A true gentleman

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Soft Mouth; Can you train it?

"How do you train a soft mouth?" is the number one question that I hear from dog owners, especially from retriever owners. This is often rephrased in the question "How do you prevent a hard mouth?" Some folks believe that a dog is either born with a soft mouth, or not. Based upon what I've seen in the whelping box, I just don't agree with that as a blanket statement.

Starting as pups, dogs learn to communicate using their mouths. The Mama dog "speaks" to her pups by licking them, nuzzling them, and occasionally, when they ask for a correction, by nipping them. It is a natural part of rearing her pups.

When watching pups in a litter grow, they all mouth and bite each other as a part of learning communication skills, and more importantly, good manners. If you observe the litter, planning to pick the puppy with the "soft mouth", you'll probably be frustrated because all the pups mouth and nip in play.

From a retriever perspective, there isn't a separate protocol for training a soft mouth. You'll deal with that as a function of teaching your pup to 'take' an object, 'hold' the object properly and 'give' it to you on command. If your pup doesn't have solid performance in all three of these actions, DO NOT continue. This (moving on too soon) is where the dog learns that he has your permission to chomp it or keep it. Get your solid foundation before you try to build on it. And don't worry if everyone else keeps going, they are working with different dogs. The only dog you need to worry about is the one you are training. There is no room for 'one-upmanship' while training your dog.

The Golden Rule for training a soft mouth is "Start it, stick with it, and be consistent". Well actually, that is the Golden Rule for all training.

It would be a disservice for me to try to tell you in a paragraph "how to" teach your dog what most authors devote an entire chapter to. So, I recommend reading a few good texts before you start training. Read books that help you understand dog behavior (for novices, Mother Knows Best and Know Your Dog , among others, are in my lending library), then read about training in the venue you want to learn. As you tackle each step, go back and re-read the relevant chapter. You'll be surprised how much more it says than it did the first time you read it. If you read enough, you'll see very different philosophies emerge. You'll need to develop your own philosophy and stick with it to avoid confusing your dog.

Ultimately, results with your first dog will be your best teacher. If you have no experience training a dog, I highly recommend enrolling in an obedience class - you'll learn 'your' dog, which is the only dog you'll be training. Don't worry if it doesn't focus on the venue you want to train. The most important function of the class is to teach you what a dog is from the dog's perspective. Building your dog/handler team is the second most important function of the class. Teamwork spreads over all you and your dog do and makes each venue better. Read all you can, talk to many people as you can, work through obedience classes at least twice - once to learn and again to fine tune with lots of distractions - and train, remembering that several short sessions are better than one long session when teaching a pup new things.

And here's a few other things that people forget to tell you. 1. If you have a bad attitude today, don't train today. It will affect your long term results. 2. Positive reinforcement is best, especially for teaching new things. 3. Your dog wants to please you. 4. You will be very good at confusing your dog. 5. Several 10 minute sessions are better than one long session for teaching something new. 6. And to quote a world renowned, professional retriever trainer: "Even bad trainers can get good results if they stick with it long enough".

Ultimately, remember that you are the Alpha in your pack and it is your job to take care of your dog. Never let yourself be coerced into any training tactic that goes against your comfort level. You must learn how to filter through information. Take all you are given, then use what you need. Don't worry about saying "No". I've heard too many folks lament "ruining" their dogs with bad advice. I recall following bad advice once when I could tell instantly that I shouldn't have. The results were long term and I spent hours trying to undo the damage because I didn't think it through first. Now I have no trouble saying "No" when necessary. I'm sure I've done plenty more things wrong, but those had more subtle results.

For Deacon's 'soft mouth' tale, see "A Soft Mouth" on this blog dated May 8, 2008.

Q & A for the day

Is there a good reason for pups to stay in the litter longer?

YES, My pups never leave before they are 8 weeks old and I prefer to keep them a week or two longer. The pups learn most of their good manners from their mom and littermates. If you take them out too early, they miss a critical part of their education. Even though I've trained my own dogs for years, I don't speak "Dog" as well as the dogs do, so I'd rather let the dogs teach the major lessons. It just makes life easier.

I haven't seen statistics, but I would be willing to bet that a good number of dogs who have major "soft mouth" issues, are dogs that left the litter earlier than 8 weeks. (But this is just my guess with no statistics to back it up).

Friday, January 1, 2010

Reflections on the old year, Looking forward.

2009 was a bittersweet year for Windsong.

In January, we lost our beloved Deacon. He was just shy of his 14th birthday when he began to fade. Finally, he told me he was ready and we made that last trip to the Vet together. I would never leave him 'to go' alone. Saying goodbye is part of being a good dog owner, but it stinks.

In February, the long awaited Riley made a surprise appearance on Friday the 13th. She wasn't planned for a couple of weeks. She is a real beauty. Her older brothers and sister enjoy wagging her around so she should never lack for playmates.

In April, our dear, sweet Star went home. We enjoyed her while she was here and missed her terribly when she left us. We had hoped that a local friend was going to adopt her, but when we made the home visit, the friend had an allergy attack that lasted for days. She was allergic to the mold in her garden that Star played in. She was so upset, she had already told all her friends that she was getting Star. She wanted her so badly, but it just wasn't to be.

April was also specialty month and Destiny and I loaded everybody up and made the trip to St. Louis. We had a wonderful time and were thrilled when Taiko garnered a placement (4th) in the very competitive Bred-By-Exhibitor class. That was Sweet.

Spring and summer weekends were filled with field training, but the group we joined was so far ahead of us that often the terrain and tests they set up were too advanced for our level. With great frustration, we left the group and plan to start over in the spring. Hopefully, we can find some folks training new pups and start in with them, advancing as they do, laying the proper foundation. Better trainers may be able to train their pups on Master level training scenarios, but I need to start at a beginner level and grow the dog to more difficult levels as he learns.

We ended the show year in the fall with both Ziva and Taiko earning their first majors. We'll keep our eyes out for a show where other Curlies are going in 2010.

Throughout the year everyone took either obedience or rally classes and they all took agility classes. We wound those down in November due to my cough/cold. December is typically our month off because of erratic holiday scheduling.

We ended the year quietly, with everyone canine in great health.

The new year holds lots of training classes in obedience, rally and agility. And we hope to start tracking classes too. We'll worry about showing if the economy improves for us. We'll be very busy, and that is very good for us!