Vizsladogs, Ltd.

Success Secret:
Field and Obedience Training Together

About the author: Jack Sharkey is the trainer and handler of his four year old Vizsla: DC AFC NFC Hodag's Hunter,UD,MH who also is the Vizsla Club of America 1993 #1 Open Gun Dog. Read his profile under Vizsla Owners for a current biography.
When asked by either field trialers or obedience handlers as to why my dogs have done so well, I answer that the secret to my success was finding out that field training and obedience training are very complementary. How did I find that out? By doing it! I really stumbled onto it as I was looking for a change of pace after the 1993 Spring trialing season. I decided to try obedience just to see what it was all about. Being a relative newcomer to any type of dog training (I bought my first Vizsla just four years ago), the word at that time was you must decide what you are going to do with your dog. Hunting tests and field trialing are just too different to expect your dog to do well in both at the same time. No one that I knew even mentioned the word obedience. Well, I believe I have proven that one's dog can do it all, and do it well, if you put your mind to it and have the necessary patience.

Probably the most important and absolutely critical element to success is to have a very close bonding with your dog. Because of this bonding, I have found that my dogs go overboard in trying to please. In fact they try to please too much and sometimes anticipate what you want them to do next which can ruin a good obedience exercise or field performance. However, that is a small price to pay for having a dog with a big heart wanting so much to please its master. The next element to success is having a dog that obeys your commands and this is where obedience training comes into play. A field dog is absolutely worthless unless you can get him or her to do what you want it to do. You don't pass hunting tests or get placements in field trials with a renegade dog. The dog must be disciplined, but yet show initiative and drive. The same is true in the obedience ring. Many of the exercises are very parallel to what you expect from the field dog such as retrieving on command, responding to hand signals, scenting, heeling, and marking.

As an example, this Spring I had my three year old bitch in field trials, hunt tests and the obedience ring. She had a couple of gun dog placements, passed three of five Master Hunter tests, and got her Companion Dog Excellent obedience title. Without the obedience training that we started about a year ago, I know she would not have had her field accomplishments. If I would have started her obedience training when I started her field training, I'm confident that her progress would have been even better. In your training, do you believe in consistency in your commands whether they be verbal or body signals? If you have not given this part of your training any thought, let me give you quick examples of how your dog focuses in on you and follows your commands be they verbal or signal. Recently, I was talking to a fellow competitor at an obedience trial after my boy, Hunter, had laid down for the third time (two trials in a row). This happened after I gave him the hand signal to stand while I walked to the other end of the ring to continue the signal exercise. In discussing this with a friend at ringside after the last time it happened, I was told that it appeared Hunter was taking a command from me as I walked away. Would you believe that as I reconstructed in my mind what I had done when I left Hunter, I remembered that I had dropped my left hand from my waist to my side as I walked from him and he recognized this as my normal down signal? The individual I was talking in response said, "let me tell you my story". She went on to say that after her dog would periodically stand instead of sitting when doing a heeling halt, her husband began video taping their sessions and after reviewing many performances, she recognized that on those heeling stops that her dog stood, she found herself doing a little cheat signal by dropping her left shoulder back and in doing so, her right arm unknowingly came forward and slightly across her body, which is the beginning of her normal stand signal and her dog recognized it as a stand. Is your dog taking unintentional signals from you? Think about it the next time your dog does something different from what you expected. Do you use reward or reprimand in your training as the means of getting your dog to do what you want it to do? Dogs first have to learn to learn. You do this by working on the communication channels between the two of you and there are many.

Reading your dog is especially important during bird work in the field and how he reads you in the ring is equally important. I personally favor and highly encourage use of the reward methodology. I can't tell you the number of turkey (they taste better) hot dogs that I've used in my training sessions. I cut them into small slices so I can easily carry them in my mouth. If you carry the reward in your hand, that's where the dog will focus its attention, whereas by carrying the treat in your mouth, this forces the dog to carry its head high where it can observe your eyes as well as arm and shoulder movements. Body signals are important to both field and obedience handling. Try the reward method the next time you're doing your yard work and see if it doesn't make a difference.

One other note on training. Above all else, do not end your training session on a downer. Do whatever is necessary to get your dog's tail high and wagging so you both finish on a positive note, thereby declaring it was a positive training session for both dog and handler. Remember, you are a team! What impresses judges and wins field trials? It's a dog that's under control, needs minimum handling, and is steady on its bird work. Is this not obedience at its highest form?

And what do obedience dogs need to do to perform well in the ring? They need to possess the same qualities that judges look for in the field, believe me. I took Hunter to his Utility Dog obedience title in eleven months from the day we started to practice heeling, directed jumping and retrieving, retrieving on the flat and over a high jump, and hand signals to name a few of the obedience exercises. Are these not the same requirements of a field dog? Sure they are. But you counter with, I don't want my dog to sit when he comes back on a retrieve. First off, your dog can easily distinguish between a feathered bird and a metal or leather dumbbell. If not, what judge is going to fault an otherwise snappy retrieve with a sit when the dog places the bird in your hand. Think about that.

So how do I sum up this article? If you're a field person, get your dog into the obedience world. If you're an obedience person, try the field. You'll be amazed and thoroughly delighted to discover how well your dog will adapt to becoming a winner in both areas of competition.

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