Retriever Training: The Block

Mike Stewart, Wildrose Kennels
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.

Just because your retriever will stop well to the whistle on your familiar training ground does not mean he will do the same in a new area or under different circumstances. Dogs do not transfer skills as easily as humans do. Wildrose Law #10 says, "Dogs are place oriented," which means skills must be reinforced in a variety of settings and circumstances. This 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 five times in five different locations.

Example: Have your dog perform a total of five successful stops to the whistle in five different locations (yard, tall grass fields, woodlands, plowed ground and in water), for a total of 25 reps.

If we scrimp on our dog's lessons, the habits we hoped to create will not be properly entrenched and we will potentially be faced with a "situational block" in the future. Consider another Wildrose tenet as you face the hours of training ahead—Wildrose Law #5: "Make haste slowly."

Next, let's explore the scenario that created the block and how it relates to the dog. If the task 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, activity, excitement and high energy, we may well have the opportunity for blockage.

When faced with blockage under such training circumstances, we have two ways of responding to achieve success.
1. Reduce the distractions and other stimuli, but run the drill as originally presented; or
2. Simplify the drill or minimize the number of elements while retaining the stimuli

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 the point of habit and 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:
1. Teach the skill.
2. Transfer the skill to create an entrenched habit: five times in five locations, slowly adding distractions.
3. Incorporate the skill into realistic hunting situations.
4. Revisit the skill once mastered to reinforce its significance.

You can also get involved with realistic, positive gundog training at a Wildrose Way seminar. Experience these and many other unique training concepts that will change your dog's behavior in the home and in the field permanently.