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Dobbs Training Seminar Review

by Gary and Sandy Hodson

In 1993 we attended a dog-training seminar conducted by Jim and Phyllis Dobbs. It was an excellent seminar that focused on methods using the Tritronics e-collar. We were impressed by the approach, bought a collar, and trained Coco vom Dan-Son and later Dea vom Steinweg using their methods. We were so pleased with what we had learned from Jim and Phyllis that we jumped at the opportunity to attend a second Dobbs Seminar in Fredericton, NS, in 1999.

This was another excellent seminar. Of course there was some repetition from the earlier seminar, but it was well worth it to be reminded of the basic principles of good training and the little points that had eroded over the years in our training. It was also exciting to learn about a new generation of e-collar and a new philosophy to using it. As always, Jim’s teaching was clear, systematic, and sensible. Throughout the seminar he worked with the participants’ dogs, demonstrating the ease of application and the effectiveness of the various training techniques. He has such a calm, matter of fact approach with the dogs that it would seem any idiot could do this as easy as Jim does. Knowing better from personal experience, we were tempted to think, “Maybe we should just send the dog to California for him to train.” Joking aside, a friend who attended with us reported that what he learned in the time Jim spent working with him and his dog was well worth the cost of the seminar.

Jim’s most frequent instruction to us over the two days was, “Watch the dog. Use that as your guide.” Working with hundreds of dogs, this watching has led him to refine his techniques and develop new training aids. The most important of these is the new Dogtra brand e-collar. It is compact like the Innotek models, but simpler to use. There is a digital intensity dial (like a rheostat) on the transmitter that gives you 60 levels of intensity right at your fingertips. The quality of the stimulation is also superior to other brands, generally allowing you to work the dog at lower levels than we have in the past with the same results. (Many of the participants were comfortable holding the collar at levels 15-25, while many of the dogs were responding to training at the lower levels of 10-15.)

Jim made several general points about using an e-collar. First, he stressed fastening the collar on snuggly. Contrary to popular belief, the dog may get a stronger stimulus because of arcing if the collar is loose and may also get skin irritation from the electrodes of a loose collar rubbing the skin. He also pointed out that it is the thickness of the dog’s hide, not the length of its coat, which determines how responsive a dog might be to the collar. If your dog is not responding at lower levels of stimulation, there is now available a conductivity gel that you can apply to the electrodes to get a better contact with the dog’s skin.

At the first seminar we attended the emphasis was on using avoidance training; i.e., turning on continuous stimulation, giving the command, and terminating the stimulation when the dog responds appropriately. Jim now follows a slightly different approach, which he believes is just as effective and easier for novice trainers. He had found that with continuous stimulation some dogs lock up and will not do anything. With the new approach, Jim will first “teach” the dog the behavior, making sure that it knows what is expected with a particular command. Only after the dog understands the command will he begin to “train” using an e-collar. He uses the following procedure: First he will give the command. If the dog responds correctly, that’s great — lots of praise and food reinforcement. If the dog does not respond correctly, then the next command is paired with a “Nick” (momentary stimulation of 1/1000 of a second). He continues to give a command along with a Nick until the dog responds appropriately. At this point the dog knows what is expected and is choosing not to do it. The Nick is reinforcing the idea that resistance will not get the dog out of performing the behavior. The first command is always “free”; the second and any subsequent command is accompanied by a Nick until the behavior is performed. (This, of course, requires us to be more precise in giving our commands and praise for a correct response — something many of us need to control better anyway.)

Jim stressed that under pressure dogs will engage in one of three behaviors: fight, flight or compliance. If we allow the dog to resist our command, either through aggression or escape, we are teaching it to engage in that behavior whenever it doesn’t want to do something. Therefore, when training it is critical to stay with the training until the dog complies. Ideally the dog comes to that point of view quickly and everyone is happy. That is more likely if it learns early on that fight or flight is not an option and that compliance leads to reward. It is important to stay calm and systematic, sometimes giving more cues or assistance, but ultimately evoking the desired response.

