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Retriever Training: The Block

Mike Stewart, Wildrose Kennels
  • photo by Chris Jennings, DU
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We have all been caught by surprise when our hunting dog has an apparent mental block and hits a wall in training or on a hunt. Strange, we think—he should know this because we've trained it before. But there he is, our dog, "blocked" and with a look of total confusion on his face. Or, even worse, just running off on what is best described as an independent frolic with no regard for our commands. In situations like these, what you are likely experiencing is called a generalization.

You can often hear handlers who find themselves with a blocked dog exclaiming, "He never does that at home!" or "We have run this before at our training grounds!" Unfortunately, the handler's response is normally one of frustration, disappointment or—even worse—anger. All three of these responses only complicate matters further. Let's take a look at what to do, instead, to solve the problem.

Whatever the block is, it can cause one of two responses in your dog:
1. Shut him down, cause him to freeze, quit and then return; or
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 term animal behaviorists use when dogs don’t easily transfer skills learned in one setting or under one set of circumstances to a different place or situation. We prefer to call this transferral.

This same concept can be demonstrated with humans. For instance, a person can learn how to safely and properly load a shotgun in the seclusion of the backyard and then easily apply the resulting skills in a variety of other settings without any further instruction or reinforcement. This is not necessarily so with a dog.


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