What Does Daisy Need?


Daisy presently is not the best of markers. Once in awhile she will amaze me on a mark, and then screw up on easy “stuff”. For the longest time her mother Taffey had issues with marking. It was not for want of quantity, quality, difficulty or drive. For Taffey, it was mostly about focus.  

Daisy has her Senior title, and the next step is to start running HRC tests. Therefore, our long and cold winter gave me time to really analyze what to do about her marking. Not all of this will be applicable to another dog, but the theme may provide a useful perspective.

To start with, the main focus of my training revolves around balance. Balance is judged within a set of five criteria. These are “birdiness”, control, focus, responsiveness and retrieving. This approach is not mine. It is something I learned at a training seminar put on by pro trainer Julie Knutson. For almost one year, I did not run a single test. The reason was to work on my teaching and training skills.  

The first step for "improving Miss Daisy" was to clearly define the problem. The second step was to determine what was out of balance. The next step was to develop a plan to restore balance. The focus is “do what the dog needs”.

Here is the analysis for Daisy. She is high energy, intense, extremely “birdy”, smart as a whip, very
fast, through transition and easily distracted. Genetically and in real situations, both parents are excellent markers. However, Daisy’s mother was not, until she (Taffey) became more focused. So the history of her mother and observable mental makeup of Daisy clearly points toward a lack of focus as the issue.

One critical aspect in quality marking is focus. If focus is weak….the results are “poor pictures”.  “Poor pictures” inhibit memory. So how does one create more focus? In theory, enhancing responsiveness and control will positively influence focus. Thus, better focus means improved marking. In training circles the usual way of stating this is, "poor line manners can result in lousy marking". Better line manners can be the direct result of better OB, but it is not always the solution. It may not be what the dog truly needs.  

Daisy is almost manic about birds and bumpers. Presently, her speed mentally and physically gets in the way. Therefore, we need to slow the game down. It is too fast for her. Somewhat like a skilled athlete that moves to the next level…….often things are too “fast”.  

Armed with this information, it is clear that more marks, more singles and better placed marks are not going to deal with what is out of balance.

For many dogs, the situational aspect of marking has a dog at the handler’s side. In many cases this position becomes a cue for anxiety. Where else is a dog under more pressure? This positional anxiety often is ignored. Handler perceptions are not always the same as the dog. It needs to be dealt with.   

Therefore, a plan was devised to deal with Daisy’s dysfunction. The rationale was marking will improve if OTHER things are addressed. This is in keeping with “do what the dog needs” and “not what I want”. Not surprisingly, if one does what the dog needs…..I will get what I want.

First, Daisy sat beside me with the sole intent of making it less of an anticipatory rush. I wanted her sitting and feeling bored......well, at least closer to that. Secondly, "de-speeding" a her at heel will  require working very, very much more slower and quieter.

At first, we desensitized away from anxiety by keeping the marks simple and NOT terribly exciting. For example, birds would be counter-productive for Daisy.  Since Daisy is easily distracted, we have begun work with close visible, bumper marks with an extended focus (just staring) before releasing. Purposefully, various distractions were randomly added. When she “fell for them”, Daisy was corrected with quiet, calm verbal “no's” until she began to maintain a zone where everything else was tuned out except the mark. Improvement was very incremental......but encouraging. The "rush of the correct look" needed nurturing.

This last idea comes from working with the pointing aspect of my Labs. A dog on an intense point goes into a mental state of concentrated euphoria. Everything around them becomes insignificant and they are in an intense focus (if almost as in a trance). They stop panting, start taking slow, deep breaths and may even develop a slight drool. If one were to closely observe a really focused and talented retriever with great marking the similarity is uncanny. This parallel was (in theory) expected to increase Daisy’s focus on marks. It did.   

There was an obvious “need” for Daisy to become more responsive. She started to give me more eye contact because I was consistently seeking it.......this became a conscious effort on my part. This moved her into a “sharing anxiety” mode. Better focus was the goal. However, working on responsiveness the anxiety at the line was reduced. The reasoning was she will not be all alone in her emotions at the line. I planned to have an impact on that issue. By being more responsive through enhanced eye contact, I was be able to calm her down some. This lessened her anxiety, improved her focus and positively impacted her marking skills.  The plan was she will not be isolated in the "heat of the moment" because I did not enjoy being a "potted plant" at the line.

To date, here is what we did that winter (in past tense). 1) She is enrolled in a weekly OB class for two reasons, more distractions around her (other people & dogs). OB work demands more eye contact because the skills are a team effort.  The OB classes actually increase the amount of OB we do daily, so a comfort level of just doing “stuff” quietly and calmly together is broadened.  2) Every day Daisy sits beside me in the heeling position while I’m on an HRC bucket. We just sit there and “shoot the breeze”.......a lot. It is becoming a calm, relaxed and pleasant position for her to be in.

I have a large indoor, heated area in which I can toss short marks and do handling drills. Right now, we are reprogramming her routine at the bucket. Slow, calm, no motion, quiet mouth, long focuses on short visible bumpers are the norm. The time taken is stretched out considerably. We are never in a rush.........it would be agonizingly boring to watch. Action is deemphasized. She is being reprogrammed....so to speak.

Distractions (looking away from the “fall”) are met with a quiet “no/watch” command/reminder. A “sit” indirect pressure is useful. The little ring on top of her pinch collar is easily accessible to lift up on and produce a higher sit. The hand cue is extended and held for many seconds. The use of quiet “goods”, “get your mark” and other dogs’ names are used to desensitize her to distractions and increase focus. Intense, deep, lasting focus is the standard. .

A great deal of time is taken to properly position her on the retrieve, to calm down, to establish meaningful eye contact, to eliminate mouthing and to willingly release the bumper on “drop”.  There is considerable time taken to relax and prepare for the next toss.

With three or four “tosses” per day (using the above), the last few weeks have produced these results. She 1) no longer slips into the “anxiety pant” during the exercise, 2) can sit quietly on a remote as I prepare the area, 3) will make eye contact when asked, 4) no longer makes darting glances off toward distractions (imaginary or real), 5) has transitioned into the “focused trance look”,  6) she sits higher, 7) does not flinch on "verbals" and 8) most importantly, loves every minute of the time spent.  

The plan is to extend this to field training when spring decides to get here.

Now the question might be, "What has this got to do with her marking?" The answer is everything.
A properly focused and responsive dog is a better marker.

                        updated 01/04/14