Doing It All – Factors Affecting Learning

dog training, labrador retriever retrieving a dummy in winter


When not at shows or performance events, I train dogs for clients who call with all kinds of issues. In a recent call, a pet owner requested my services because her dog wouldn’t “listen” to her. I get that complaint often, which then launches a query to evaluate the dog’s environment, relationship, and methods used to illicit desired behavior. So often, the pet owner’s response reveals a long list of factors that actually diminish a dog’s likelihood of “obeying” its owner. These same factors may interfere with anyone’s attempts to prepare his/her show dog for performance events. Before we examine these factors, I agree that genetics, puppy rearing methods, and health also play a role, but these are not influences I will address here. Instead, I will examine some factors that one can alter to improve training. Let’s focus on environmental factors first.

By environmental factors, I am referring to external influences that may alter a dog’s ability to stay focused on a task. Those influences may be divided into physical distractions, hormonal stressors, and human connection. Physical distractions sound pretty simple, but they can get complicated and difficult to interpret. Obvious distractions are the squirrel chirping at a dog that is asked to sit. The problem is obvious, as is the solution: “Shoo” the stupid squirrel. But distractions are not always easy to avoid.

Such an example is a strange experience I had while Claire was tracking—and two killdeer decided to harass her. As they are known to do, they acted injured to draw her away from a probable nest that nobody could see. Of course, she was extremely interested in two “crippled” birds, which caused her to lose focus and chase the tempting flappers. Every time the birds left her alone, briefly, I encouraged her to get back to work, which she did only to have the killdeer strike again.

That process continued until I realized how this environmental factor was not going to go away. Thus, the only fair thing to do for Claire was to quit, which is sometimes the only option one has; no corrections, nothing else to do to fight mother nature but to accept the physical distraction and move on. Anything else just isn’t fair to the dog.

Killdeer broken wing display
Killdeer broken wing display

Another example that had a less obvious cause occurred during a field training session where a young dog approached the line to run a couple of single marks. She had done this numerous times over a six-month period with no problem. This day, she suddenly cowered, raised her hackles, and stuck tome like glue. When her bird was thrown, she refused to leave my side. There was no obvious reason, i.e., no visible dead carcass or nearby wildlife, so the reason for her apparent distress was something that we humans could not sense, though it was very real to Bridget. With positive encouragement, she did retrieve her duck. I did this to help her understand that whatever was bothering her was not a real threat. She did her second mark with more confidence, but she was still not her usual self.

Applying corrections for a situation like this is not only unlikely to teach her anything positive but is more likely to create an association between that sense (probably something she smelled) and negative corrections. Guess who will be worse next time? Since this was not her usual behavior, a better solution was to ignore her reaction and move from that physical area where the unknown distraction existed. As a side note, never “reassure” (petting, etc.) a frightened dog in such a situation, as the dog interprets your reassuring actions as a reinforcement conveying to the dog that his/her behavior is correct, thus unintentionally encouraging the same behavior in the future. Oops!!

Right now, I have two bitches in season and two more going out, which qualifies me to discuss hormones! In a nutshell, hormones do funny things to both genders’ brains. In the setting of hormones, trainers must be aware of the distractions that “stinky girls” create. Many dogs and bitches have trouble focusing and make more mistakes than usual. More mistakes means more corrections and less positive feedback—not a good learning situation. Rather than trying to work dogs in such a difficult setting, I take the dogs in-training away from homebase and the “stinky girls” to a neutral area where this distraction does not interfere with learning.

An exception to this training strategy exists when training advanced dogs that may come across bitch scent at events. Bitches emit hormonal scent up to three weeks before any discharge is noticed, which may result in owners innocently “fouling” a field or ring with a “proestrus girl” without realizing it. I have seen male behaviors at events suggestive of attractive scent, so training them in that environment offers a trainer an opportunity to correct performance, and “proof” the dogs before events. This idea is for trained dogs only, not for dogs learning new concepts, which just isn’t fair.

Another factor that influences a dog’s ability to learn is his relationship with his owner. How connected is the dog to people? This is a big one! Dogs form relationships with people beginning as a neonate. Puppies handled and “challenged” (Early Stimulation Program) are more people-oriented and stress-tolerant than puppies raised with minimal human contact. But even the most isolated puppy can improve its ability to relate to people if an active puppyhood includes people and activities before the age of six months.

