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Ahoy-hoy ladies and gentleman. I sincerely hope you all are having a wonderful summer. Actually, here in Wisconsin we have been having a wonderful fall for most of July and August. While many are complaining about the cool weather, those of us who train dogs are on cloud nine. We have been very busy here. I almost put off writing this as daylight is not too far away and it has been a long day. But I got some encouragement from a good friend tonight who said she was looking forward to this next article. It is almost Fall and a discussion about electricity would be much more timely now than in two months, so here goes.

There are several different opinions about the use of electric collars on Spaniels. As with most things in life, each person is pretty sure that their opinion is right while other opinions are wrong. I'm of the opinion that Elvis is still alive, living with aliens in the New Mexico desert. Oh wait... sorry, we're talking about collars. I'm of the opinion that they are great tools and shouldn't be used much. I thought I would state that up-front so you don't read through this article waiting for me to drop some sort of self-righteous bomb on you. (Actually, I will do that in terms of breeding in a moment... so be forewarned.) What I would like to do now is talk about some of the different sects of the Electrical Revolution. (I'm talking about E-collars, not Prince's back-up band!)

To start with, there are steadfast believers of not using electricity, ever. These folks believe that there are ways to train almost any dog to do almost anything without ever using electricity. This is a rather extreme belief. And while it does have some merit with many dogs, it is not a good blanket rule. Some dogs are just much easier to train using electricity. I have made some observations about people who never use any electricity. The really good trainers can do it with most dogs on a one-on-one basis. That being said, most of these people have dogs that have control issues to the point where I don't know how they hunt them. As far as field trialing them, they would be better off kenneling the dog and spending the money on a nice big game hunting trip as that would give them better memories and more to show for their investment.

The absolute key to success of dog training without using any electricity is getting a very biddable dog and developing a good bond with it. That raises a breeding question which we will delve into later in this article. In my mind, that question is really the crux of the whole collar debate.

Next are the folks who use collars to some extent. They are generally split into two categories. Category One: Folks who use the collar for punishment when the dog is doing something wrong. Category Two: Folks who use the collar for coaxing through the learning process. This coaxing is commonly called the "Dobb's Method" among Springer folks. I have no idea if Jim Dobbs actually thought it all up or not, but it has become a sort of catch phrase much like the "West Coast Offense" that so many of our professional football teams use. (One of my new goals in life is to have my name used as a synonym for something. Some day you'll be watching a movie and Tom Cruise will say something like, "That was the best Givens I've ever skied!" or "The other driver was fast but he couldn't touch my Givens!")

"I don't believe that winning is everything. I believe it is more important for us to breed dogs that the average hunter can easily train."

Anyway, let's talk Category One collar users (I personally fall into this category). It used to be that collars had two basic settings: off and barbeque. That has changed dramatically in the last decade with the introduction of many new collars by different companies. Most folks understand that little good comes from melting the hair off a dog's neck. People all have different methods of using the collar, but the general idea is when the dog is being bad the collar gets used. My own personal method of training is to set dogs up to do well as often as possible. When we reach a point that I can't get them to do well no matter how easy I make an exercise, then I scold them verbally first - and as a last resort I use the collar. I also like to immediately reward the proper behavior with a treat, bird, or just praise. I have a rule that for every time I have to use a the collar on a given dog, I have to set them up to succeed for something simple so I can really praise them at least three times. I almost never use the collar to initially teach something, only for reinforcement when I am convinced that the dog knows what it is supposed to be doing but refuses to do it.

Category Two collar users use the collar for the initial training of a dog's actions. Place boards are a common tool used in this method. The collar is used on a low level repeatedly until the dog obeys the command of sitting on a board. The idea is that the dog learns how to cooperate with the trainer by performing an action on command and thereby shutting off the electricity. There are numerous exercises used with this method and I won't even pretend to be knowledgeable enough to explain them all. Cone drills are popular, teaching the dog to run around cones or barrels to properly turn out in a wind pattern. Much retrieving stuff can also be done, forcing a dog to have a quicker pick-up on birds or enter the water faster.

In my opinion, this is a very tricky way to train dogs. There are a couple of extremely successful Springer field trial pros who train this way. They use a very good argument: once a dog has all of the basics that this method instills, the dog's Amateur owner can then much more easily control the dog - assuming that owner is well-versed in the use of the system. This is a pretty good argument. Many folks are drawn to this method of training because of the logical procedure it follows. You can proceed from step one to step two and that sort of logic makes a lot of sense to folks. You can't argue with that. I have noticed that people who prefer a more structured approach to learning are gravitating toward this method. It makes sense to them to train in this way. It forces the dog to adapt to the trainer instead of the trainer adapting to the dog.

My criticism of this method is that it can create problems in many of our soft, sweet Springers and Cockers when they are stimulated (shocked) at the wrong time. Many folks try to use this technique as a substitute for being knowledgeable about how to train dogs - and this is where they run into trouble. For those who are really good dog trainers to start with, it can be a very effective way to train. For those who are not very good at reading dogs' minds it can have a very negative impact on a dog's performance.

"But for those of us leading the breed with our performance dogs, we should maintain an attitude of doing what is best for the breed - not what is best for winning trials."

My biggest concern is how effective a collar can be when put in a very good dog trainer's hands. Folks are now able to control dogs that were once considered out of control. These dogs are successful at competitions and then it is these dogs that are being bred. I don't believe that winning is everything. I believe it is more important for us to breed dogs that the average hunter can easily train. I once had a very successful amateur tell me that he believes that every hunter should use a collar when hunting their dog. That is the out of touch mentality that many field trial folks have. For them, training is such a big part of their lives that they don't understand that this isn't the case for most folks. Most people want a dog with a great temperament that is naturally birdy and retrieves well. Most importantly, they want a dog that hunts close and tries to please its owner - instead of being out hunting on its own. When we breed these power dogs, we are selling many of their pups to average hunters who then think that all Springers are hyper-nuts, causing them to choose a different breed for their next dog. That is a very unfortunate thing, and it is happening more and more.

As with any type of dog training, each individual has to choose the method that suits them the best. A collar really can help make a hunter's relationship with their dog far more enjoyable, and I am all for making that happen. But for those of us leading the breed with our performance dogs, we should maintain an attitude of doing what is best for the breed - not what is best for winning trials.

There is more than one way to skin a cat. (That brings to mind a good story, but we won't go there.) And there is certainly more than one good way to train a dog. I just would suggest to anyone that they be aware that winning can happen without compromising a dog's true quality, and that breeding decisions should be made accordingly.

Don't forget the liver treats,


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Jason Givens experienced success in the springer field trial game as an amateur. He then turned professional, nine years ago. Jason and his wife, Michelle, own and operate Lighthouse Kennels at Cambria, Wisconsin. They train all flushing breeds for hunting and hunt tests, along with just springers for field trials. To that end, since 2000, he regularly finishes in the top-ten for the Hogan Award - which is the top professional springer handler trophy. Jason has achieved several national championship placements in America and Canada, including winning the American National Open in 2003. In additon, Jason has judged numerous trials both sides of the border - including the Cocker National and the Springer National Open.

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