Course with Helen Phillips


Last year we had no summer camp because it didn’t fit so well with our lives then. Instead, I had longed for and focused on going to a camp myself.

In July, Helen Philips from the UK came to Edsäng in Hälsingland, invited by Eva Thorén. Helen has written the book Clicker gundog, she is a full-time instructor and hunts with her dogs, a load of Hungarian Vizslas and a springer spaniel .And she is also a pronounced clicker trainer.

I cannot emphasize enough what the latter means to me. Attending a course for an instructor who basically has the same ideas about training is incredibly peaceful. Everyone who is there has – at least more or less – the same ideas and you do not have to explain or defend your training. Furthermore, you don’t have to worry about someone being harsh to their dog. Not once during those days did I see anyone being harsh to their dog or raising their voice at it. SO. DAMN. GOOD.

Keywords in the training

Me and my friend Anna, who also have cocker, had signed up for the advanced course – there was also a beginner course – and we were eight handlers and some observers.

Helen has an instructor style full of humor. A somewhat dry and ironic humor mixed with total sincerity and a spice of kindness. I laughed a lot during these days, got some things to think about regarding my own training and some new exercises to bring home both to myself and my students. Thus, just as it should be when attend a course for a good instructor.

Is the dog ready?

We started the whole course by talking, training and thinking about how we start up the training with our dog. Helen talks a lot about that we need to wait for the dog to be ready to train. Wait for the dog to say, “I’m ready, what should we do”. According to Helen, we need to be a little more observant of what the dog is trying to tell us, instead of being so busy with telling the dog what to do.

Tassla – ready. Photo by: Daniel Eidenskog

We walked one by one around two poles, with the dogs in loosely hanging leash, without taking any notice of the dog. We who were observing got the instruction to look at what the dogs did. All dogs examined the environment initially, then they gradually began to contact their handler. The time varied for different dogs, but it was striking that all dogs actually “told” their handler that they were ready and looked at them. Even the male dog who had to walk the area last, after a bitch in season had walked there… even if it took quite some time.

I had Tassla with me on the course and she soon started to “talk” to me, but this whole idea of getting ready for training is something that I especially bring home to Quling. Actually, I had, a few months before the course, just found out that Quling needs to be in a new environment and sniff and mingle before he is ready to train. If I start too early, he is not with me – then he either shuts down or he take off on his own adventures. If I only take it slowly and calmly in the beginning, he is wholeheartedly with me. After seeing the dogs on the course doing this exercise, I felt very confident that I would continue on that track.

If the dog is not ready for training, there will only be conflicts and nagging and poor training once you start training.

Pause Signals

We also talked about what pause signals we have for the dogs. Helen wants the dogs to pause and take it easy when we give them the cue. Tassla does not pause when I give her paus signal. She is still but at work anyway. She lays flat with her head on the ground and stares up at me, ready for treats to rain down on her. I still want to have that behavior as a kind of “wait but be ready” and furthermore it sooner or later usually leads to her actually taking it easy. But it can also cause her to start demanding things from me. That is, activity or treats. She pauses for real if I place her a little away from me, preferably on a small blanket. Or just down the grass, I say “wait” and walk away a few meters. Then she can slide over on one side and lie still, look around and sniff the ground – being more relaxed than when she does the other things, I just told you about. If I am to continue to use the first signal, then I need to remember not letting her activity lead to activity. Only when she does something else such as sniffing or when she is calm and not focused on getting me started, she will be allowed to start working.

Marked Retrieves

After the initial exercises we practiced marked retrieves. We were in a field that was very hilly. It didn’t look so hilly though. We had to choose the distance to the area of the retrieve, and we got the warning that this exercise had been difficult in the previous group – much more difficult than it looked. IN SPITE OF THAT, I think the majority of dogs were having trouble solving the task. I was SO surprised. I walked close, Tassla is a good marker but both she and Penny (Anna’s dog – we had the only spaniels on the course) started hunting after running part of the distance. My big insight after that exercise was that what can seem very easy can be difficult.   Obviously, I need to get better at reading the terrain while trying to understand how the wind behaves on the ground.

Helen talked a lot about not handling the dog on a marked retrieve. Then the dog learns to hesitate. I think that the agreement between you and the dog for a marked retrieve is actually that you tell the dog “mark properly and solve it” while in on a blind you say, “listen to me because I know how to solve it”. So yes, to start handling on a marked retrieve is something I want to avoid but sometimes you need to save the situation. At the same time, there is a difference between handling a retriever and a spaniel. The spaniel is not bred for long lines and sooner or later they usually start hunting instead of running in a straight line. But of course, it is after all about whether the dog marked well enough or not. However, I need to take this into account because I probably want to have a little too much control and may not always let the dog solve the task without me interfering.

