Monday, October 27, 2014

Oliver Finds His Roots

If you've been following Iron Oak Farm for any length of time you've probably heard me mention our dog Oliver. He is the sweetest thing to enter our lives since our last dog Ceddie. I grew up with Golden Retrievers. My parents raised them before I was born, and though we've had a loveable collection of strays and shelter dogs over the years, we've always had a Golden in the house.

Oliver is one of the most playful dogs I've ever lived with. He has an eagerness to please and is smart as a whip. Zach and I felt that his personality would be perfect for some sort of focused training. So for the last month or so we've been working with him on doing what Retrievers do best...retrieve!

Golden Retrievers were first bred in England to retrieve fowl that had been shot. They have what is called a "soft jaw" which means they carry the game loosely in their mouth as to not damage the bird. They also love water which makes them a perfect breed for duck hunting. 

Since Oliver was a puppy, he's always had the instinct to fetch and retrieve. Even the first week we brought him home we would throw one of his toys and his natural reaction was to bring it back. He wasn't always too keen on letting it go however, and often preferred a friendly game of tug-o-war.

But with some treats and gentle training he soon learned to give up his toy, stick, or whatever the object might be.

For Oliver's training, Zach made a dummy "duck" out of a tube of denim filled with padding and smooth pebbles for weight. We wanted the dummy to be close to the weight of an actual duck and so far Oliver is handling it well. There are ways in which to gradually make the "duck" more lifelike as training continues and we intend to explore these options.

Since we've started this training, many people have asked us if we think it's a good idea to encourage this sort of behavior when we have chickens free ranging all over the yard. Oliver is a bird dog, it's true. However, his instinct and training is not to hunt, but to retrieve a dead bird. He is not being encouraged to chase, kill, or hunt. He's also been taught as a puppy to leave the chickens alone and he can even be trusted to come in the coop with me to collect eggs. So far, we haven't seen any increase in interest with the chickens since this training has started. (For more on Chickens and Dogs (and cute puppy photos) read my Community Chickens post 50 Chickens and a Bird Dog.)    

Fetch and retrieve are already engrained in his behavior, so lately, his training has been focused on keeping those instincts correlated with our commands. Mostly in the form of the "wait" and "fetch" command. He is also learning had signals and can almost carry out the entire "fetch" circuit silently. (We're still working on consistency there.)

Before, when we would throw something across the yard, he would automatically run and fetch it. We are now teaching him that he must sit and wait, watch where the "duck" falls and only retrieve when he hears or sees the "fetch" command.

In the beginning, he would be so excited to run and grab the "duck" that he would shake with eagerness. Zach kept a finger on the back of his collar to remind him that he hasn't been released yet. After a week and a half, he is getting pretty consistent and we no longer have to touch his collar.

We are now working on fetching from a different source. Now Zach gives the commands, while I throw the duck from different areas of the yard. He's learning that he has to pay more attention because the action isn't starting from where he is sitting. Oliver is doing wonderful and we're so proud of our smart boy.

So far our training methods have come from You-Tube videos but if things keep on as they are and he responds positively, we might take things further and see if there are local training group in our area.

Zach and I aren't big hunters, in fact, neither one of us has ever been hunting. But we do enjoy a bit of target practice now and again with our backstop on the property so Oliver is use-to the noise and doesn't seem to be gun shy. But even if we never shoot a duck, we are all enjoying this time together out on the field each evening.

Oliver loves to run and fetch and turns circles when we get the "duck" off the shelf to go train/play outside. I think it makes Oliver feel important to an extent, which he is of course. And he's always a fan of praise, cookies and scratches which we hand out frequently out on the field.  

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