The 10-Minute Retriever


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Amy and John Dahl are highly respected trainers in US retrieving circles, though some of their methods are now seen as old fashioned by many pet dog trainers. A British pet owner reading their book is making an exploration into a different dog culture. The dogs trained by the authors, and described in this book are expected to win competitions. If they don’t do their jobs well, they are given to other owners as pets. Pet dogs in Britain tend to be part of the family. They may have useful roles, like keeping us warm in winter, making sure we get exercise, and keeping burglars at bay, but they are primarily companions. This difference in roles goes some way to explaining disagreements on training methods. Amy and John Dahl want results, above all. People pay them to train their dogs, and their own dogs have to win competitions to help maintain their reputations. Retrieving is an optional extra for pet dog owners, something fun to do if the dog enjoys it, which retrievers usually do. However, most UK pet dog owners feel there is little point in coercing a companion dog to take part in a sport, even if coercion may be needed at other times, to keep dogs out of trouble, so they don’t endanger their own and other lives.

Pet dog training has also developed differently in the UK from in the US. There is more of a close co-operation between trainers and behaviour counsellors in the UK than there is between trainers and ´behaviourists´in the US. Behaviour counsellors in the UK are expected to have training skills, and to understand dogs from a wide range of perspectives, whereas ´behaviourists´ in the US tend to be more academic, and more focused on ´´behaviourism´´, as in the view of learning developed by Skinner and Watson, and popularised by Karen Pryor. The British APBC, Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors, long ago moved away from force in training, and this, in turn, has influenced British pet dog trainers. The Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT), set up by Fisher, is opposed to the use of coercion in training, so those UK trainers who have kept their skills up to date have moved away from force. There are other differences between US and UK pet dog cultures, but a key difference is that methods based on force are less likely to seen as an option among pet dog trainers who have kept skills up to date in the UK. This is less true of British hunting dog culture, where coercive methods are still common.

What may first strike pet dog trainers, and pet retriever owners about this book, then, is that some of the methods described, such as jerking to prevent pulling on the lead, and ear pinching to teach a stage in retrieving, are now seen as unduly harsh for pet dogs. However, the 10-Minute Retriever does make very interesting reading, because the authors clearly love training dogs, and bond with the dogs through training them. It is a very pragmatic book, based more on decades of refining traditional training methods, rather than a ‘grand theory’ of training. The authors’ one foray into behaviourism as a way of explaining their methods is a little confusing, because the terms they use are different, or used in different ways from terms used by academic behaviourists. Many of the points the authors stress, which they have learnt from experience, are the same as those stressed by more ‘softy’ trainers, for example, that harsh methods tend to be counterproductive, by making dogs less enthusiastic about working. They also note that jerking on a choke chain can injure a dog’s neck, that electric collars can make dogs fearful if misused, and all that collars can do is shock, not teach. They recommend electric collars for some work, but also suggest using whistles as an alternative way of communicating to dogs at a distance.

The chapters on puppy training contain little to upset ‘softy’ pet owners and trainers. There is a stress on the need for patience and encouragement, and not allowing unwanted habits to develop, rather than chastising pups. These chapters cover good manners, general obedience, and fostering enthusiasm for retrieving. The authors warn owners to be restrained over teaching obedience up to the puppy’s limit, because, though puppies are capable of very high levels of obedience, this can hinder the development of confidence, desire, and initiative. It is refreshing to read a book which suggests ways to develop dogs’ cognitive skills and joie de vivre, as well as obedience.

One particularly interesting section is the discussion of what constitutes rewards for retrievers, which includes the act of retrieving, praise, and exercise. Food is not mentioned once. This is a useful reminder that food is not the only way to motivate dogs, and may not always be the best way. Food, of course, has many uses in training dogs, but it is possible to become a ‘food junkie’, so it can broaden our understanding to hear from trainers who don’t use food at all. Other important points stressed by this book include the need to keep sessions short (the ten minutes of the book’s title), to develop skills using a logical sequence of training ‘building blocks’, and to be consistent. They remind owners to remember to give a release command to end ‘heel’, ‘stay’ and other commands, something it is easy for owners to forget. They also stress keeping one’s temper, rather than chastising dogs for not understanding what one wants, and advise owners never to train when they feel upset or angry, or to take it personally if dogs don’t follow what is required.

There are four young Labrador retrievers in the Spanish village where I live. They are kept in yards with little human contact, and no training. Here, hunting dogs are just taken out when their owners go shooting, which may be once a week. These dogs are seen as disposable, usually shot when they do not do their job properly. Most of these dogs would probably trade an ear pinch or two for more companionship and more interesting things to do. Many hunting dogs in the UK are kept outside the home, not (as is true in much of rural Spain) because they are seen as too big to be pets, but because owners feel they would be spoiled by too much attention as pets. Such owners feel that the dogs learn better if the only attention they receive is while being trained for hunting.

In many hunting dog cultures, in Spain, the UK and US, there are owners who think they should dominate dogs by means of force, allowing no space for initiative. This is, of course, a misunderstanding of wolf ethology, the role of the alpha wolf, and the role of humans as leaders. As Amy and John Dahl stress, a true leader is sparing with corrections, and has the confidence to encourage the dog to enjoy retrieving, and to leave some space for initiative. The result of excessive use of force can be dogs that gag when a retrieving object is placed in their mouths, and a lack of trust between owner and dog, so the erosion of a basis for co-operation between dogs and their owners. Gun dog owners sometimes buy e-collars over the internet, and treat the dog as though it were a machine with push button controls, which again can ruin dogs for retrieving. In the context of some hunting dog cultures, then, this book not only aims to help owners to get results, but is relatively humane, even though some of the recommendations may jar with pet dog owners. The authors recommend that owners live with their dogs in the home, and are sometimes criticised by hunting dog people in the US for stressing the need for allowing dogs to have some initiative.

John Dahl describes training retrievers in the early 1950s, and is cheerfully frank about his early mistakes. He conveys a sense of training as a work in progress, that new dogs can always teach us something new, which rings true for people deeply involved in training, rather than just writing books. Amy Dahl has been experimenting with clicker training. Maybe one day, when she has built up enough experience, she could be persuaded to write a book that softy pet owners could happily use, explaining how to use clickers for retrieving, and whistles for distance work. Only a minority of retriever owners can, or want to win competitions, while most pet retriever owners want to have fun with their dogs, and to teach their dogs at least some of the activities that they were designed to do.

This book is not, then, a complete guide for UK pet retriever owners, though it could be a useful supplement to more conventional training. Owners can skip the problematic sections. These problematic sections tend to deal with skills that can usually be learnt in local obedience classes in the UK, using methods more suited to companion dogs. It is also easier to learn how to train a dog in basic obedience and retrieving with the help of a good trainer than with a book, because a trainer can provide feedback on the owner’s handling. Labrador and Golden Retrievers tend to do well in obedience classes, being generally quite robust, large and easy going. The value of the book as a supplement is because The 10-Minute Retriever has a lot of useful ‘softy’ advice on specialist retrieving training, such as fostering enthusiasm in puppies, and teaching retrievers to like going into water on command, rather than taking a dry land route (involving entering the water oneself!). As a way of taking retriever training that bit further, then, this book has something to offer even to ‘softies’. It is also worth reading simply as an insight into a different dog culture.