Peel The Onion – Resolving Training Difficulties

Back to basics – loose lead heel work with frequent food rewards to build value for the dog to walk in positionAnyone who has trained with me over last ten years will probably, at some stage, have heard me say, “you need to peel back the onion”! We all have our funny little sayings and obviously this is one of my mine when asked about overcoming difficulties or challenges in training. It will probably end up being inscribed on my headstone, ‘here lies Jules, the onion peeler”! But what do I mean by that? I believe that many, not all, training difficulties can be resolved by looking at the foundation behaviour you taught in the first place.

Off lead walking with intermittent food rewards – keeps it interesting for your dog and continues to build valueFor example, if your dog has started running in on dummies then the core behaviour you taught was to sit (or stay) in one place until further direction was given. Therefore, running in = failure to stay with particular distractions. To overcome running in you will need to “peel back” the foundation behaviour of “stay” to the point where your dog is steady in the stay. (note: my cue is “sit” meaning sit and remain there until the next cue or release. Some people use “stay”, “wait” or another word. For ease of explanation I will use “stay”)

Walking happily off lead – continue with random reinforcementYou may not need to go back to the very beginning of teaching the stay but you need to backtrack to the point at which you are pretty confident that your dog will stay without error. Then you rebuild the behaviour from that point by putting a great deal of value on the stay. Use a high value and rapid rate of reinforcement (probably a lot of food to start with) and then gradually re-introduce levels of the “4 D’s” (distance, duration, distraction, direction). This is called “proofing” the behaviour. Vary the distance rather than gradually making the distance greater (eg 10 feet, 20 feet, 15 feet, 5 feet, 25 feet, etc). The same goes for duration, direction and distraction. This way you keep the game interesting and you keep your dog thinking and focussed. Plenty of variety can really “bullet proof” your stay and don’t forget to vary the environment too!

Other onion peeling behaviours might be:


messy heelwork in the walk-up
sloppy delivery of the dummy from water
poor recall on scent
swapping the dummy
running-in when hunting

Foundation training

= loose lead walking + distractions
= retrieve training + wet dummies/dog
= recall + distractions
= recall + distractions and retrieve training
= stop whistle/stop to moving objects

For me the three main benefits in seeking the foundation behaviour and rebuilding from the point at which it is very reliable are:

1/ My dog is not being told off or corrected. We are going back and reinforcing the desired behaviour at an achievable level. Your dog is succeeding straight away and therefore in a better frame of mind to learn! Very positive stuff.

2/ It gives me confidence as a handler to tackle the problem intelligently and calmly and above all successfully!

3/ It works! It is effective! We are not trying to ‘patch up’ a fault, we are overcoming it.

What other behaviours could benefit from the “onion peeler” treatment?

And another thing….

I am always being asked whether and how much colour dogs see and how good is their eyesight. We often use red and orange dummies to make retrieves harder and black and white dummies for better visibility. Here is a link to a very good article explaining it really well that Helen Phillips shared with us on facebook. I hope you enjoy it.


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