Another change in philosophy for Jim is the belief that the earlier you begin training the better. He now believes that with the new digital collar it is safe to begin e-collar training at four months with most puppies. He demonstrated this very effectively with a four-month-old Brittany who had never been exposed to any formal training. The reason for beginning e-collar training so early is that it is better to form good habits right from the beginning than to have to break bad habits. Certainly you can break those habits, but as Jim pointed out, once they are in the repertoire of the dog, when under pressure the dog is likely to revert to them. The Dobbs teach the “trained retrieve” using two commands: HOLD and FETCH. In one short session (15 minutes) the young Brittany puppy was working beautifully on HOLD with no distress at all. Jim encourages the use of food reinforcement with training, especially with younger dogs.

We were particularly interested in Jim’s approach to steadying a dog to flush, since that is where we were with Dea. He stressed never taking a dog into the field on planted birds until it was steady to flush in the yard; i.e., the dog will whoa even when moving when it sees a bird flush. He uses lots of birds (25-30 homing pigeons) in the yard training. He begins by throwing a pigeon in front of a moving dog. He lets the dog chase at least 20 yards, then uses a periodic Nick until the dog stops chasing. When the dog returns to the handler, he throws more birds, each time letting the dog chase a shorter distance (15, 10, 5 yards) before the Nick. It is important that the dog associates the Nick with chasing (i.e., movement), rather than with the bird. Eventually the dog will whoa as soon as the bird is thrown. Jim then goes on to the next step. In earlier training he would have taught the dog PLACE on a platform. Now he stands behind the platform and calls the dog toward him from 15-20 yards away. As the dog comes near the platform, a bird is launched. The dog is told WHOA and should stop on the platform. If it doesn’t, the command PLACE is given along with a Nick until the dog stands on the platform. The position of the bird launcher is changed from behind the handler, to the side, and finally between the dog and handler. Eventually Jim stops using the command WHOA and the dog automatically stops at the flush of the bird. Only after the dog is reliably steady to a flushing bird without command in the yard should it be taken into the field on planted birds.

One of the reasons for having the dog steady to flush in the yard first is that you never want to Nick or otherwise punish the dog in the presence of birds in the field so that the dog won’t learn to blink. This includes not using a verbal reprimand or lifting the dog back into place when it creeps on point. That is all it takes for some dogs to develop the blinking response. After you have taught the dog whoa to flush in the yard, then set it up for a crosswind find in the field. If the dog begins to move in on the bird after it picks up scent, you immediately release the bird (without giving a command) and you should get a whoa response since the dog has already learned in the yard that a flushing bird means WHOA. It may be necessary to say WHOA, but you should not give a Nick under those circumstances. (Note: One thing we learned is that when you are training on planted birds, always have one or two live birds in a bag with you. Then if the dog roars in and points with its nose on the bird launcher, you do not have to move the dog back from the launcher. Just let a live bird go from your bag.)

We were amazed at the numerous ways Jim utilizes the platforms in training. He uses them to teach the three primary behaviors required for a dog to avoid a Nick: COME, STAY, and GO. Once these have been learned the platform can be used as a cue to shape behaviors such as quartering, steady to flush, backing, etc. Jim says in the past it took several weeks to teach COME, STAY, and GO; with the use of the platform, he teaches them in a few short sessions.

A lot of the platform training is best done with the assistance of one and sometimes two other people. This leaves you free to give the command, watch the dog, and give stimulation or reinforcement, while someone else is assisting the dog into the appropriate response. We thought that these could be useful exercises at training days in the winter months when the weather wasn’t conducive to being in the field or water.

If you have the opportunity to attend a Dobbs Seminar, I would encourage you to do so. Each year they travel across the country at the request of various clubs. Much of what we’ve described is also covered in their videos, described below. [The review of the videotapes can be found under Resources/Books and Videos.]

This article appeared in Drahthaar News, March/April 2001.

Permission to reprint this article may be obtained by contacting

Sandy Hodson, Tel.: 902-757-3116, E-mail:

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