Archive for February, 2015

By now, I’ve met quite a few Irish Water Spaniels who do field work. Most of them are very good retrievers with great noses, who love to find and flush birds and are willing to go long distances or jump into cold water to grab up that duck or upland bird. These are all excellent qualities. But…

Most of the ones I’ve met also have at least some challenge with staying steady — waiting for the handler to give the command before going out to get the bird. Cooper has always had this problem. He’s so eager to go NOW! as soon as he sees the bird fly, that persuading him not to do so has been largely ineffective. With actual hunting, this hasn’t been a problem, but with both retriever and spaniel hunt tests, his not being steady has stopped us from competing at higher than the Senior level.

So when I started training Carlin (Cooper’s nephew) to retrieve birds, I was not shocked when I saw that Carlin wants to go NOW! without waiting for my command to go.

At first, Richard, the trainer I work with, was not terribly concerned. He was more interested in making sure that Carlin would be eager to go out, happy to pick up and hold the bird, and willing to bring it back to me. He said we’d work on steady later.

Well, later came today.

Carlin seems to have gotten over his distaste for chukars, and will zoom out to find and pick up one he’s seen fall from the sky. He’ll also (occasionally) bring it back to me (yes — we need to work on that, too). But, today’s problem is that he zooms out too soon, getting up from his sit and taking off before I even have a chance to tell him to go.

We’ve tried standing on the long line attached to his collar (he just pulls it out from under my feet). We’ve tried my holding onto a short leash (he pulls it out of my hand). We’ve tried replacing the flat collar with a pinch collar (ditto). We’ve tried having someone behind me hold onto the leash (also ditto). So, sadly, Richard and I began the conversation about whether or not to start using an electronic collar.

Now, I’m not totally opposed to an e-collar. Both Cooper and Tooey were trained using an e-collar. But that’s not my first choice. I’d rather not use one at all, or if I have to use one, to use it to enforce behavior only after Carlin completely understands what I’m asking him to do.

In this case, I don’t think Carlin started out the day completely understanding, but by the end of the day, he began to get a glimpse.

After trying the various leash techniques today, I noticed that Carlin does not leave my side when the bird goes up or when it hits the ground. What jolts him out of his sit, and simultaneously out of his mind (and therefore, out of any ability listen to logic or persuasion), is the gunshot. He goes nuts with the thrill of the hunt when he hears the gunshot. It’s like the start of a foot race. The gunshot rings out, and he’s off! I even began to suspect that he’s not even aware of what he’s doing — it’s just some kind of inherited reflex — if you hear the gun, you must go NOW!

As Richard and I were discussing e-collars, Richard suddenly had an idea. He knew that Carlin and I had practiced some sit-stays in obedience class, where Carlin is sitting and I’m standing, facing him, from some distance away. Russ started this in puppy kindergarten when Carlin was a baby puppy.

So Richard had me put Carlin in a sit facing where the bird would go down about 30 yards away. Then I did what Richard told me to do: I told Carlin to “Wait” and then I stepped out about 3 yards toward the area where the bird would fall, then turned, faced Carlin, and took one step to my left. This meant that Carlin could easily see where the bird would go down, but he could also see me looking at him.

Carlin swiveled his eyes between me and Richard as Richard carried the bird out to the area we’d decided on.

I said, “Carlin’s going to break.”

And Richard replied, “No, he’s not.” Then he said, “I’m going to throw the bird. When you hear the gun go off, wait two beats, and then tell Carlin to go.”

So Carlin sat, and I stood facing him, waiting for the gun to go off. I wouldn’t be able to see the bird fall, but Carlin would. Carlin kept his eyes mostly on Richard, with brief glances at me. In just a few moments, the gun went off. Carlin’s front feet jumped about an inch off the ground, but his butt stayed planted. I counted out two beats and then said, “Take it!” Carlin took off, grabbed the bird, and brought it back toward me.

It was a miracle. Completely unexpected, at least by me. Totally amazing.

So we did the same thing again, and it worked again. And this time, Carlin brought the chukar directly to me and sat.

What a good boy! What a great idea. What a great place to stop for the day.

As I understand it, the plan will be for him to get reliably steady when I’m standing out in front of him like that, and gradually, I’ll move around back to his side. God, I hope it works. I would dearly love to have a reliably steady dog, and for him to be happy while we’re getting there.



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Digging into the archives, I had an image of Cooper that was produced as a lesson for my digital illustration students that I thought I would re-post* today, President’s Day, 2015.

