In the infamous “Rumble in the Jungle” Muhammad Ali covered up along the ropes until George Forman punched himself out, then Ali went on to win the fight. In this version of “rope-a-dope” this summer, we had a dilemma with Mariah, a black and white pointer puppy. She just didn’t want to listen. When I did the traditional checkcording in the yard, she would run to the end of the rope until stopped by a shoulder-shocking jolt then run in another direction to be brought up short again. The addition of a traditional spike collar brought a certain amount of control to the situation and she began listening to me. I thought we were making progress and had run her a couple of times in places where she could keep track of me if she was so inclined.
Then we ran her with an older dog in our wild bird training area. She stayed with us and I got to see her point and hold briefly on the first woodcock that she had ever come across. Shortly thereafter the older dog had a find and we called Mariah in. She locked up and I was able to get to her and hold her steady for the flush. I let her chase the bird, as we usually do with puppies, and then the wheels came off. She didn’t run away but she ran wherever she wanted with no regard for me at all. At one point I caught up with her and found her playing in the brook like an otter. She ran up and down the middle of the brook, went to the far bank looking at me when I called and then went back to playing in the water. At the time, she was wearing a shock collar that I was reluctant to use while she was in the water or on the far bank.
To paraphrase Tom Landry, the long time coach of the Dallas Cowboys who was talking about not having his quarterbacks throw many passes, there are three things that can happen when you shock a dog and two of them are bad. The dog can stop where it is afraid to move for fear of being hit again, bolt away from the stimulation in a direction away from you, or, the desired outcome, come to you. When Mariah finally gave up being an otter and came over onto my side of the brook, I pushed the button and called her again. She chose the first option and just stood there. I walked over to her, and she wagged her whole body like she had been lost and was glad I had turned up. I made a fuss over her and then we headed out towards the truck. She stayed with me for about a minute before she was once again off exploring the world in directions that did not coincide with where we needed to go. I stopped her two more times with the collar and walked over and got her going in the right direction again before I finally raised the white flag and hooked the lead on her. She happily bounced along at the end of the lead sending shockwaves up my arm to my shoulder completely unfazed by our “training session.”
It had been a long time since I had worked with a puppy that had not been whelped at the kennel and walked regularly. The puppies we raise are socialized and have a strong human bond. Mariah was whelped elsewhere and had not had the same level of early foundation work. In addition, she is one of those strong willed dogs that wants to assert her independence. When I got back to the truck Tony Bly, who I have trained with regularly for over 20 years, was waiting for me and offered a solution which involved a shock collar, a lead, two lengths of checkcord tied together, and the ball of the trailer hitch on the back of my truck. I walked out to the end of the ropes while Tony wrapped the lead around the hitch and held Mariah as well as the transmitter for the e-collar. When I was ready, I called Mariah, then Tony let go of the lead and pushed the button, and I reeled her in to me as fast as I could. When Mariah got to me, Tony released the button, and I made a big fuss over her. We repeated the process a couple more times and she was soon running to me faster than I could pull in the rope. By the second day of this, Mariah was coming to me from the tailgate with no stimulation or only a quick tap to keep her on a direct course.
From there we moved to letting her run dragging a single checkcord. She was fine on the road but when she got into the cover and couldn’t see me she took off on her own and stopped when stimulated. We then found a big field that had recently been mowed and have been working her there. Except for getting distracted by little white moths, this works well. The next step was to put her back in the woods where she has to keep track of me with her ears more than her eyes.
When we started running Mariah in the woods again we worked her in the field for a few minutes just in case we needed to refresh her memory, but the earlier lessons so far have stuck. One important step in the process is that I make sure I call her in and get my hands on her two or three times during each relatively short session. This accomplishes two objectives: first it reinforces the imaginary rope that now runs between us, and it teaches her that coming to me doesn’t mean the end of freedom. This will be especially important as we start getting her back into wild birds – that’s usually when the wheels come off – especially when they start dropping from the sky in October.
Between now and then the major objective will be to keep her under control while giving her more freedom to run. There is no doubt that she can and will run but whether she stays in the woods with me or moves on to be run from horseback the dog must be under control. You need to be able to subtly steer a dog in a field trial so you can get to known or likely looking bird spots. You also have to keep them to the front and show them to the judges at the right time and places. You can’t do this if the dog has not submitted to your will. That’s the bottom line. They have to submit – when you call on them they have to respond. Not when they get around to it – but right then like an invisible string is attached. Don’t confuse this with a mechanical dog the hangs around and keeps the windshield clean between 10 and 2.
A dog that will perform at the level we have our sights on for Mariah needs to fill up the country, but it has to be the country that you’re in and not the country on the other side of the swamp or four sections away across the prairie. The winning dogs run big with speed and style but everywhere you go they are the ones that work with their handlers not against them. If you have a young dog that has not submitted to you and is independent and wild with no regard for where you are, it may just be time to step back like Ali did and rope-a-dope.