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Tips for Training English Setters

Though English Setters are intelligent, they require training techniques tailored to the way they learn as a breed for best success.

English Setters are very soft, so harsh training methods, even a harsh tone of voice, shuts them down. Positive reinforcement, short sessions, lots of happy talk and cheerleading, and lots of food and play rewards are the best methods for training this breed.

In hunting, English Setters demonstrate remarkable intelligence. If enrolled in a nose work class, they ace it. In conformation, they don’t have to show their intelligence to do well. Although they have a good nose for tracking, they normally air scent when hunting, whereas tracking requires ground scenting, so they need a period of adjustment to do tracking but can be very good at it. Tracking skills can also apply to search and rescue work.

Shift the scene to another performance activity – such as agility or obedience/rally -- and English Setters are a bit like fish out of water. They can do it, but specially adapted training techniques are required. When out of their hunting/scenting comfort zone, ES need lots of repetition and consistency to learn a new skill. But, they are bored by repetition, so training should be a few reps (about 5) a day over the course of many days.

English Setters do not see any value in agility or obedience/rally skills, so we have to make these activities high value for them by giving lavish rewards. That means very tasty treats (e.g., morsels of ham, chicken, or beef) in high quantities offered with high frequency.

When it’s time to wean the dog off treats to prepare for competition, I use a jackpot, a technique I learned from my wonderful obedience instructor. We start by working for about a minute, then I yell ‘jackpot!’ run to my treat container, and allow the dog to eat all he wants for a couple of seconds. I gradually build up the time between jackpots and do random intervals between jackpots until the dog can do a whole agility course or a whole obedience sequence just getting a jackpot at the very end.

English Setters dislike obedience heeling because there it requires repetitive drill to achieve precision, but once past Novice, they enjoy retrieving, jumping, scent work, and signals. To teach heeling, the trainer needs to maintain a snappy pace, bring a lot of energy and enthusiasm to the training, and keep sessions short. English Setters like rally because the trainer can cheerlead while working.

English Setters enjoy the action in agility, but a big distraction is the presence of birds in an outdoor training setting. Before attempting to do agility outdoors, I spend a lot of time in focus work, such as hand touches, fronts, games, and tricks. This process can take months, but you really can’t run agility unless the dog ignores birds and focuses on what you’re doing. Obedience/rally classes can be helpful in establishing focus and team work for agility.

ES often adore clicker training for any activity because they choose to do what you’re asking in exchange for a paycheck, and the learning steps are small and incremental.

If you take your time, use positive methods with abundant rewards, and proceed at the pace your dog needs, your English Setter can learn to do anything you want.

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