Dog trainers are always trying to come up with a tool or technique that makes the training process easier and more efficient. Many innovations have come and gone, but one that seems to be here to stay is the place board. While its origins are a little hard to pin down, the basic concept has been a cornerstone of animal training for decades.
Think of a troop of lions entering the big top at a circus. Before their handler does anything else, he makes sure they're all in their assigned spots—usually some kind of perch or platform. This fixed, physically distinctive location serves as the reference point for the handler's commands and the lions' responses to them. That's place board training, pure and simple.
Place boards for dog training are generally homemade affairs. I've seen various designs, from all-wood platforms to squares of particle board attached to old tires. Whatever the design, it's important to make sure the unit remains stable when the dog jumps on and off and that it has enough surface area for him to sit comfortably. The surface should be relatively nonskid, and it needn't be too high off the ground—three to six inches is plenty.
Professional trainer Jordan Horak, of Juggernaut Spaniels in Fremont, Wisconsin, was first introduced to the place board about six years ago. Since then, it's become an indispensable part of his tool kit.
"My approach is to always ask, ‘What's our goal? Where do we want this dog to end up?'" Horak explains. "Then, once we've determined that, I try to reverse-engineer the process and break it down into the tiniest bites possible. That way, the dog only has to learn one little piece at a time. The place board is a tremendous tool for doing that."
Horak adds, "Dogs gravitate to spots, and the place board provides a portable objective. It gives me something to base my training around, and it gives the dog something too. We're speaking the same language because of the place board."
Unlike many pros who teach the place command by applying some sort of pressure (usually with a check cord and/or e-collar), Horak's approach is entirely positive and pressure free. When a pup is between eight and 10 weeks old, Horak puts a place board in a hallway, attracts the pup onto it with a tennis ball, then rolls the ball down the hallway for the pup to retrieve. When the pup brings it back, Horak heaps praise on him, encourages him back onto the place board, and then rolls the ball down the hallway again. After a few days of just two or three of these hallway retrieves ("Don't overdo it," Horak cautions), the pup will begin jumping on the place board of his own volition.
"In the pup's mind," Horak says, "it's the place where he goes to have fun. If the pup's retrieve drive isn't as strong, you can shorten the distance or use a different object like a leather glove or a piece of knotted rope. You can even use a food treat of some sort—anything that forges a positive association with the place board."
Once the pup is going to the place board on his own, Horak begins overlaying the place command with a reward, either a simple retrieve or a food treat. The next step is to put down two place boards and, using the place command, get the pup to move from one to the other. At the same time, Horak begins teaching steadiness by making the pup wait a little longer, and a little longer yet, before he receives his reward. Eventually, the pup figures out that if he stays on the place board until he's released, something good is bound to happen—but not before then.
The place board is incredibly versatile and powerful. "It serves as the dog's foundation for learning voice and whistle commands, taking hand signals, and developing a level of self-control that's much higher than it is in a dog that expects immediate gratification," Horak says. "There are probably a hundred different ways to use it that I haven't even thought of. But for almost everything I have thought of, the place board makes it just a little easier."
PLATFORM FOR LEARNING
A place board can help you teach voice and whistle commands, steadiness, hand signals, and other retriever skills.