The working springer spaniel "Miss Sophie" story

September 16, 2004

Miss Sophie
Miss Sophie has gained a bit in size since you saw her last time. The purple streaks on her side and legs are color from bilberries (blueberries). She has helped Maud to harvest berries in the woods and a couple of days ago all our dogs were more blue than white.

When the summer was almost over I decided to start field training her more seriously. The first thing to get rid of had to be the shyness for the gun. In the basic spaniel training you need no gun but I wanted to get her used to the sight of the frightening object and carried my unloaded shotgun with me. Pretty soon she got used to the sight and soon I could make her sit to gunfire.

All her fuss had propably been caused by the signal-sensitivity the working spaniels have. Dogs kind of sees contours of objects with their eyes but quite often recognizes them by scent. A sensitiv spaniel puppy may not have the courage needed to overrule the fear a strange object creates. When I carried the gun or a BBQ or a boiler suit she perhaps saw a strange contour at first, not me. This characteristic promotes easy handling but can apparently have some unforeseeable side effects.

Field training continued pretty well after that. Now that I started to train her almost every day she grew very fast mentally. Turning to whistle and hand-signal, stop to whistle and gunfire at different distances was soon installed and she showed more and more drive and stamina as she developed her skills. She has actually, during the last 3 weeks, developed tremendously and I have started to think that her softness is actually an advantage even if I usually do see more harm than good in it. The advantage is that I do not have to run as much after her as with our former puppies, I can stop her with voice or whistle in almost any situation.

Carefully force training a dog to fetch demands a lot of self-control from the trainer but gives a fast and lasting result in the end. When you have come to this stage when the dog can pick up an object from the ground on your command, even if there is a strong disturbance in the neighborhood, like Miss Sophie's playmate Briz just a few inches from the object, then you know that the dog will never look back!

NO! No play with the dummy, girl! Force training can, if properly performed, only be a positive experience for the vast majority of dogs. When the dog is controlled with a lead and a check cord it will be easy to guide it through the initial stages in many kinds of training. Since it can be controlled it cannot do anything wrong but only right, right, right. It always does everything right and hence only gets positive feedback from the handler. This of course promotes learning a lot. Notice of her wagging tail!

However the force training might lead to a minor problem.
Your dog might want to grip anything that you hold in your hand or throw away. This is easy to cure if you are consistent.
Only let the dog fetch on your command and train it not to
grip an object that you hold in your hand close to its nose.
Just say NO, if it tries to grip it. Then offer it again with a command "fetch" and praise it. After a few repetitions it will understand the difference. The object in your hand is no longer a command in itself, as it might have been, but your verbal command is what counts.

She is a couple of days from 7 months old now. I do not know precisely how to continue, except for the fetch training that must be developed day by day but in a slow pace. She is familiar with open and heavily covered ground. She has the embryo to some kind of a search pattern and her prey drive (or in USA; sharpness), is about to wake up even if she has not been introduced to game yet. I am sure that when game is introduced she will mentally "explode" in one way or another and that will create new problems that have to be solved.

She is, however, still swinging between puppy and youth behavior and for the very moment I think it is best to improve what practical and social attainments she has now instead of rushing to anything new. Trying to tell "what kind of a dog" she actually is or how she will behave in the future seems to be impossible now. We will see in the years to come. Right now everything seems to be pretty OK even if I was a bit worried some time ago.

Next part of her story will be written either when she has become a confident retriever or when she has been introduced to game, whichever comes first.
The summer has been very busy for me with a lot of work. In addition I do not like the heat of the summer so any training with Miss Sophie has been minimal and reduced to fostering her to have good social manners and getting her used to different environments. Some whistle training and some habituation to gunfire is all the field training she had got; besides of a little lead training. Otherwise she was free to do what she wanted. At some point, not very long ago, she showed so much softness so I started to believe her behavior was abnormal. She was also very shy for any gun I handled. Yes, she was shy for the gun, not shy for the gunfire! Not only that but she run away when I came carrying other strange objects like our portable BBQ, the high pressure washer and much more. She could be shy for me even when I was dressed in a boiler suit.

Now you may think that I have beaten her with guns, BBQs, and high-pressure washers but I can assure you that that is not the case. So I started to think about leaving her back to the breeder. Anyway I first phoned a friend of us who is more experienced with puppies than I am and she said that at that age they might at some stage have all kind of strange ideas.

Torsti & Miss Sophie
Getting her used to the sight of the gun did cure the gun shyness. Very soon she did not pay any attention to it.

When she had learned the quest part in field training to a reasonable degree there was not much more to do with that, without introducing her to game. I do not have the intention to do it at this stage so I decided to see what could be done about the fetch part of a spaniel's skill. Since she is so soft I hesitated a lot to force train her and tried the "demand method" described on our website. After a couple of days I understood that she does not understand the slightest bit of that method, perhaps yet too young, and I did not have the patience to continue it for the needed length of time.

Instead I decided to try the "play method" that is so popular but that I personally do not have too much faith in. It worked very well. She learned to "fetch" within a few minutes and I was tempted to believe that it works after all, maybe I had been wrong all the time, maybe these dogs are different from all others? The next day when I tried to see if she could fetch on the field also, not only on our backyard, I pretty soon noticed that I had not been wrong. She stopped to poke around in some hare scent and had forgotten all about any fetch or anything else for that matter. It was quite obvious that the "fetch" was just a game for her and a game can be discontinued at any time you wish!

After getting some advice and encouragement from Ron and Cj in USA, (Thank you folks!) who explained that "the force" means more "the force of the will" than a physical force and hence the force method can be used on soft as well hard dogs, since the dogs mentality has little to do with the success of the method. So I took a deep breath, a bucket full of self-control and of we went, Miss Sophie and me. After a total of 20 - 30 minutes (during a couple of days) of tug-of-war between our wills she started to take the dummy from my hand and after a further couple of sessions she picked it up from the ground. In addition she do not drop it and she has some well-mannered deliveries. What remains to do is to slowly progress towards different objects to fetch in different environments.

"Good girl!" The dog is offering the dummy with her head held high because she has from the very start understood that "the fetch" is a positive but unconditional interaction together with the handler. In the future a lot of disappointment and irritation can be avoided because the dog has learned, knows and obeys all the essential steps in element. In other words we have from the start made sure that the future, progressive training can be nothing but pleasant and rewarding for the dog.

Miss Sophie, that I for the moment call "the Peep" ("Pipen" in Swedish) due to her habit of squeaking if she cant be with us everywhere, responds extremely well to any obedience training. She will be trained to some degree of competition obedience but I have also, already at this young age, manage to make her heel without a lead when out in the field, without dropping her nose to the ground all the time that is a common habit of all working spaniels. If she drops her nose to the ground it would mean that she is searching for scent and that in turn means that she is hunting when heeling. If she is hunting when heeling, then she is wasting energy (since nose work sucks a lot of energy) that could be used well later. A dog at heel should rest, not hunt.

Miss Sophie & Maud