|The working springer spaniel "Miss Sophie" story
Autumn is about to end. Now in the middle of November the sun shines from a low angle even in the middle of the day. The chlorophyll in the grass has faded away and the colors of the nature are few and dull. Still an open eye can often find some small treasures of art created when form and light meets at the right angle.
Anyway, the first snowstorm of the winter is lurking just around the corner and tomorrow morning these tiny straws could be hidden under a feet of snow.
To Miss Sophie this means a new experience. Spaniels use to like snow as much as they like water so the experience will most likely be a positive one for her. Until then, lets see what she has done since we saw her the last time. It was up in the mountains, wasn't it?
Well, the first thing we can notice is that she has matured a bit in her body. My ability to describe a dog as show folks do is almost equal to zero. What I can say is that her body has grown into a powerful package of muscles and bones. Her head is rather good-looking I believe and the small white spot on her nose tells us that she has, without much success, tried to make friends with our neighbor's cat. The cat tore of a piece of the black pigment on her nose. "Maximillian" is not the most social of cats and all our dogs have lost any attempt to fight him.
An interesting view of the side of her head against the sun. There is the powerful neck connected to an equally powerful body. I expect her to grow for two more years. I wonder what she will look like when she is finished? Maybe she is not a Springer spaniel but a Sumo spaniel?
Now lets see how a day in her life can be these late autumn days. In the morning the dogs are gathering to decide the program of the day. Usually the older setters discuss Sophie's progress and decide what she should train more of. Lately they have agreed that "taking a line" is one of the most difficult things to learn for a spaniel.
Taking a line means that the dog has to run straight out and spaniels are not built for running straight out. They are built to constantly change direction. Their angular velocity is always higher than their velocity over the ground.
This could be developed into a mathematical problem but you can't solve retrieving problems with mathematics but only with practice. So the setters hand over the problem to Maud and me, and they are free to do their own thing while we have to straighten Miss Sophie up one way or another.
If I had to give advice to someone about how long time it will take to train a working spaniel to go straight out, say 150 meters, I would say that it could be wise to start 1 year before the skill is needed.
Miss Sophie is not a stupid dog so she might understand faster but actually I have no idea. 1 month or so of training has given us 15 meters of running straight, then she runs into some kind of a magnetic field and her compass starts to deviate madly.
I usually hide a dummy along the edge of a ditch or the side of a path in the woods and send her back with a special command, not "fetch" but "out", and also give her the hand signal shown here by Maud. I have her sit for a short time before I send her out, just so that she has some time to concentrate on the task.
I hope that these measures will at the end teach her that "out" means running from me in a straight line, hopefully in the direction given by me. When that happens I can stop her at a distance with the whistle and send her "out" from there.
By increasing the distance very slowly she will hit the dummy most often before the magnetic interference puts her out of the course. Should she deviate from the line I stop her instantly and call her back before sending her out again, perhaps from a shorter distance.
Patience, thousands of repetitions and very slow progress is what does the trick I hope. Anyway this is a very important skill for a spaniel. Since they often are run in covered terrain they may not see the killed bird falling and cant mark it. What remains to do is to direct the dog out to the place of fall, particularly if it is a runner that can vanish faster than the food in a spaniels bowl. Therefore it is important for a spaniel to be able to take handling out to the object.
She is also trained on marked retrieves in a great variety of ways. The classical "around the clock" (one dummy at 9 a clock, one at 12 a clock and one at 3 a clock) she handles very well. We have also started to put in some disturbance during the work, like throwing another dummy on her way back or firing a gun.
She does not seem to care too much about the disturbance but works pretty well. Maybe she has a good nerve stability or maybe all the passivity training has paid of, time will tell. Still she is in no way mentally mature yet but can fall back to puppy behavior from time to time and that should be quite natural at the age of only 9 months. The fetch training is limited to a few minutes per day. A couple of good retrieves are enough. Quality before quantity!
The basics in the fine art of retrieving are constantly maintained. She must hold the dummy until told to "give". Our hands must not be the signal for her to give but only our verbal command. We demand her to hold the dummy even when we pull it with our hands or disturb her in other ways. This is important since the dummy will sooner or later be a wing shot bird, a runner, and should she spit such a bird out before given permission we could be in trouble getting the bird into the game bag.
When you start the fetch lesson you start with short, easy and marked retrieves. This will cause the dog to search the dummy with the eyes only. This is not a very clever way to search in tall grass or dense cover but the dog tries to jump a lot in order to find the dummy with its eyes. After some time the dog will learn to use the wind scent more and more in the search work and Sophie is right now at the breaking point. Sometimes she searches by jumping but tends to more often drop her head level with the back and obviously is now using wind scent to find the dummy.
This also means that we have to start to think about the direction of the wind when sending the dog out for hidden objects and send it slightly downwind of the dummy. With marked retrieves in cover the dog will learn to go down to get wind before it starts the actual search but when this will happen with Sophie I cant predict now. "Sooner or later" is as intelligent as the answer can get.
What else is there to say about her? Well, we have tested her once with partridge but she got so excited from the find and flush so we thought we better leave that kind of training until later, when she is more mature to take the excitement and less likely to be screwed up by it. She also gets excited by seeing the setters hunt and I guess that is all of hunting experience she needs right now. Obedience and fetch training is good enough for the time being. Both exercises will improve contact and contact is what really is needed in the future if we are to show the world how a spaniel should be run! The very strange fear for different objects she still had a few months ago is slowly fading away. Research has shown that it is impossible to predict the behavior of a mature dog from its behavior as a puppy. It is suggested that there could be different genes for the puppy behavior and for the behavior of the mature dog. I am by now very ready to believe that theory!
Contact is what we are looking for. I am addicted to the idea that directing the training more towards getting a really good contact before subjecting the dog to actual field training with live game will shorten that part of the dogs training considerably. It is meaningless to train contact and obedience on the field with live game around. Hence such training is wasted time and also wasted money.
Obedience must be implicit and implicit obedience creates contact. However we must never forget the fun in the training. High demands must be combined with a lot of fun. That will in the end create still another powering and motivating element in the dog, "the will to please", in addition to the powering genetic elements. If you can fix that you might have a winner!