Monday, November 28, 2011

Busting Dogs Off Deer

Few things are cheaper and more reliable than a simple leash.

A video of a man screaming at his deer-chasing dog in the U.K. seems to have created a small interest in how to bust dogs off deer.

Dogs chasing deer is not a new problem but an old one, and it is not limited to deer. Dogs may bust on fox, geese, feral cats, horse, sheep, bear, and even cars and bicycles.

Anything that moves away quickly -- and especially anything that moves away while making noise -- will tend to trigger the prey drive in a dog.

What to do about it?

Well to start, recognize that prey drive is a deeply-seated code that is curled up like a watch spring in some dogs, and that pursuit is a self-reinforcing behavior.

What's that mean?

Simple enough: It means the dog gets a great deal of pleasure from the pursuit itself.  

For a dog, chasing things is a peak experience in and of itself.  It is FUN in capital letters. 

What that means for you, the owner or trainer, is that you are going to have to use all three legs of operant conditioning in order to achieve success if you have a dog with a lot of prey-drive.

As I noted in an earlier piece entitled Milking Stools and Operant Conditioning, the complete tool box of dog training (i.e. operant conditioning) can be thought of as:
  1. Reinforcement (treats, play, etc.);
  2. Punishment (voice corrections, leash corrections, etc.), and;
  3. Extinction (no reaction from behavior, desensitization).

So where to start?

Well a short history tour will do no harm.

One common way that working dog men and women have brought on new dogs in the hunt field is to couple them to old dogs so that the new sapling learns to "pack up" with the group. 

Once experienced and inexperienced hounds and terriers are coupled together for a while, the young dog tends learn that the goal is not to chase ANY scent, but a specific scent.  Hound and terrier couples are still sold, of course, but coupling an old working dog with a new prospect is not too useful a tip for the typical pet owner who has a single non-working dog.  So what else is there to do?

Another ancient technique for busting dogs off deer is to extinguish the dog's interest in deer scent by flooding the dog with deer stink. 

One method of doing this is to tie a deer's tarsal gland to a hound's collar.  Glands are actually sold for this -- see page 18 and 19 of the last (2010) Bill Boatman Catalogue -- as well as special collars and deer scent preparations sold by others.  I have never tried this method, but folks like Bill Boatman who have run beagles and large hounds longer than I have been alive (I am 52), are due some respect. 

The more traditional method of busting dogs off deer is to teach the dog a sit, to sit-stay, and to whoa (a command that simply means "stop and do not move until I release you".

All of this is done with a flat collar, a slip collar, or a prong collar, and a 6-foot leash, a 15-foot leash, and a 30-foot leash, using traditional methods that may include food rewards, clickers, pushing down bottoms, stepping on leashes, etc. 

There are a dozen ways to teach sit and sit-stay, and different dogs seem to "get it" quicker with one system or another depending on age, temperament, and the ability of the owner to communicate consistently.

Once your dog KNOWS sit and sit-stay on leash, and is 100% on these commands without distraction, you will want to take the dog to places where distractions such as other dogs, wildlife and farm stock (sheep, feral cats) are abundant. 

Work the dog on a short leash, and then on a long leash or check cord, and be quite tough on the dog when it starts to move towards a distraction and ignores a sit command.  Sit means SIT 100 percent of the time and whoa means NO moving forward!  Do not repeat commands. 

Once the dog understands that you consider deer scent and chasing cats and others dogs complete nonsense, and once the dog always obeys a sit command when on leash, you now want to move to the next stage which is making the dog bomb-proof off leash.  If your dog has a low prey drive, and is a soft and compliant dog in general, you may find it is pretty bomb-proof right off the mark, in which case lucky you!

More commonly, and especially with working dogs that have strong prey drives and no outlet for them, you will see compliance slip a bit when a dog is taken off-leash.  Old military trainers like Konrad Most and William Koehler could be pretty tough on dogs that would regress when off-leash, and for a pretty good reason:  a bolting or barking dog in a military situation can end up killing an entire platoon of humans.  Tolerance for disobedience, especially when given a sit, sit-stay, or whoa command was very low and for a darn good reason.

The good news is that today we have a new tool in hand, and while it is not the right tool for most training jobs, an e-collar is a very good tool for teaching a whoa and for busting dogs off deer provided it is used correctly.

As I note in an earlier piece entitled The Limits and Strengths of E-collars, electronic collars are NOT for teaching basic obedience, but are excellent tools for long-distance reminding.  This kind of long-distance reminding is particularly useful for deer-chasing dogs that have already been been taught sit, sit-stay, and whoa, and which have been long-lined on a check cord with distractions such as deer scent and running deer.

Again, to go back to basics, you do not start off with an e-collar by turning it up to 11.  You start with a setting so low it barely tingles, and you start using it with leash on to remind the dog that scent is a NO. 

The dog already knows this because you have taught it -- you are just reaching out and tapping the dog on the shoulder as a reminder if it forgets on a long line.  Yes, you may have to jolt the dog once or twice when the dog is a bit too excited fully off-leash at the beginning, but I have busted my own dogs off deer and never moved the collar past 3.  Remote collars are not about frying a dog -- they are about reminding a dog from a distance.

Go through the old Bill Boatman catalogue or that of any other hound and working dog shop, and you will see all the basic tools ever used to bust dogs off deer -- brace tethers, deer tarsal glands, check ropes, and e-collars. 

Here is the entire history of busting dogs off deer and other "trash" wildlife, and it all works, but the check cord and the e-collar together are the basic tools for modern field dog training because they both work well separately, even if they work best together, as described

But, of course, all of this is likely to be far too much work and bother for the owner of Fenton, the dog seen rioting on deer in the video at top. 

Here, what is needed is nothing more than a leash, or perhaps a simple 20 foot length of parachute cord tied to a belt clip on one end and a leash on the other.

It is an old truth that few things are cheaper and more reliable than a leash, and in this particular case Fenton's owner, an architect and father of two, should have known that Richmond Park, south west of London, has a herd of deer, and it is illegal to run dogs off-leash as a consequence.

Now, the poor fellow is keeping his head low, and thinking of changing the dog's name so he does not get in trouble with the authorities.  

That's a lot of trouble that could have been solved with a check cord or a leash of the simplest variety.

1 comment:

Seahorse said...

I recently received excellent and careful training to learn to use an ecollar on my female JRT. To do it correctly requires a good mentor, a lot of time taken by the owner, fairness, consistent obedience work, a lot of repetition to attain the perfect timing, and an open mind. Maybe the open mind thing should be mentioned first. Why did I go this route? Because it was absolutely NOT an option to have my girl be mangled under someone's car tires. And guess what? She comes when she's called, her heart &/or spirit have not been broken, and this, along with the obedience training, has allowed her to break out of her timidity. Happy, confident, obedient? Yes, yes, and YES!