Tuesday , 16 January 2018

Ask a Trainer: Are your dogs playing too rough? How an excellent recall can help!

I have 2 Gordon Setters, a brother and sister from the same litter who are going to be 3 in a couple of weeks and at this point I have really one issue that I feel requires immediate

A pair of Gordon Setters

attention. Both the dogs are fixed and have been since they were six months old. My male has a deplorable habit of treating small dogs (specifically: the yappy, fearful, fluffy and white) as fun toys that run and squeal. He plays with them like prey, and by plays I mean it turns into hunting pretty quickly and although he has never bitten (I mean cut skin or blood) any dog, that scenario is always in the back of my mind.

He doesn’t listen when the playing turns into “hunting” (I really hate using those words). But I am thinking that I need to explore training options and perhaps get professional help to resolve this issue specifically.

His sister is no angel but her prey drive isn’t quite so strong, but she likes to “help” when the male starts. They are both dog park dogs and I don’t drive and even though our dog park has a separate area for small dogs (even if I have to argue with their owners that it IS for their benefit to use it),  I want my dog to have better recall when he’s misbehaving.

He’s still a dog and a dog that weighs nearly 70 lbs and he’s one of a matched set so.  Please, tell me what I can do.

Thanks so much.



Hello Irina!

Thanks for writing in with such a good question! Making sure that our dogs are safe with other dogs is definitely an important, responsible task. I will do my best to help, though I of course do have some questions. (As I usually do!)

Gordon Setter displaying a 'soft mouth'.

As I am sure you know, Gordon Setters are Sporting/Gun Dogs, and are bred to work as bird dogs. A bird dog is a dog who will ‘point’ (find) a bird, flush a bird out, as well as a retrieve a bird that has been shot down. Gordon Setters, as other bird dogs, are bred to typically have a soft mouth, meaning that they will carry a bird back, without damaging the bird. They are also not bred to hunt, per se, and they have a strong desire to work. A high prey drive is not that uncommon.

Seeing as your dogs are now three years old, they are also just maturing. Gordon Setters happen to mature later than most other dogs, and can retain that adolescent temperament along with the playful puppy attitude for quite some time.

You also mention that your two dogs are litter mates, which can sometimes pose a problem, making bonding and training a little more difficult for the owner.

Since I have never seen your dogs playing with small, squealing dogs, I cannot say for sure what is actually going on. It is not that strange that your dog chooses dogs who are fearful and barky. And it is also not strange that dogs play in a ‘hunting’ manner, as this often a part of play. What I do wonder about though, is the actual play.

I agree with you that there is a good reason that some dog parks have a designated spot for smaller dogs, as things can get out of hand quickly, especially without proper supervision and control.

But not all play that looks bad, or sounds bad actually IS bad. What matters is if both dogs are actually playing together. And they don’t always need to take turns playing the ‘victim’ role, either. So long as both dogs keep playing together, keeping going back to play and seem to be enjoying themselves, then it’s usually fine.

I would love to know more about what actually happens when he gets like this with little dogs. You say he’s never bitten another dog, even in while in this play manner, which is very good to hear. But I would be very curious to know if he really is becoming a bully to the smaller dogs (and those who are fearful and yap can sometimes make themselves a target, for sure), or if he escalates too quickly, or if he just gets into this zone where he can’t hear you anymore.

Regardless, it does sound like he needs a much better recall, as you have correctly pointed out. Because in reality, this is the best management/training tool that you’ll ever have. Even if he is playing well, he needs to be able to be called off of whatever you call him off of, no matter how excited he gets. Sometimes dogs who get very excited, very quickly need to learn how to ‘check in’ often. This mean that they need to learn to look to you every few minutes, just for some guidance and confirmation. (Which is a type of shortened version of a recall.)

Not all play that looks bad, or sounds bad actually IS bad. What matters is if both dogs are actually playing together.

