Oak Hill Kennel

Soft Dogs

by John and Amy Dahl

First published in The Retriever Journal, December/January 1997-98

There is not universal agreement as to the meaning of the term "soft" in describing a retriever. Many enthusiasts confuse lack of desire or recalcitrance in training with softness while others label shyness, spookiness, and other deficiencies of attitude as softness. We apply the term softness more simply to the inability or unwillingness of a retriever to respond well to heavy force.

When dealing with such a dog, the use of pressure (pain) must be restricted to the level at which a desirable response is achieved, without overwhelming the dog. Although there seems to be a tendency among some to drop a soft dog like the proverbial hot potato, we find the soft dog, on the average, no more difficult to train to top performance than the "hard" dog -- the dog which is not very susceptible to pain. Often the soft dog can be taught lessons through light pressure more easily than the hard dog through heavy pressure. Parenthetically, we would deceive ourselves, and fail to deal with the project of training a dog properly, if we did not admit that all correction has an element of pain, physical or emotional, in it. The key is to understand the use of pressure and to apply it to a degree and with a frequency that will get the job done without making the dog go sour.

Soft dogs are not all soft in the same areas or to the same degree. Some soft dogs lack drive, range, birdiness, or initiative. These failings are not necessarily related to softness and are about equally common in average and hard dogs. Slowness, dislike of the water, and avoidance of difficult cover may all occur in the temperamentally soft dog, but again are not necessarily a result of the softness. Dogs that are extremely susceptible to discomfort in cold water, may, however, be described as having a form of softness that prevents their becoming good cold water dogs, even with extensive training.

When we think of soft dogs we more often think of those we know or have trained who were soft in the sense that it took very little physical force to make them comply. Often these dogs were extremely talented, had great drive and speed, were birdy and intelligent and had endearing personalities. Several made excellent field trial performers.

Photo of typical soft Golden Retriever bitch wearing electric collar
Modern electric collars can make
training less traumatic for soft
dogs such as this golden bitch
One of these was FC/AFC Jaffer's Blackie. Blackie was a large dog with great drive, intelligence, and charisma. He was soft. A lesson could be taught to him quickly with little pressure, and he would retain it. Shortly after Blackie came in for training, at 2 1/2 years of age, John was running the dog on some lining problems when Blackie stopped midway to the dummies and plastered his nose to the ground. He was glued to bitch scent from a female who had run the test previously.

John ran out, grabbed Blackie by the collar, and gave the dog two or three medium whacks on the rump with a training stick while holding him partially off the ground. John then told Blackie to sit, ran back to the line and cast him back to the dummies. Blackie responded beautifully and we can't remember his ever putting his nose down while being run on a test again. He was an example of a dog having all the right characteristics of a competitive retriever while soft enough to learn the lessons quickly and with little pressure.

FC Oak Hill Exponent (Pudge) was another example of a soft dog with great drive, speed, and cold water ability. Pudge was so soft that she could and would avoid a simple swat on the rump with a riding crop, even when on a check cord. This form of softness, moving quickly to avoid physical correction, made her difficult in some ways, but she was so susceptible to what pressure we were able to apply that her learning rate was almost unbelievable. When she was three years old, even though she was an excellent marker, she couldn't do tests having two bird throwers close together. Faced with this situtation, Pudge couldn't decide which one to go to and would pop (stop and look back) out of confusion. This behavior was making it difficult to teach her the more challenging marking tests. Pudge had had two force-on-back programs with a stick and a long 100-yd cord before this and was well forced to go.

John's solution to the popping on marks was to put the electric collar on her -- with no preliminary conditioning we are ashamed to say, as we would not do this today -- and send Pudge on her marks. When she popped he would give the back cast with transmitter in hand, nick her lightly with the collar, and holler "Back!" This worked so well that after two or three sessions of this kind Pudge stopped popping, drove back to her birds, and made her FC within the year.

On the other extreme, the really hard dogs we have trained require much more frequent and heavy application of pressure to get the job done. Such were Dual Ch/AFC Warpath Macho, who was extremely difficult to get to stop on a whistle, and FC Penney's Nifty Bouncer, who had convinced himself and almost us that he would never wait until he was sent to take off after a bird. Both of these dogs, although excellent performers, needed frequent and convincing use of physical force to keep them under wraps. They, too, were happy, hard workers, but being tough they were higher maintenance dogs in training.

What degree of softness, and in combination with what other traits, might we want in an hypothetical "ideal" retriever? The late Mike Paterno, who trained and handled the famed NAFC/FC Dee's Dandy Dude, once said "The easiest dog to train is a soft fast dog. The hardest dog to train is a fast hard dog." There is a good deal of truth in this statement. The fast soft dog may have plenty of speed, style, and momentum to make a top retriever while being responsive enough to be brought under control easily. Conversely, the hard fast dog -- already tough to get under control -- covers so much ground so rapidly that a single cast or whistle refusal often puts him beyond recovery. In trials this gives an overall appearance of discipline failure, and in training makes teaching hazard concepts difficult as he can get out of the area of the hazard so quickly.

A soft dog, especially a smart soft dog, can be particularly well-suited to a beginning trainer. A novice training his or her first dog is usually willing to adapt the methods to the dog, and to invest the time and tennis-shoe soles needed to teach each concept with minimal pressure. Such a team are Lane and Huck, who have recently begun training with us a couple of times a week. Huck (the dog) is very intelligent, soft, and responsive. Until his move to our area, Lane had no guidance on how to train him. He noticed that the books contradict one another and treated them with (appropriate) skepticism. Using his intuition and his knowledge of what he wanted the dog to know -- and his voice -- Lane had taught Huck to mark multiple falls and to handle extremely well. Our input has been to explain field trials and the types of tests Huck needs to learn to compete. Right now it looks as though Huck will be competitive in the Derby.

