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Is Your Dog Soft or Confused in Training?

Is Your Dog Soft or Confused in Training?

A dog training with pigeons in field

Sometimes we may give confused dogs the stigma of soft with dog training and understanding the difference solves problems

My Wirehaired Pointing Griffon is a member of a breed often accused of being soft. Because of this, I went in thinking that softness would explain some of his behavior. It’s not just wirehaired Pointing Griffons. There are other breeds, too—and individual dogs of other breeds—that are just as equally burdened with this stigma.

I want to make it clear what I mean by soft. The word refers to an uncharacteristically adverse reaction a dog has to an appropriate level of correction. Of course, it’s a separate issue altogether if your correction is too harsh and one should fully understand training pressure.

However, even if your correction is as it should be, your dog could still be responding badly. What I want to do is suggest an alternative hypothesis that might better explain your dog’s bad response to correction. Maybe your dog isn’t soft. Maybe your dog is confused. This might seem like a pointlessly nuanced distinction, but I believe it’s worth some consideration. Understanding the difference could be a game-changer for many of us amateur trainers of upland bird hunting dogs.

This past summer, I worked on retrieving with my ‘griff, Louie, for his NAVHDA Utility Test. Several times during training, Louie was soft to corrections. Corrections I had been using for a long time in other contexts. Louie was always a very natural retriever, which is true for many of our upland and versatile breeds. Before any in-depth retrieving training, he did not need much persuasion to go get a downed live bird, pick it up, hold it, and bring it to hand.

Yet as many of us know, that alone is not be enough for certain aspects of hunt testing like blind retrieves and searches. Several exceptional trainers I’ve met have told me how important it is to set your dog up for making mistakes in order to make corrections. This is the only true way your dog will learn how to love retrieving—as long as it’s done on our terms at all times and in all circumstances.

Let me illustrate. Early in our retrieving training, I had difficulty sending Louie for a search on a retrieve if he hadn’t seen a bird go down. If I nicked him with the e-collar, he would just lie down. As many of us do in our training, I probably skipped too many steps and tried to move too fast through the work. So I backed off a lot and started again with the basics of our training. After we had laid the foundations, I saw the confidence building in his work again. The corrections for his mistakes suddenly made sense to him. Now when I corrected him, he knew why and complied with what I had taught him. Louie wasn’t soft—he just needed to know what to do!

Let’s say Louie didn’t recall when I gave him a “here” command. If I corrected him with the same level on his e-collar used during retrieving work, he wouldn’t lie down or tuck his tail or drop his head. Not in a million years. Instead, he would come like a bold of lightning to my side. What’s the difference? It’s simple: the correction was applied for him failing to comply with a command he fully understood. During our retrieving work, he didn’t know what was expected of him at the rate I thought he understood.

Laying a foundational work, as tedious as that might be for some of our overthinking dogs, is imperative for any and all aspects of training. It is easy to assume that the dogs know what is expected, because they are naturals at so much. The unfortunate result of natural instincts, however, is that we end up thinking we are better at training our dogs than we are. This is especially true for in-depth training such as blind or search retrieving work.

Many of our dogs are hard-wired to make us happy and do what we want. If they don’t know what that is, that is where confusion sets in. Simply categorizing your dog as being soft to corrections may be doing your dog a disservice and giving us, as trainers, a bit too much credit.

The next time your dog displays as soft, stop what you’re doing and ask yourself if your dog is just confused. Accepting this might be a tough pill to swallow, because it means that the problem is with your training and not your dog. If that’s the case, take your pill like I did. If thinking this way helps you as much as it helped Louie, you’ll be in for some really fun and productive training with your dog.

View Comments (6)
  • I am professional trainer with a good bit of experience with both traditional compulsion training (well over 2,000 gundogs) and with a good bit of experience in positive training of gundogs (over 500 gundogs). I can say with some degree of knowledge that positive training is much faster and much more fun for trainer and dog. The persistence is also much longer of the the trained behavior.
    Compulsion training is basically setting the dog up for failure and then punishing the failure.
    Positive training is basically setting the dog up for success and then rewarding the success.
    Anyone who loves dogs and does not investigate positive training is quite puzzling to me.

    • I agree that I had the most success teaching foundational concepts through positive reinforcement. After that though, I applied corrections for the disregard of known commands (although as I tried to point in the article is everyone, especially amateurs, should be cautious of what we think the dog knows). I could be completely off base, but my understanding of compulsory techniques are things like ear pinching or e collar stimulus until a dog picks an item up (in other words picking the item up is the only way to turn the pressure off). I hope the article didn’t come across as an endorsement of that.

  • Brittany owner here and I can affirm this from my own experience training a bird dog for the first time – it’s often not defiance or hurt feelings on his part but failure on my part to teach him what it is I’m asking him to do. Thanks for the well-articulated and helpful perspective.

  • Bill,

    Which kennel did you get your griff out of/what are some griff kennels that you would recommend? I am interested in getting one as well. Thank you.


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