It’s natural for a dog to want to take the least amount of water necessary to make the retrieve, and at this point you’re not going to do anything to correct it. But what happens next is super-important in the de-cheating process.
It’s pretty predictable that after your dog jumps in for what is now a very short retrieve, it will exit onto the bank so it can run down the shoreline to get back to you. As soon as its feet hit the shoreline, you’re going to start bumping it with the e-collar at the lowest level you know your dog can feel. To play it safe, let’s assume that’s a Level One. As the dog is running back toward you, you’re going to keep hitting the transmitter button: bump, bump, bump … until the dog has gotten all the way back to you. That experience should have been uncomfortable for the dog, but not so much that it interferes with the retrieve.
Next, repeat the original throw out toward the middle of the pond. Your dog will have no choice but to swim out to the bumper and swim back. There’s no opportunity to cheat because the shortest path out and back is in the water. No pressure this time on the way back. All fun.
Now, repeat your original shoreline throw. Once again, your dog will probably run down the bank like last time. (That’s not a concern at this point. The last thing you want to do is start applying pressure on the way out and make your dog hesitant to retrieve.) And once again, as soon as it cheats by exiting the water to run the shoreline back to you, start that repeated low-level bump-bump-bump. After repeating this two or three times, you’re going to notice that your dog is starting to think. It’s a change in the ears or the way it carries its tail that is signaling a thought that, if dogs expressed themselves like people, would be something like: “This isn’t as much fun when I run down the shoreline, and I don’t get any collar pressure when I’m in the water. Maybe I should return in the water.”
What makes a drill like this possible is the ability to use any SportDOG collar at ultra-low correction levels. Low-level correction lets you communicate pressure to your dog without distracting it from completing a task. Keep this in mind: Uncomfortable, good. Upset, bad.
If it seems like your dog isn’t responding to the correction level, you might need to go up one. That’s OK, because all dogs are different, and they respond to varying levels of e-collar stimulus. But, as with any use of the e-collar during any training, you should be trying to use the lowest level that gets a response.
Now, let’s fast-forward to when you know your dog “gets it.” Because you’re using a four-cornered pond, you can get eight different shoreline retrieves from it. Move from corner to corner, using each of the shorelines from each corner. If things are breaking down, mix in those tosses toward the center of the ponds as a reminder that there’s no pressure in the water.
The reason I really like introducing retriever trainers to this drill is that it accomplishes so many things at the same time. It gets you used to using the e-collar properly, it helps you understand what level your dog responds best to, and it forms the basis for building a retriever that runs and swims straight lines. And there’s no better time to work on this than during the heat of summer, so go ahead and get started!