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Generalize Your Training

Wow– it seems everywhere I go, folks have puppies! And, they’re anxious for training advice.  Here’s advice that every puppy owner can use.  It’s about making your training more widely applicable.  In the gun dog training business, this is often referred to as generalizing commands and instruction.

One example would be the use of a training table to teach the “whoa” command.  The training table is an excellent tool.  The primary purpose is to save your back from too much bending and have easy access to your pup when correction is needed. The same training could be done on the ground but with more effort.

After only two or three sessions on the table, the pup will begin to understand what you’re asking him to do.  After five or six sessions, that pup will begin to look pretty good.  You’ll say, “Hey, that wasn’t as hard as I thought.”  Well, you’re only kidding yourself.  Put the pup on the ground, off lead, and allow it to run freely.  Then say “whoa”.  What happened?  Most likely the pup totally ignored you.  Why, because he was only taught to whoa on the training table.

That doesn’t mean that your work on the training table was without value.  You have to plant the seed somewhere and the training table is an easy place to begin the effort.  And, you’ll want to make sure that they fully understand the command before you begin making the pup compliant in different locations.  If fully compliant on the training table, generalizing to new locations will be much easier.  After the whoa command is fully understood by your pup around the yard, you then need to move the training to the field.  The field is the ultimate testing grounds.  If you encounter non-compliance in the field, you need to go back and start over.  And that’s true with any command or desired action.

Another example of a lack of applicability I’ve witnessed is yard training on birds.  Several years ago I was asked to visit a new pointing dog owner and observe his pup.  He wanted to enter the pup in the AKC testing program.  In a very large yard, he had small clumps of shrubs, flowers, etc.  He had planted a quail in several of the clumps.  The pup was released about 30 feet from the first planted bird.  The pup then went very nicely from clump to clump and demonstrated a nice point at each clump.  As I watched, I felt the whole process appeared to be too structured and a robotic performance by the pup, which was about one year old as I recall.

I asked the pup owner if he had a field where we could run the same exercise.  The owner looked at me with a blank stare.  He then blinked and said “Well, I guess we could.”  We drove down the road to a field where he planted three birds.  He then returned to the truck for the pup.  He wanted to take the pup to the first bird on a check cord.  I suggested that he not do that.  In a test, the pup would have to locate the birds without being led to them.  He released the pup and it was a disaster.  The pup bumped two of the three birds and never showed any interest in the third bird.

The issue, of course, is that the pup was trained to do something in a restricted manner.  It was obvious that this process was done over and over without any generalization.  Removed from the structured yard environment, the pup was lost.  After the owner of the pup saw a couple of nice finds and points in the yard, he should have immediately moved the training to a new location.  And, after a few successful exercises in the new location, move yet to another new location.

Training must be widely applicable or it has very little value.  Allow that pup to have new, varied experiences in your training program to create a brag dog.

Paul Fuller is a lifelong sportsman.  He’s been an outdoor writer since 1971. He’s the host and producer of the award winning Bird Dogs Afield TV show (www.birddogsafield.com) and produced the epic video Grouse, Guns & Dogs. Paul shot over his first German short-haired pointer in 1961.

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