Raising puppies in the family room with lots of toys and attention makes for well-socialized puppies.
Raising puppies in the family room with lots of toys and attention makes for well-socialized puppies.

Then there is the innate personality per puppy, ranging from some very submissive individuals to very dominant ones. No matter which type of temperament the puppy has, rearing either type of puppy can produce a performance prospect if the puppy learns to follow its owner/handler and realizes benefits from doing so; for example, a puppy raised in a dog-savvy home, that “works” for his dinner, learns the art of working with people at a very impressionable age, and learns that cooperation “pays.” When the puppy learns to respond correctly to the cue, “Sit,” he gets a treat. Building a relationship based on such a primal need at an early age sets the stage for more willingness and eagerness to work in the future.

I am not supporting intense work for a young puppy, but just enough to associate working with people as a very good thing. The puppy that lacks this type of exposure in puppyhood often becomes an independent and indifferent puppy focused on his own agenda. These little guys have no “job,” have free rein at home, and are fed using a free-choice method. Any puppy that can entertain and feed itself whenever and however he chooses does not need to rely on its owner for fun or food and, therefore, has no motivation to do anything other than what it wants. I see these behaviors in dogs that I get from well-meaning owners who have unknowingly created a dog that “won’t listen.”

Great eye contact from a puppy this age suggests good socialization and a good performance prospect.
Great eye contact from a puppy this age suggests good socialization and a good performance prospect.

Fast forward these puppies a year; time to start training for the show ring, the obedience ring, or field work. Puppies that are raised learning to work with owners will love to work with a “Mom” or “Dad” who rewards the puppy for his work—if they are using any form of positive feedback. Puppies raised independently seem to resent interference with their usual activities. These puppies must be “reprogrammed” before they are ready to begin training.

I reprogram dogs like this by taking away privileges; primarily freedom to do as he pleases when and where he pleases, including eating as he wishes. I put these dogs in crates where I feed them two meals a day when all the other dogs eat. After 30 minutes, I take their food away and save it for the next meal. I structure the dog’s day so that he has nap time, playtime outside with playmates, work time, and mealtime. He has no freedom other than playtime outdoors.

At work time, I get the dog out to practice obedience exercises using his kibble to reward his efforts. Many of these dogs refuse to take their kibble as treats, as they are not used to this type of feedback or work. I allow them to make these decisions by themselves. If the dog does not want treats, so be it; we work through a few exercises, keeping training time short, and then he gets put back in his crate.

At mealtimes, I often hand-feed this type of dog until he accepts my role in his life. This is a very interesting process to watch, as these dogs begin to realize that I am in control, not them, and things aren’t so bad if we work together. Usually in 2-3 days, the dog’s attitude begins to change. I push that change along a little faster (if a dog is slower than I expect) by switching from his kibble for training to a higher value treat such as commercial treats, cheese, liver, or hot dogs. Once I get the dog to decide to work with me, real training can begin.

Next month, we will continue this discussion about relationship issues and how they affect a dog’s ability to learn.

  • Sandy McMillan is a retired cardiac research and rehab nurse who survived terminal endometrial cancer to find her dream job; breeding, training, and exhibiting Labrador Retrievers under the kennel name Dutch Hollow. Since life-saving surgery in 2002, she has rescued and rehomed approximately 350 dogs, mostly Labradors. She has also raised thirty litters of Labradors that have been trained and shown in the all-breed and specialty rings, tracking fields, hunt test fields, and obedience rings. Her dogs have earned more than 100 titles and awards, including multiple specialty wins and placements, breed championships, tracking championships, rally and obedience titles, and tons of hunt test titles that have included Master Hunters and even a GCH MH/Specialty Winner. Sandy has been an AKC tracking judge, judging more than 50 TD and TDX events since 2004. She is also an AKC Breeder of Merit who has an interest in puppy enrichment programs and the careful selection of dogs for breeding based on health clearances, conformation, and performance. Sandy has been a member of Capitol Canine Training Club of Springfield since 1986, where she has been Canine Courier Editor, Director of Training, Chair and Secretary of the club’s tracking tests, and an obedience class instructor. She is a member of the Labrador Retriever Club, serving as the Chair of the club’s National twice. Sandy is currently a member of the LRC Rescue and Versatile Producer of Merit Committees. She is presently keeping busy with her current pack, and training dogs for pet owners and hunters. She sleeps well

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