On this blog we have so far been quite good at describing the training we do technically (or at least we try to be good at it). One can almost get the impression that we train and train and like never breathe, as if we never let our dogs take it easy in the training.
But we do. It’s just so boring to video a dog working on steadiness. A bit like watching paint dry …
Perhaps one of the most important things to train with a dog that you’re going to compete with or work with in some form – not least if starting at a field trial is in the cards – is the skill of being able to relax in all possible situations and environments. That the dog has access to his “off switch”.
Some dogs seem to be gifted with an “off switch” from the start, but I believe you can probably ruin it if you don’t maintain it … Other dogs don’t seem to have a clue about what “off” is and you simply have to teach them all about it. We cover on and off switches as bit in our book “Retrieving for All Occasions”. But I’m going to take the chance here to describe how Elsa and I have trained our dogs to be able to rest and relax, and share our thoughts on the subject.
Elsa was a student when Diesel was a puppy. This meant that she was sitting down, studying, for long stretches every day. When Diesel had been out and they had been doing stuff together such as playing or training, and it was time for Elsa to sit at the desk, Elsa sometimes put a blanket next to the desk. If the puppy had trouble settling down on her own, Elsa would put the leash on her and tie her to the table leg. Diesel could have physical contact with Elsa the entire time if she wanted to and Elsa could easily bend down and pat the puppy or calmly sneak a treat down to her. Since the puppy was tired when Elsa started the training, Diesel quickly learned that the blanket was a place she rested on. You could say that she was conditioned to rest on the blanket.
Eventually, Elsa began to bring the blanket to different places and she also began to train the same thing in the crate. Sometimes she had neither blanket nor crate but encouraged Diesel to lie down and rest when she sat down in different places in the woods and when they were out and about in the city. She simply began fika training. “Fika” is the Swedish word for having a snack, a very important custom here! Since Elsa also went by bus with the dogs several times a week and also went by train to Växjö with them quite often, there were many natural training opportunities.
Soon, Diesel could relax just about everywhere – with and without her blanket. As an adult dog, she has an incredibly nice on and off switch – it really is like pushing a button. Diesel can be lying around quietly in the one minute, and in the next be retrieving at full speed. She’ll then go back to being calm and still.
I have conditioned Tassla to her crate. I have tried to make it a cozy and quiet place where I placed Tassla already on her first night with me. I placed the crate next to my bed and could just reach down to my puppy if she was worried. But since I made sure for the first few weeks to put her in the crate when she really was tired, being crated never seemed to be difficult for her – on the contrary. It’s almost comical how, in the evenings, I could take my very wound up puppy – who behaved like a child up way past her bedtime – and calmly put her in the crate. 30 seconds later she was sleeping like a log. I put her in the crate once or twice during daytime every day too. It went well 99 times out of 100 – she fell asleep immediately. The few times it didn’t really work was when I tried to crate here when she wasn’t really tired but instead really busy. On those occasions, she tried barking a couple of times, but I just ignored her, kept within sight and had “fika” or pottered about with something. She settled down after a little bit.
I lived in the city when Totte was a puppy and we regularly trained at outdoor cafés and in parks. Then we moved to the country and I forgot about “fika” training. That lead to a Totte that would whine as soon as I sat down somewhere. His off switch was non-existent. If he was still, there would be immediate vocalizing. Therefore, two training buddies and I started having “fika” meetings. It was great to kind of meet up with summer every Thursday evening, with a cup of tea or an ice cream and lots of dog talk. And three dogs that caught on to the deal really quickly. Already after two meetings, Totte had begun to settle down and was basically silent.
When Tassla and I go out to train, I often carry a small backpack with a chair. Every training session includes “fika” training, and I also like to include that on our walks (which always contain a bit of training anyway). It is partly my training buddy and huge inspiration Catta who’s taught me this (with her you always enjoy “fika” for a large part of the training session), but my experience of having a dog that does not have such a good off switch has also made me very interested in working on this, in every possible way.
“Fika” training isn’t just beneficial for the dog; it’s really good for me too. To settle down in nature with a cup of tea and a dog at your feet is sometimes almost a magical experience. I get very calm and harmonious – a better person, I think. And definitely a better dog trainer.