Anyway that works is a good way to carry a dummy. Photo by: Daniel Eidenskog

A concept that Helen returned to many times is the phrase “set them up to succeed ” – arrange the training so the dog succeeds. It is one of the foundations of clicker training .If we want to work reward-based, we need to set up the training, so the dog does a lot of things right. Then we can reward them and thereby give them information about what we want to see more of. Helen also thought we should be aware of whether the dog really marked the dummy or if they marked an area. I interpreted it as she thought it was good to be careful to help the dog mark as much as possible, to make it more confident in marking on its own. For example, by having white dummies and starting with short distances, etc.

On and off

The second day we started with the important on-off training. We got to switch between tugging and heelwork in an exercise where we would play for ten seconds, then go right into a calm heelwork. We walked between five posts that were set up maybe ten meters apart. If the heelwork did not work / the dog was too eager, you just walked back to the post you came from and re-started the heelwork from there. I thought it was striking how the dogs’ heelwork got better and better the longer you got into the exercise. I myself tried to time when Tassla was as calm and focused, preferably when she looked forward – with starting to play again. After only a few repetitions she was great at settle down into calm heelwork.

In this exercise, however, something happened that made me a little annoyed. I played with a ball with Tassla. She loves balls and she often plays with my husband, and together they have developed a game that almost gives me an allergic rash. My husband throws the ball (he has learned that Tassla should sit until he says “get it”), Tassla picks up the ball and then stops half a meter in front of him and “throws” the ball on his feet. They have a lot of fun but I in front of me I imagine how Tassla in the field with a bird in her mouth does the same thing – spits the game on the ground … So, when I started playing with her on the course and she spit the ball out by my feet I “demanded” that she pick it up and put it in my hand. I even started reversed luring with another ball to get her to hold the ball all the back to me.

Playing with a ball – on who’s terms? Photo by: Daniel Eidenskog

Helen gave me the feedback that I have too many rules in while playing. Play should be on Tassla’s terms and be fun and undemanding. A skilled dog handler can teach the dog which game where playing when and, in another game, I can work on her delivering the ball to my hand, Helen said. And she’s got a point, of course. At the same time, the dog learns what it gets to practice. The solution is to switch between different games so that she does not get to practice letting go all the time. I just don’t want to have play as a training tool but also as a fun reward. And I really think Helen is right that “a skilled dog handler” can teach its dogs the difference. If you do not have such good training skills, then this is too difficult. My husband was at least very happy when I got home and told him that they could continue with their games. J And I have let go of my “demands” and play just for fun.

Water work and casting

In the afternoon of the second day, we did water training. I worked on breaking Tassla’s expectations of water and working away from marked retrieves in the water, up into the forest instead. It went well and we ended up having to choose an exercise that would just feel fun for the dog. I let her hunt for a dummy in the reeds, because hunting is her favorite.

Day three began with casting exercises. The dog’s self-confidence on a blind retrieve is vital. Helen therefore works with the dog being very confident at running in a straight line. She uses aids in the form of white dummies or even white buckets (with dummies in) and she works with target areas and landmarks. Nothing out of the ordinary in other words.

Anna and Penny, supervised by Helen

We also had to think about how we cast our dogs. Is our set up helping the dog so that it is able to take a really straight line, or do we do something that disturbs it so that the line risks getting crooked? We got to stand in front of a mirror with the dogs and see if they leaned away from us, if we stood over them etc. It was a little tricky to do that, and I discovered that Tassla leaned a little away from me, so I will keep that in mind.

To sum up, these days I thought, as I wrote at the beginning, that the best thing about the course was to be with like-minded people, be able to reason on a level where everyone understood the basic idea, and nothing was strange. I also like that Helen made me think, that I had to take an extra round with a few different things I do and re-evaluate some and decide to continue with others. It was also great to get some new, fun exercises that I can use as an instructor.

Helen will come to Sweden in April!

And finally, I have great news! Helen comes here (to Landvetter and Vallda, outside Gothenburg in Sweden) in April and holds   a clinic and a foundations course .It will be so much fun! Elsa and I will attend as observers all three days to get new inspiration for ourselves and for our courses, not least. If you are the least interested in hunting – whether you have a retriever, spaniel or HPR – and curious about exciting dog training then I can really recommend these training days. There is only one dog spot left for the weekend course but read the description of the clinic and the course on the links below and do not hesitate to register! This will be very interesting and instructive!

Thank you Daniel Eidenskog for letting me use your lovely photos! Here’s Daniel’s webpage.

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