See Spot Fetch. Part IV............Or Not.

Games Furrkids Play

OK, you've patiently taught Spot how to succeed at the retrieving game. Spot has been retrieving flawlessly at home so it's time to show off for all of your friends. You throw the dumbbell and ask Spot to fetch. Instead of zooming out and snatching the dumbbell to the oohs and aahs of your adoring audience, Spot wanders out to the dumbbell and looks back with a pained expression that says "Not tonight .... I have a headache!" What do you do?

Most dogs, no matter how carefully you have trained this behavior, will at some point refuse to retrieve. Some dogs will also decide to add their own personalize signature or flair to the exercise. These are normal components of the training process. Spot will try to see how far he can push the limits, and it's your job to establish very clear boundaries. This is a time to be grateful that you have chosen to train an English Setter. In my experience, they don't tend to be quite as creative in the games they devise as some other breeds. On more than one occasion, my sheltie has given me the headache with his definition of the behavior that should be associated with the command "take it"! This month's column will discuss some of the more common retrieving games your furrkids might try to play and ways to persuade them that your game is much more rewarding.

Game #1. "Not Tonight .........I Have a Headache"

I have yet to see the dog that doesn't try this game at least once. You need to have a plan of action in mind for the training session during which this game occurs. The fact that I break the retrieve exercise into small increments allows me to introduce a correction which lets the dog know that he has made an error and then to positively reinforce him for altering his behavior. In developing your plan of action, you will need to decide what type of correction you will use; how you will administer the correction; and what you will do to help Spot learn how to avoid this consequence in the future. You must prepare yourself emotionally for the occurrence of this game. It's easy for us to become angry with Spot when he chooses to play by his own rules ( dare he....) Remember Spot isn't out to make you angry, he is just trying to find out how much latitude you will allow him to have. I will describe a correction that I have used effectively in this situation, but first, let me make a few comments about corrections:
Once I am sure that my dog understands how to retrieve, and he chooses not to do so, I apply a mildly unpleasant physical stimulus that the dog can shut off by grabbing the dumbbell. The stimulus that I use (unless the dog has a chronic ear problem) is an ear pinch. Since my method may be considerably different than that used by some other trainers, let me explain what I mean by an ear pinch before you decide that I'm inflicting cruel and unusual punishment on my dogs.

First, I want you to experience an ear pinch (I generally don't use a physical correction on my dogs that I haven't tried first!) Reach up and place your earlobe between your thumb and index finger (no earrings please.) Apply pressure. Unless you are superman (or woman), you have not succumbed to incapacitating pain. The physical sensation may be a bit unpleasant, but it is not inhumane. My goal is not to make the pinchee scream out in pain. Some trainers do use the ear pinch to inflict punishment in the form of a high degree of pain by squeezing an ear that has been folded over the ring of the collar or clip of the lead or by pinching the ear with the fingernails. I don't use these techniques.

How would I use this physical correction when the dog refuses to retrieve? I want to let the dog know that the mistake did not occur during the stay (if you did one), the out run for the dumbbell or the recall part of the retrieve exercise. It was the pickup that was flawed. I try to intercede before the dog can return without the dumbbell. I go out to the dog in a non-threatening manner, slip my left hand through the collar (a restraining aid only) and position some ear leather between my thumb and index finger. With my right hand, I pick up the dumbbell from the floor and position it in front of the dog's mouth. As I begin to apply pressure on the ear, I give my retrieve command. The pressure on the ear stops as the dumbbell enters the mouth. I want the dog to know that there are consequences for making an incorrect choice during the retrieve and that there is a way to make the consequence cease. The physical correction is never applied unless the dog can perform a behavior to immediately shut it off. Thus, if the dog is several feet from the dumbbell I do not start applying pressure to the ear as I drag the dog to the dumbbell because the dog has no way to turn off the correction. I also do not verbally berate the dog while doing the physical correction. As soon as the dumbbell enters the mouth, the physical correction stops and lots of positive verbal reinforcement is given (no food reward). When you use a physical correction in your training, you must follow it with positive reinforcement that is at least ten times more wonderful than the negativity of your correction. I would repeat the "take it" with a correction followed by a "take it" while holding the ear without applying any pressure. Drop the dumbbell on the floor and ask the dog to "take it". Have the ear in your hand but do not apply pressure unless the dog does not pick up the dumbbell. Take Spot back to the start and lower the criteria for the retrieve by shortening the retrieving distance. Give him lots of verbal encouragement while he is retrieving and a reward for bringing the dumbbell back successfully. The bottom line is that playing your game must be far more rewarding than Spot's game. If you use the physical correction without the accompanying positive reinforcement, Spot may retrieve to avoid the consequences, but you will likely see a significant decline in his attitude. I doubt that Spot will be cured of playing the "Not Tonight" game forever with one correction. He will probably try it in several different training sessions so you need to be consistent with your responses. If you are patient and consistent, he will decide that the "Not Tonight" game isn't as much fun as he thought it would be. A note of caution, if your happy retriever suddenly begins to refuse retrieving consistently, check the dog for a physical problem. Problems with the teeth or gums can make retrieving unpleasant while an ear infection may affect a dog's desire to drop his head to the floor.

