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Popping - Retriever Training

by Amy Dahl, Ph.D.

Amy Dahl is also the co-author, with her husband, John, of Retriever Troubleshooting - Strategies & Solutions to Retriever Training Problems
Popping-stopping to look at the handler for help when no whistle has been blown-will occur in the training lives of most retrievers. In its infancy, during the early phases of teaching blind retrieves, it is usually a sign of compliance. Later in training it can become a chronic nuisance marring the smoothness of most blinds, and often marks as well. Usually, given fair and consistent training, dogs will pop less frequently as they increase their skill and confidence, until finally the pops disappear altogether. As in other forms of training, a sound foundation will go a long way in preventing problems later in life. With regard to pops, this means an unhurried approach to forcing on back and positive whistle stops.

Before addressing the problem of pops in dogs that are well along in their training, let's examine some of the factors that can create popping in the first place. A breakdown in confidence heads the list.

All retriever training is based on the principle that learning to do the job with confidence, as the trainer has planned it, replaces uncertainty. The trained dog is not an automaton, but the parameters of his work, such as go when sent, go where sent, take obstacles as they come, carry a straight line, hunt relentlessly, be steady, deliver properly-the whole catalogue-become habitual. Worry about mistakes fades as trained behavior becomes habit and the dog rarely gets corrected. Within these limits are infinite opportunities for demonstrations of initiative and talent.

During retriever training, however, the demands of the tasks are increasingly difficult, often diminishing dogs' belief that they can do anything right. At this point, the pop becomes a security blanket stemming from a fear of making mistakes and getting corrected.

A second form of popping is seen in some hard-driving, fast dogs that have what we call the high-speed pop. It consists of a nervous reaction to tests that the dog does not understand well. It's a pop that isn't preceded by a slow-down, often surprising the handler. As training progresses, however, the circumstances under which the popping is likely will become familiar to the trainer.

The third cause of popping, lack of motivation, is the most difficult to treat. At its worst, this is a matter of laziness. There is really not much you can do to improve such dogs other than continually insist on a reasonable level of performance based on natural abilities. Results will vary, but if performance falls consistently below your expectations for a quality retriever, you may have to consider another dog.

A few dogs, though they appear to have a lot of drive, will begin to appear lackluster if the workload becomes too demanding. FC Banjo XXXVI was a one- or at most two-test per day dog. Her progress was at its best when we trained her on just one hard set-up per day. More than that, and her effectiveness would decline, giving rise to pops.

When confusion is the primary cause, pops can be at least partially treated by clarifying the test. Reducing the multiple marks to singles, moving the line up on difficult or ambiguous water entries, or taking the heat off and teaching by repetition are approaches that may work. Even though these measures are worth taking, the pop itself is probably going to need some specific attention.

Pressure behind the line helps clarify the requirement: Get the bird.
One of the first dogs to make Field Champion while in our training program was a bitch named Penney of Evergreen. When John got her in training she was about nine years old and had a history of popping on water blinds. The problem was so severe that she couldn't buy a place in the Open. Penney was not trained on the e-collar by her two previous trainers, and John was doubtful that it would apply well at this stage in her life. John's technique consisted of sending her on a blind, then running as closely as he could behind her so that when the pop occurred, he could begin his noisy admonishments: "Get back, damn your hide, get back!" Penney took this to heart, and it wasn't long before the pop disappeared and she was winning trials.

In the '60s John trained his dog Tar who popped at the water's edge. Tar didn't want to get wet, from the time he was a puppy. John followed Tar as closely as possible, caught him when he popped, and gave him two or three whacks on the rump with a training stick while repeating "Back, back, back!" This worked on Tar as well as on a golden named Sport who would go ten yards on the memory bird of a double, then pop. John counted the days that he ran out to Sport to correct him with the stick and the "Back" command. It was thirty. On the thirtieth day Sport took off when sent on the memory bird, slowed down at his usual popping point, but didn't pop. John sold Sport to another trainer, but so long as he had him, the pop never recurred.

We have used the technique of running after the dog with a training stick during force-to-pile and early forcing on "Back." It seems to be readily comprehended by many dogs, and can be used to get them past occasional hang-ups in the field.
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