Lane's commands are unconventional, but who cares? Huck is a wonderful example of what a soft dog can achieve for a dedicated trainer who pays attention to the dog's response and employs a light touch. By the same token, a soft or sensitive dog will fare less well with a trainer who is predisposed to train all individuals exactly the same and with plenty of force. And conversely, a hard dog might require more force than many novices are willing to apply.

Bitches as a general rule tend to be somewhat softer than males, and this may explain the high level of performance they often achieve in the hunting field and in trials. Being more easily trained by less physical pressure, they learn quickly and retain lessons well.

This is by no means universally applicable, of course. When we think of such bitches as Nodak Bonnie Girl; Want To (Missy), one of the best bitches we have ever worked with; or Scarlett of Lakestone, also extremely talented, we are also reminded that great hardness is by no means exclusive to males.

Breed differences in softness may perhaps be best addressed by considering the Chesapeake Bay Retriever. While they are considered the toughest of the retriever breeds by many writers, the Chesapeake in fact has a distinct inclination to softness. We have seen many individuals of this breed who were so soft that the slightest tap with a training stick would make them flinch and cower. Some of these dogs can be well trained if they have great talent and drive, but care must be taken to avoid traumatizing them with high levels of physical force; the Chesapeake rarely can learn through these methods and is easily ruined. Labs and Goldens can be found in all combinations of softness and hardness, as well as with variations in speed, drive and other traits, but the same principles of training apply.

Chesapeake emerging from a pond carrying a training dummy
Chesapeake Bay Retrievers are often soft
In training the soft dog it is of utmost importance to show the dog what is expected of her or him. Often the trainer must find a creative solution to make a concept clear to that particular dog. Once the dog understands through these demonstrations what you require, very little force is needed to get results.

For example, many dogs need to be convinced to return from an opposite shore by water after getting their bird. One common method is to first teach the "here" (come) command and collar condition the dog, then on the retrieve "here" "here" and they will plunge in and come back. Alternatively, the "here" command can be taught and thoroughly reinforced in the yard using distractions and correction (typically a jerk on a long check cord), until the dog is so reliable he or she can be called back across the water.

We currently have some Chesapeake puppies who need to learn this lesson. They are too small to wear the electric collar and as they are soft-natured and beginning to teethe (a condition which exacerbates softness in many dogs), the second method is much too harsh, so we are applying the soft-dog method. We demonstrate the principle by making it impossible to do anything but come straight back. We use a large trolling reel, 40 lb test monofilament and a trolling rod handle (end of the line attached to the puppy, of course). Put it in free spool and thumb the spool going out to avoid a backlash and when the dog reaches the far shore and the bird simply reel him back slowly but with steady pressure. If this is done correctly the dog will never panic and will take kindly to being guided directly back to his ever-so-forbearing trainer. Usually very few repetitions are necessary for the lesson to be learned.

This method is not for use in "cheating" situations but simply for getting a soft, unschooled dog to return and not mill around on the far shore. Every aspect of training should be made crystal clear to the soft dog before employing such methods as electric collar reinforcement, slingshot, etc.

Another creative solution was needed for FC Glenspey's Evergreen Cricket, whom John got in training at 11 months of age. A talented bitch, Cricket was also very soft and had been treated roughly by others before she came here. She would try to escape any physical correction and was good at it. She had become so shy of big men during her puppyhood that any hulking stranger of six feet in height could put her to flight. In one Qualifying stake judged by a particularly large and heavy man, Cricket practically bolted when he raised his judge's book over her head to call for the birds in the first series.

This fear of large men had to be solved. Cricket loved treats, and we capitalized on this by distributing treats to all of the large men we knew at a field trial -- there are usually several. John would approach these men -- to Cricket, monsters -- with her on lead and casually encourage her up to them. The men, having been briefed, would call her up in a gentle way and feed her treats. It worked. Cricket lost her fear of big men and became competitive in field trials.

The modern electric collar has become an excellent tool for reinforcement of taught commands among soft dogs in particular. By comparison, the emotion and drama of shouting and running out to the dog to make a correction, as needed in conventional training, can be too threatening for many soft dogs. Furthermore, the superior timing of corrections with the collar generally allows lessons to be learned with fewer corrections. The lower levels of shock are no problem for the soft dog but they act as a reminder that someone out there is maintaining control. Often corrections can be accomplished with no shock at all merely by holding aloft the transmitter, recognizable to the dog from a considerable distance.

On the other hand, the really hard dogs sometimes require such an escalation of shock intensity that even they are often confused and scared by the sensation of hard shock. It is of course absolutely necessary to know your dog and what he can take, and learn from, before applying any physical pressure in a training situation.

Soft dogs often prove to be excellent performers as well as rapid learners. So we should perhaps not decry the soft dog as an inadequate wimp, but rather see softness as a trait to be taken advantage of through which we can train a dog more quickly, efficiently and thoroughly. The soft dog may be showing us, "Hey! you don't have to hurt me much, I get the idea, and I'd like to cooperate." Let's hope many of them are that way and that we, as trainers, can recognize it and make the most of it when they come to us with that wonderful nature.

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