by Mike Stewart
We have all been caught by surprise when our hunting dog just seems to hit a wall in training or on a hunt, an apparent mental block. Strange it seems, we think, the dog should know this, we have run this before. But there it is, our dog just "blocked" by seemingly total confusion with a look on their face as if to say, "What?" or even worse they just blast off on a what is best described as an independent frolic doing just the opposite of our intention. Well, what you have likely experienced is what is called a generalization.
You can hear handlers that find themselves with a dog experience a block exclaiming, "He never does that at home" or "We have run this before at our training grounds." Unfortunately, the handler's response is normally frustration, disappointment or even worse, anger. All three only complicate matters. Let's take a look at what to do. The block can cause one of two responses in the dog.
1. Shut down, freeze, quit and return
2. Initiate an out-of-control, independent frolic.
Neither is appropriate but the situation can be rectified without the use of force or loss of patience. First, dogs do not generalize well and this could be the source of the block. Generalization is a fancy name animal behaviorists have labeled for the fact that dogs do not easily transfer skills learned easily in one setting or under one set of circumstances/situation to another place or dissimilar circumstances. We prefer to call this transferable.
For instance, in humans you can teach a person how to safely and properly load their shotgun in the seclusion of their backyard and without a problem; this person can easily apply the instruction and skills achieved in a variety of other settings without any further instruction or reinforcement. Not necessarily so with a dog. Just because your retriever will stop well on your familiar training ground does not mean they will do the same in a new area or under different circumstances. Dogs do not transfer skills as easily as humans do. The skills must be reinforced in a variety of areas. Wildrose Law #10 - Dogs are place oriented. That law has a broad meaning, but in this discussion it requires that a trainer must practice each skill they wish to entrench as a habit in their dog a minimum of 5 repetitions in 5 different locations. Example: a total of 5 successful stops to the whistle in 5 different locations: total 25 reps (yard, tall grass fields, woodlands, plowed ground, in water).
If we scrimp in our dog's lessons attempting to bypass Wildrose Law #5, "Make haste slowly," the habits we hoped to create will not likely be entrenched and we have the precursor of a "situational block" at some point in the future.
Next, let's look at the scenario itself that is creating the block and how it relates to the dog. If the tasking is not beyond the dog's skill level, we should consider the elements of the exercise. If we have a concept requiring the linking of multiple skills to be successful and the environment is heavily charged with distractions, environmental challenges, excitement and high energy, we may well have the opportunity for a blockage.
When faced with a blockage under such circumstances in training we have two ways to respond to achieve success.
1. Reduce the stimulus and run the drill as originally presented.
2. Simplify the drill or minimize the number of elements included while retaining the same stimulus package. Either way the objective is success. Nothing is achieved through failure. The Wildrose Way is to set up dogs to win, reward desirable behaviors, repeat the lessons to point of habit, then transfer the skills to a variety of realistic situations.
As a final note, I have included the Wildrose Way of building habits in our dogs.
Teach the skill.
Transfer the skill to create an entrenched habit, 5 times/5 locations and slowly add distractions.
Incorporate the skill into realistic hunting situations.
Re-visit the skill once known to reinforce its significance.
Become a part of realistic, positive gundog training at a Wildrose Way seminar. Experience these and many other unique training concepts that will permanently change your dog's behavior in the home and in the field.