Soft Dogsby Amy Dahl, Ph.D.
Amy Dahl is also the co-author, with her husband, John, of The 10-Minute Retriever - How to Make an Obedient and Enthusiastic Sporting Dog in 10 Minutes a Day.
There is not universal agreement as to the meaning of the term "soft" in describing a retriever. Many enthusiasts confuse lack of desire or recalcitrance in retriever training with softness while others label shyness, spookiness, and other deficiencies of attitude as softness. We apply the term softness more simply to the inability or unwillingness of a retriever to respond well to heavy force.
When dealing with such a dog, the use of pressure (pain) must be restricted to the level at which a desirable response is achieved, without overwhelming the dog. Although there seems to be a tendency among some to drop a soft dog like the proverbial hot potato, we find the soft dog, on the average, no more difficult to train to top performance than the "hard" dog -- the dog which is not very susceptible to pain. Often the soft dog can be taught lessons through light pressure more easily than the hard dog through heavy pressure.
Parenthetically, we would deceive ourselves, and fail to deal with the project of training a dog properly, if we did not admit that all correction has an element of pain, physical or emotional, in it. The key is to understand the use of pressure and to apply it to a degree and with a frequency that will get the job done without making the dog go sour.
Soft dogs are not all soft in the same areas or to the same degree. Some soft dogs lack drive, range, birdiness, or initiative. These failings are not necessarily related to softness and are about equally common in average and hard dogs. Slowness, dislike of the water, and avoidance of difficult cover may all occur in the temperamentally soft dog, but again are not necessarily a result of the softness. Dogs that are extremely susceptible to discomfort in cold water, may, however, be described as having a form of softness that prevents their becoming good cold water dogs, even with extensive retriever training.
When we think of soft dogs we more often think of those we know or have trained who were soft in the sense that it took very little physical force to make them comply. Often these dogs were extremely talented, had great drive and speed, were birdy and intelligent and had endearing personalities. Several made excellent field trial performers.
One of these was FC/AFC Jaffer's Blackie. Blackie was a large dog with great drive, intelligence, and charisma. He was soft. A lesson could be taught to him quickly with little pressure, and he would retain it. Shortly after Blackie came in for training, at 2 1/2 years of age, John was running the dog on some lining problems when Blackie stopped midway to the dog training dummies and plastered his nose to the ground. He was glued to bitch scent from a female who had run the test previously.
John ran out, grabbed Blackie by the dog collar, and gave the dog two or three medium whacks on the rump with a heeling stick while holding him partially off the ground. John then told Blackie to sit, ran back to the line and cast him back to the dummies. Blackie responded beautifully and we can't remember his ever putting his nose down while being run on a test again. He was an example of a dog having all the right characteristics of a competitive retriever while soft enough to learn the lessons quickly and with little pressure.
FC Oak Hill Exponent (Pudge) was another example of a soft dog with great drive, speed, and cold water ability. Pudge was so soft that she could and would avoid a simple swat on the rump with a riding crop, even when on a check cord. This form of softness, moving quickly to avoid physical correction, made her difficult in some ways, but she was so susceptible to what pressure we were able to apply that her learning rate was almost unbelievable. When she was three years old, even though she was an excellent marker, she couldn't do tests having two bird throwers close together. Faced with this situtation, Pudge couldn't decide which one to go to and would pop (stop and look back) out of confusion. This behavior was making it difficult to teach her the more challenging marking tests. Pudge had had two force-on-back programs with a stick and a long 100-yd cord before this and was well forced to go.
John's solution to the popping on marks was to put the electronic dog training collar on her -- with no preliminary conditioning we are ashamed to say, as we would not do this today -- and send Pudge on her marks. When she popped he would give the back cast with transmitter in hand, nick her lightly with the collar, and holler "Back!" This worked so well that after two or three sessions of this kind Pudge stopped popping, drove back to her birds, and made her FC within the year.
Modern electric collars can make training less traumatic for soft dogs such as this golden bitch.
Photo by: Author
On the other extreme, the really hard dogs we have trained require much more frequent and heavy application of pressure to get the job done. Such were Dual Ch/AFC Warpath Macho, who was extremely difficult to get to stop on a whistle, and FC Penney's Nifty Bouncer, who had convinced himself and almost us that he would never wait until he was sent to take off after a bird. Both of these dogs, although excellent performers, needed frequent and convincing use of physical force to keep them under wraps. They, too, were happy, hard workers, but being tough they were higher maintenance dogs in training.
What degree of softness, and in combination with what other traits, might we want in an hypothetical "ideal" retriever? The late Mike Paterno, who trained and handled the famed NAFC/FC Dee's Dandy Dude, once said "The easiest dog to train is a soft fast dog. The hardest dog to train is a fast hard dog." There is a good deal of truth in this statement. The fast soft dog may have plenty of speed, style, and momentum to make a top retriever while being responsive enough to be brought under control easily. Conversely, the hard fast dog -- already tough to get under control -- covers so much ground so rapidly that a single cast or whistle refusal often puts him beyond recovery. In trials this gives an overall appearance of discipline failure, and in training makes teaching hazard concepts difficult as he can get out of the area of the hazard so quickly.