Three ways to increase water test pass rates!


One of my passions is to address the low pass rates in our breed water tests and why this cycle has been going on for so long.  I have seen pass rates for a single test as low as 10%.

I know this is a big topic to take on, but my goal is to identify what is important to the participants and support keeping these tests viable for the future owners and the water breeds that participate in them.

I have Newfoundlands.  I also have many clients with Portuguese Water Dogs.  Some of the same issues cross both breeds.  There are also Labrador Retriever and Leonberger breeds that will participate in these tests when opportunities are open to them.

I am not an advocate for making the current test criteria easier, I am in the camp of educating members on how to properly train the tasks using scientific methods.

I am a Professional Dog Trainer that spends time and money educating myself with the most current scientically supported training methods from many instructors across many disciplines.

Let's get into it!

Example 1 - Dog needs to leave owner on beach, go into water, and do a task

Mainstream Handling in a Test Scenario - When dog does not complete the task, the owner walks with the dog out to help them do the task

Results - In actuality you are reinforcing  your dog in a test context to stop short!  This is the exact opposite of what you want to teach your dog.  Most water exercises need a dog to independently leave their owner to perform a task.

Why this happens, explanation of scientific method: A - B - C (Antecedent - Behavior - Consequence).  This is the most fundamental law of behavior.  Consequences DRIVE behavior.

Observation in today's environment:

"A" - Owner gives cue

"B" - Dog walks into water a little, looks back at owner

"C" - Owner becomes frustrated and walks in with dog.  This consequence actually adds good things for your dog because you went in with your dog as the consequence.  If good things happen dogs repeat past behavior.  In essence, in a test environment you reinforced your dog for stopping short and they will duplicate that behavior.

You have to change the Antecedent so the dog changes his behavior.  If in a test you can not change the "A" (shortening distance to beach) then you have to abort and move on; otherwise, you are digging a deeper hole.  This is the reason why performance throughout the summer for most teams decline.  They did not stay true to behavior rules in a test.

Example 2 - Team needs to chain 5 or more tasks together in a test setting

Mainstream Training Method - Run throughs at group trainings, teaching each task in large chunks

Results - Dogs leaving beach, everyone frustrated, performance declines throughout summer

Why this happens, explanation of scientific method: Ring confidence, behavior chains, thinning reinforcement are all topics that are taught separately by many instructors for many venues with a structured plan.  Backchaining context cues to build drive is used by many obedience competitors.  Splitting the tasks down to small fluid pieces creates confidence for the dog to move seamlessly through the performance and when the context is a little different they have the information to problem solve to get to next piece instead of giving up.

Canine Water Sports provides a venue to test small pieces of a breed water venue in a test environment.  We test each discipline individually instead of chaining 5 or more tasks together at a time.  It can be used as a water match for information on where your team is in their testing journey.  Also, it provides a curriculum to break the larger tasks down to smaller behaviors.  Even in this all breed water venue where we have set things up for success for each team, we still see a lower pass rate on some of the individual tasks that include a Go-Out and Article transfers.

 Example 3 - Dog needs to take something from a human with its mouth

Mainstream Teaching Method - If dog does not have natural toy play, owners may use holding muzzle around objects to teach a hold.

Results - A dog hesitates to take objects in a stressful situation, reluctantly takes the object then drops it, or runs away with object.

Why this happens, explanation of scientific method: Consequences applied using Skinner's Four Quadrants of Operant Conditioning Learning Theory.


We condition our dog's emotional feelings around things all the time.  We are doing this whether we mean to or not.  The way we implement the quadrants of learning theory as our consequences helps us determine what kind of emotional feelings we want to have around a task.  If you offer an article to your dog, and you force the article into the dog's mouth, you are using Positive Punishment to suppress the behavior of not wanting to open mouth around object.  If the dog will close his mouth around the object, but you have to put your hands around muzzle to create hold duration then you are using Negative Reinforcement.  The trainer is requiring a certain behavior from the dog (holding object) before the aversive is removed.  Presentation of aversive training methods may cause distress.

If you are getting behaviors you do not like, avoidance, running away, dropping; sometimes we need to look at how we are implementing consequences and try a different approach to get the response we desire.  

My choice is to use Positive Reinforcement.  I try to stay in this quadrant as much as I can so I am building an emotionally resilient dog in a trial setting.  

The video in this blog shows examples of how I change the antecedents of the environment to train a "Go" or a "Carry" to get a behavior and how using positive reinforcement reward strategies encourages a dog to work with me and an article.

 I have created a new on-line course, Four Force Free Steps to increase article hold duration.  I created this course to give people the tools they needed to stay in the positive reinforcement quadrant to teach a consistent and robust article hold.

Currently I still have a few bonus spots left where I give you my private on-line community for free, this is a $59.99 value.  You can submit Four / Two minute videos to me in this community for me to help you through these steps.  

Click the link below to get the first video from the class for free and check out the on-line class.  Remember if you are one of the first 10 people to purchase the course you get the private on-line community for free.

Four Force Free Steps to Increase Hold Duration

I look forward to a kind discussion around how we can move our beloved breed tests forward and teach new members the joy of working with their pet in the water to achieve fun and success.

Are you part of our totally free  Facebook Group JUST for people like you that like to train your dog for water work?  If not – what are you waiting for? 

Keep on Splashin'

Erica Etchason BS, CPDT-KA

Your dedicated Canine Swim Coach


email: [email protected]

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