It was the combination of a studio portrait* I made of our top dog way back in 2011 and some digital manipulation.

Cooper, enjoying the view from Mt. Rushmore on President's Day

Cooper, enjoying the view from Mt. Rushmore on President’s Day

I compiled a video clip of the studio shoot and the computer work which is typical of my day job, but this is with a subject that I really like.

*Originally posted here: Cooper: Carved in Stone and Portrait Session with Cooper

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Yesterday I had my second lesson with the pro hunting dog trainer. In the evaluation session and his first lesson, Carlin showed  a lot of jumping-crazy-man enthusiasm for going out to the bird, especially when there was any kind of gun shot involved. But he couldn’t be trusted to bring the bird even half way back, and sometimes, once he’d gotten out to the bird, especially if it was not completely dead, he didn’t want to pick it up.

So, it’s time for him to be trained to pick up a bird, hold it, and keep it in his mouth until asked to drop it, no matter what.

There are so many methods of training a retrieve, and every teacher has his or her own way of teaching it. Basically, it seems like there are two extremes. On one extreme, there’s the force fetch using an electronic collar, ear pinch, or toe pinch. Look up “force fetch” on the web, and you’ll see what I mean. Both Cooper and Tooey were trained by pros using this method. It worked great for Cooper, but not so well for Tooey. Cooper was so enthused by retrieving, that any method that got him more retrieves was OK with him.

On the other hand, Tooey hated being forced, and she eventually just shut down. What got her back into retrieving was Russ’s turning it into a fun game that he and she played together as a team. And that’s a pretty good example of the other extreme. There there are many variations on rewarding the dog with things the dog values, such as food or play, when the dog succeeds at small increments of retrieve behavior. Look up Shirley Chong or Sue Ailsby and their methods for a trained retrieve — they are good examples of shaping a retrieve.

I choose good teachers usually, so I’m confident that which ever way they want me to use will work as long as they take the specific dog’s personality into consideration. But it’s very confusing to me when I have more than one teacher for a thing because each one wants me to do it their way, and those ways usually aren’t the same. I don’t think mixing methods really works.  So I am just going to stick with this one way to train a retrieve until I become convinced that it’s not working.

So, this is way we’re starting: put a frozen bird in Carlin’s mouth, insist he hold it there for some short period of time, and then ask him to drop it into my hand. Gravy this week is if he can hold the bird while walking or sitting (which he did a couple of times — yay!) We are actively putting the bird into Carlin’s mouth (rather than waiting and rewarding him for taking it on his own), but he also gets a reward he values, which is praise and getting to work with his person.

Russ took some video of our practice today. Here are several clips strung together:

You can see at the end of the video that Carlin didn’t want to quit — an excellent sign. We’ll keep practicing this week, and see where it lands us for our lesson next weekend.


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Yesterday, I read something horrible and shocking. I belong to the SLOdogs yahoo group, and on their email list, a new member posted that her veterinarian had diagnosed her sweet 3-year old dog with SLO.

That’s sad, but not shocking. What was shocking was that the vet advised the member to put her dog down.

I don’t know what the vet’s reasons were, other than the SLO diagnosis, because the member didn’t say. I suppose it’s possible that the dog has other conditions that, in combination with SLO, would make life unbearable. But I didn’t get that from the question the new member essentially asked us: Is life with SLO was really so bad that it would be better to put the dog down? I could almost hear the tears in her voice as I read her post.

Many of us fellow members, including me, answered her with:

  • No, no, no! Don’t put the dog down. Life can be good for a dog with SLO.
  • Find a veterinary dermatologist to confirm the diagnosis and provide knowledgeable treatment.
  • Run as fast as you can away from the original vet, and find someone else.

Then it got worse. The member reported that her dog was scheduled for a biopsy to confirm the diagnosis. My heart broke. If the member agrees, the dog will have most of a toe removed so that the vet can diagnose a condition that a competent veterinary dermatologist can usually diagnose clinically, without needlessly causing the pain and deformity of removing a toe.

I so hope that person finds another vet, and quickly.

And that leads me to the gratitude. I have been so lucky to find that SLOdogs group, and have access to their considerable resources and recommendations.

But even more, I am so glad that our family has found competent veterinarians. The people at Fremont Veterinary Clinic (my regular vets) and at the Animal Allergy and Ear Clinic (my veterinary dermatologists) have been knowledgeable, kind, and effective. And all without needless surgery and death.

And as a result, Cooper has had a great life despite his SLO, full of retrieving, adventures, companionship, and teamwork.

I am so grateful. Thank you.

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