By Julie Knutson, GunClub Labradors
Training the Pointing Labrador Book

“So what do you do when your dog breaks?” “Get him a new handler.”

I’m not sure how many times I’ve been asked that question; it seems to be a fairly prevalent issue. It goes hand in hand with:
• What do you do if they won’t sit;
• What do you do if they won’t come when called;
• What do you do if they ________

To effectively train a dog, you need to be at least one step ahead of them mentally. At least just one step. This is a canine brain now, incapable of doing mathematics, driving, etc. Even the smartest ones are still dogs with dog brains and they can’t do your taxes, raise children, buy groceries or change your tire – all things you can do fairly easily.

If you are teaching a classroom of humans how to drive, you aren’t going to throw up a bunch of driving rules on the board and then expect them to go out and drive successfully. Or drive at all. You have to teach them how the car works, what it’s relevant parts are, then go over some do’s and don’ts, like stay in your lane, don’t drive too fast or too slow, stop before you get to the intersection or the back of another vehicle, etc. Then, YOU DON’T allow them to go out and drive in the wrong lane or drive 100mph or run through an intersection filled with traffic. Of course not, right? But that’s just the same as doing something with your dog, allowing them to “drive too fast” or “not stop” and then ask what should you do to them when they do that?

If a dog is sitting beside you as you are running a mark or throwing something, when you allow them to get up and try to go after it before being sent, you are telling them it’s okay to get up and go. That’s how the dog sees it, whether you agree or think that or not. So when you let them go out, then get mad and call them back or do whatever you do, they are confused. If instead, you paid 100% attention to your dog and what it was thinking, you could see that it was thinking about taking off, and at that instant, enforce the sit so the ‘crime’ is never committed. In this way, you are showing the dog what the expectation is, instead of punishing it after you let it get up and commit the ‘crime”.

It’s such a simple concept, but it is difficult so many times, not because people aren’t smart enough to get it, but because they aren’t fully focused on their dog and what is in its mind at that instant. If you are busy watching the bird or bumper go down and not watching your dog, then your dog is equally not focused on the standards expected but is also watching the bird and really wanting to go. Instead, if you are engaged fully with your dog (your student) and as the object goes down you mentally note your dog is really wanting to go, so you enforce the standard of behavior you want, which is “Sit”. Then the dog does not break, you reinforce the desired behavior and everyone is much happier about the whole endeavor. You remain in control, the dog does what you want and continues to learn exactly what is expected, and the dog is responding to you. When they break, they are in control, they are learning nothing and you are responding to the dog. Exactly backwards.

To have fewer problems teaching standards of behavior and maintaining standards of behavior, you have to be fully engaged IN THE DOG. This means you aren’t marking birds, worrying about what other people are thinking, watching distractions around you that you’re sure your dog is also watching or anything besides being fully mindful of your dog’s thoughts. You can be one step ahead and before your dog speeds into oncoming traffic, figuratively speaking, you can require they do what is necessary and never have a head on crash.

If you can be mindful and fully focused on your dog’s thoughts you can do amazing things and without punishment and corrections. If you cannot or choose not to be, then your dog won’t be either. Then you correct/punish your dog for things the teacher could do better. It really comes right down to that.