Both dogs will need this heightened recall, as it is normal that your female may get amped up when she sees her brother getting excited. Arousal can sprout within a millisecond, and it is a very rewarding feeling for most dogs, which is why it is harder to get some dogs to settle out of it.

To set your dogs up for a better recall, you will need to start with an excellent recall in the house, in a calm environment, before you can increase the distractions in your home. Then you can take it to the backyard, starting with zero distractions, working up to bigger and bigger distractions, before you can take it out of your yard, again with zero distractions, and then build on that.

I would start with an ‘umbilical’ cord on the dogs, which is a rope that you attach to the dog while you are with him and able to supervise him. This is never left on the dog without supervision. The cord should be nylon or cotton, not too thick, and 10 – 12 feet long in the house, and 20 – 25 feet long when used outdoors. It should also attach to the flat collar of the dog, and should not have a handle at the end of it.

Make some sort of noise to attract your dog, a kissing sound, clapping, slapping your thighs, whatever grabs their attention. In a happy, jolly voice say ‘come’ while backing away from the dog, in a jovial, playful manner. Once your dogs gets to you (while you are still moving backwards) praise and treat your dog with a tasty reward. Don’t forget to mark a job well done with a ‘good!’ or a ‘yes!’.

Don’t ever ask your dog to ‘come’ unless you are sure of a 100% compliance. If you are not sure, or cannot make it happen, then do not ask. We want to set them up to succeed, and this is where the cord comes into play.

If you ask your dog to ‘come’ and your dog decides that the ball is more interesting, then all you do is step on the cord, reach down to pick up, and then slowly reel your dog in like a fish (don’t yank him) while still using a jolly voice to get him to come to you. And even though you did all the work, you will still reward him. Because we want to teach the dog that coming to you is the best thing in the whole world. That coming to you means that he’s won the lottery.

This also means that we never call our dogs to us when we want to do something that they might not like, such as getting a bath, getting a nail clipping, etc. Instead, go and get your dog.

You will then work on building up against distraction, as well as treating according to performance. A so-so recall earns a plain kibble. A pretty good recall earns a piece of dried liver. An awesome, super fast recall earns a piece of roast chicken, or a hot dog slice. It won’t take long for your dog to learn that better behaviors pay off better.

You will also start weaning the dog off food rewards by putting him onto an intermittent reward schedule. This means that instead of getting rewarded each and every time, that the dog will only get rewarded some of the time, preferably out of the blue, and not on a schedule. (Not one out of three, one out five times and so on….dogs are very good at figuring this out!) Don’t forget to always offer a verbal reward though!

The more a dog is paid off for a behavior, or the more they are rewarded for a behavior (by us, or by life) and the more a dog is reinforced by a behavior, the more the dog will offer that behavior. Our job is to make our dogs learn that coming to us means they’ve won the jackpot.

A Flirt Pole can help with a dog's impulse control

Personally, I would probably get rid of their food bowls all together as well, and incorporate their meals into mental workouts and training sessions. Being a working breed, it is very possible that your two dogs are essentially ‘unemployed’ and on the dole…which can be very boring for a dog. They require a lot of stimulation. Physical, of course, but also mental stimulation as well.

They are intelligent dogs, bred to work long hours for us. If we do not meet their stimulation needs, they will find ways to do that on their own, which often will manifest itself in ways that we do not want.

I would also suggest getting a flirt pole, which is a long pole, usually a lunge line pole, with a fluffy toy attached to the end, to work with them as well, as this gives the dogs a great outlet to ‘hunt’ and play. The play is fun, though it is controlled, which will help with impulse control as well.

I would also suggest contacting a local positive based trainer who can help evaluate your dogs and the situation, to determine the seriousness of any behavior, as well as to help you attain your training goals.

Good luck and happy training!



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  1. Thanks for the great advice! – always love reading the advice posts! Helps us so much with our two dogs.

  2. Hi I’m Minnei and I have a single pet so he felt alone . He get bored and aggressive sometimes so I take him grooming shop . He feels good at grooming shop, You can also try this trick. They want love and care

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