Teaching Dogs to Jump Boats and Ignore Ducks | BU Today

CGS Prof Kari Lavallee is also an award-winning dog trainer and breeder

Bell can’t wait to jump in the water. He moves forward, sitting on the boat, waiting for two bumpers to be thrown in from either side. The boat rocks slightly and his trainer finally tells him which boat to dive into first. On command, he jumps into the water, confused, but quickly recovers. His prize? High verbal praise followed by chunks of frozen meatballs.

Bell, a Portuguese water dog, is owned by award-winning dog trainer and breeder Kari Lavallee (GRS’92), a graduate teacher and department chair in natural sciences and mathematics in the College of General Studies. When not in the classroom, Lavallee is likely working with dogs of all levels in agility (both water and land) as well as obedience.

Lavallee, a teacher first, is quick to point out the similarities between working with puppies and college kids, and the pleasant challenge of showing both types of students that the problem isn’t as complicated as it might seem. “How can I solve the problem? Does the dog understand what I want?’ Lavallee asks. “It’s kind of like teaching students because the student is trying to understand something like a biochemical reaction, and your job is to break it down into little pieces and then reconstruct it for them.”

Fishermen trained Portuguese water dogs to retrieve overboard gear, net fish, swim between boats and shore, send messages, and protect catch. Their broad, clawed paws and thick, curly, waterproof coats make them particularly strong swimmers. Although most Portuguese Water Dogs are kept as pets today (President Obama and the late Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy (hon. ’70) both owned them), the breed excels in agility and is described by the American Kennel Club as a willing to push dog. -please be super smart and athletic.

Lavallee says water training is a short, intense season, running from about the end of May to September, culminating in two water trials. In the competition, the dogs must perform exercises such as retrieving gear bags, bumpers, floating lines and buoy balls, swimming from the shore to and from the boat, and setting nets from one boat to another. The exercises mimic the tasks that fishermen would require of their dogs.

There are five levels of water work: junior, apprentice, worker, courier and master. Dogs do not compete with each other for these titles; instead, they are awarded a certificate or name if they pass each exercise at their level. According to the Portuguese Water Dog Club of America, only about 35 percent of dogs are tested the first time. Those who did not take the exam can take the exam again.

Lavallee trains a group of trainers and their dogs at a pond in Bolton at least once a week to prepare for the test. On a recent hot summer day, Lavallee sits on the back of the boat, a friend rowing by with his feet dangling in the water. Beside him sits Bell, wearing a life jacket and a lobster-themed dog collar (Lavalley has spent his career studying different types of cancer around the world). He brought eight-year-old Bell to the level of the courier title, the second highest award by the Portuguese Water Dog Club, and traveled with him to races throughout New England. “He’s a superior, tough dog and he’s a hustler in training,” Lavallee says proudly.

When he orders Belle to swim to shore, the dog jumps out of the boat and starts moving. But it’s distracting. Wind, rain, glare, and currents can make things difficult, not to mention (fun) distractions like lily pads, ducks, and beavers.

Photo: Two people pose on a boat on the beach. A black dog is sitting between them.

After racing this summer, Lavallee with his two dogs: Streak [black and white dog] he passed the Junior Water Dog test on his first attempt. Scully earned 2 legs of Working Water Dog, but she needs 3 legs to be great Working Water Dog. Photos courtesy of Lavallee

Bell gets back on board and they wait a minute before trying again. This time he jumps and swims quickly to the shore, grabs a fishing line from the beach and returns to the boat. “Great job, what a good girl,” Lavallee says in a firm, encouraging tone. “Very nice work.” After 15 years of training, it worries him very little.

Patrice Lattrell drives her dog three and a half hours to practice with Lavallee. Portuguese water dogs are “thinking dogs, they like to be right,” says Lattrell. “And Kari is very positive, very upbeat when she makes them. Dogs respond to that.”

“She created a community of dogs and trainers,” adds friend Phyllis Zusman. “She is supportive and patient.”

Although Lavallee has owned 10 dogs over the years, it wasn’t until 2007 that a former colleague offered him a puppy, Asta, a female Portuguese water dog. A colleague asked Lavallee to train and race the dog, and he agreed. “Asta was more like a Portuguese dog because he would go into the water, but he wouldn’t actually swim,” Lavallee said with a laugh. “So instead we obeyed – rallying, scent work, barn hunting.” Lavallee later worked with Asta’s son, Darwin. “He was a big dog, but he was a tough dog. He taught me a lot about training,” she says.

A lot of training involves working on fundamental skills that casual pet owners are also taught — like retrieves and commands, he says — but at a higher intensity level, with distractions. “And all dog trainers will say, you have to teach a person how to train their dog. Most dog trainers can train a dog faster than the person they’re trying to train.

While it might take the average person several days to teach a puppy to shake its paw, Lavallee can do it in about six minutes. “I look for certain behaviors,” he says, “spots that bring you the final behavior.” As an example, he talks about giving back, a skill that has many components. First, the dog must put its mouth on the object it is picking up, then grab it (one of the hardest skills to learn), continue to grab it while in motion, and then bring it to the trainer’s hand. Timing is key and trainers must note exactly when dogs do what they want.

“Fortunately, dogs are very forgiving and they can be a kind of bridge,” she says. “If you have bad timing, they can understand, oh, he didn’t really want to say ‘Yes’ when I was sitting down, he wanted to say ‘Yes’ when I was standing.”

Even casual pet owners can heed this advice. Teaching a dog scent work, agility or tricks “makes your dog want to work with you more and makes your dog pay more attention to you,” says Lavallee: being fed and petted. A trained dog can go almost anywhere. It helps your dog become more independent.”
Bottom line: “The more you train your dog, the better your relationship will be.”

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