Conflicts in Training
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Conflicts in Training

by John and Amy Dahl
First Published in The Retriever Journal, Sept/Oct 2001

In training a retriever, we have an advantage that the dog does not: we have a picture in our minds of the result toward which we are working, providing a context in which the commands and exercises we teach all make sense. The dog's point of view is quite different. He lacks the overall picture that adds meaning to everything we teach; all he knows is what we require him to do at each step. To our dog, there are conflicts between many of the commands or principles that we try to teach him. First we teach him to come along with us at heel; then we want him to stay in place as we walk away. We place a premium on grabbing and holding a dummy or bird, but also expect him to give it up immediately on command. We encourage him to drive hard on retrieves, then we expect him to sit unless and until given a release. Later we teach him to take direction on a retrieve with whistle, voice, and hand signals, but do not tolerate popping, or looking to us for directions without having heard a whistle blast.
By considering our dog's point of view, we can recognize and manage these inherent conflicts. We can try to keep confusion, and its erosion of confidence, to a minimum. We can avoid the pitfall of drilling on one concept to the extent that we cannot get our dog to do the opposite. By employing the right balance, we can actually make conflicting commands or concepts work for us. Proper management of conflicts can build our dog's attentiveness and keep him thinking, avoiding the "rut" of approaching certain situations in an inflexible manner. It can even speed and improve his understanding of some of the concepts we are trying to teach.
Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Tolerance for conflict, like the ability to learn from training pressure, is learned progressively through training. In early training, dogs are readily discouraged by seeming contradictions in what we ask of them. If we start with the "heel" command, the green dog usually grasps quickly that he is to accompany us as we walk forward. With little experience, however, he probably doesn't understand that the word, "heel," is the key defining whether he is to walk along with us or not. When we begin teaching him to remain in place as we move, whether we employ the "stay" command or use "sit" to cover the situation, he is likely to be confused.
Even when minimal correction is used to this point, dogs' body language bespeaks their uncertainty. Typically the dog just learning to "stay" sits with his head turned away, neck extended, looking as though he is trying to avoid the situation. As well he might, since he's in a "no-win" situation: in trying to meet your new requirement he's not heeling properly.

Taylor shows a pronounced stress reaction while first learning "stay," despite being worked without correction to this point. Licking the lips, as Ping does here, is another indication of anxiety.
Although eventually we want neat, straight sits, we do nothing to "correct" this expression of uncertainty, just continue practicing "heel" and "stay" to give the dog a chance to sort out the difference and gain confidence. Many dogs go from avoidance to simple inattention. As he sits and stays, knowing he'll have nothing else to do until after the trainer returns to him, the dog sniffs the breeze, watches birds fly overhead, and (in most cases) seems to feel little obligation to attend to the trainer. This changes quickly when we start to call him out of his "stay" with the "here" command.
Usually enough discomfort remains so that when we begin calling a dog from a "stay," he is eager to come to us. Here we begin to take advantage of a conflict; if we practiced and practiced the "stay" until the dog was totally confident, we would probably have a harder job getting him to come to us smartly.
Now the potential pitfall arises where we are in danger of losing one command if we over-emphasize the other. Remember "training" is new to this dog and he hasn't completely sorted out that our verbal commands define what he is to do. If we call him from a stay enough times, pretty soon he will not stay, but will get up and follow us as we try to walk away. Instead of learning two opposing commands, he thinks he has learned that we have changed the rules again and want him to stay with us.
Making Conflicts Work for Us

By balancing the two commands--returning to him without calling him some of the time and varying the amount of time we require him to stay when we do call him--we avoid "losing" the stay. But we accomplish more than that. In setting up a situation where he cannot anticipate what we will ask of him, we get the dog to pay attention. At the same time, since his attention is on the command that will determine what action he takes, he develops a clearer idea of the relationship between commands and their execution.

Conflict resolved. Ranger is confident and attentive, knowing what is expected of him on "stay" and "here."

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