Game #2. "Spin the Bottle"

OK, Spot has given up on Game #1. So now it's really time to show off for all of your friends. You throw the dumbbell, and ask Spot to fetch. This time he zooms out, but instead of snatching the dumbbell to the oohs and aahs of your adoring audience, he bats it with his paws sending it spinning across the floor. He then grabs the dumbbell, brings it back with the sweet look that says "aren't I cute?" What do you do?

This is a difficult behavior to curb because chasing the moving dumbbell is highly rewarding. A physical correction such as you used in Game #1 isn't appropriate since Spot did retrieve. His feet are the problem not his mouth. The bad news is that this behavior isn't going to be modified as easily as that described above. The good news is that this is not a behavior that I have seen exhibited by very many setters -- it is more commonly a game retrievers and herding breeds like to play. The most successful technique for modifying this behavior that I have found is to set the dumbbell on a square of wire (hardware cloth or chicken wire will do). The wire square needs to be of a size that allows the dog to pickup up the dumbbell without stepping on the screen while keeping the feet away from the dumbbell. Bend the screen slightly so that the middle where you will place the dumbbell will be slightly elevated from the floor surface. It may also help to have a helper who places the dumbbell on the screen after you throw it. The first time you use the screen, the dog will get a surprise when he pounces on the screen. He may even forget to retrieve -- you know how to correct for a non-retrieve. He will the usually approach the dumbbell more carefully the next time. The dog does suffer a physical consequence for the pouncing action (dogs usually don't like the feel of the wire on their pads) so you need to give lots of positive reinforcement for a correct pickup. You will probably also need to lower your retrieving criteria a bit until the dog becomes accustomed to taking the dumbbell from the screen. A word of caution, you must be as patient with this process as you were with your original retrieving training. A boisterous dog is not going to be deterred from this game by using the screen for a day or two. This will be a long term process which, for some dogs, may need to be repeated periodically over the dog's obedience career.

Game #3. "Mother May I?"

At some point your dog will probably decide to go into business for himself. You will throw the dumbbell, and Spot will charge out toward the dumbbell asking "Mother May I?" as he goes. Your first impulse will be to say NO, but a NO at this point tells Spot that it's wrong to retrieve, rather than it's wrong not wait for a command. Anticipation in training is actually a good sign. It means that the dog wants to do the exercise, but hasn't quite learned that he must have your permission to proceed. Let the error go this time and start over. Slip a lead through the back of Spot's collar and hold both ends in your hand. You will be able to use the lead to prevent the dog from going to the dumbbell before you want him to go. When you drop one end of the lead Spot will be free to go retrieve. Ask Spot to wait and throw the dumbbell. Instead of giving a retrieving command, ask Spot to do an about turn in place. Help him to accomplish this maneuver since he will probably want to go to the dumbbell as you start to speak. Give lots of verbal praise and a treat. Do another about turn with positive reinforcement so you are now facing the dumbbell. Send Spot to fetch -- help him if he seems to be a bit confused (no correction.) Once Spot learns that the next command after a dumbbell is thrown may not be "take it", you can start to say non command words before allowing the retrieve. Give verbal encouragement for holding the stay and follow with a retrieve command. The retrieve is always praised. Become unpredictable. Sometimes Spot gets to retrieve immediately after the dumbbell is thrown; sometimes he must do several of behaviors before getting to retrieve. Sometimes he earns a treat for performing one of the requested non retrieving behaviors other times for the retrieve. Sometimes he gets no treat.

Game #4. "I Wanted Chocolate"

You throw the dumbbell. On your command, Spot shoots toward the dumbbell like a speeding bullet, does an awesome pickup, and charges back (this time to the oohs and aahs of your adoring audience). As you beam with pleasure, Spot sits in front only to eject the dumbbell onto your foot with a look that says "but I wanted chocolate". What do you do?

This is a retrieving problem. "Take it" means put the dumbbell in your mouth and keep it there until you are told to release it. I use the same correction employed with Game #1. On your next retrieve, remind Spot to hold as he approaches you with the dumbbell. If you can time a verbal "yuk" to coincide with the spitting behavior, you can pinpoint the offending behavior to the dog. Give quality verbal praise for holding and less obtrusive praise for releasing the dumbbell. For a while continue to remind Spot to hold on the return. Vary how long Spot must sit before releasing the dumbbell.

Game #5 "But You Didn't Say Simon Says?"

This last game is very common. It often results from your efforts to extinguish one of the other games. You toss the dumbbell, and Spot sits like a statue. You confidently give your fetching command ......... Spot still sits like a statue, and his expression reads "I didn't hear a Simon Says!" What do you do?

Your dog may lose some of his confidence as you set boundaries so use encouragement here. Be especially cheerful while you get Spot moving toward the dumbbell. Encourage him even if he would lose a foot race with a sloth. You need to provide confidence as he works through this phase. Let him release the dumbbell without a formal front (you must, however, give a formal release command). Set up another retrieve. Have Spot standing at your side. Rev him up verbally while you gently restrain with the collar. Throw the dumbbell, send him on command and make a big deal over him as he goes to the dumbbell. This is the only occasion that I use play drive with retrieving. It's OK to use this as a tool once your dog has a solid understanding of the basics of retrieving. Game #5 is one that you will have to use your own ingenuity to extinguish as only you know what motivates your dog. One of the challenges of obedience is extinguishing an unwanted behavior while maintaining a positive, motivating learning environment for your furrkid. Good luck and happy retrieving.

Direct suggestions, comments, and questions about this page to Arlene Courtney,
Last Modified November 23, 1998