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How to Use a Place Board to Train Sporting Dogs

Featuring Todd Agnew, Craney Hill Kennel

The power of a place board—a slightly elevated square platform—cannot be overstated in terms of helping your canine understand what it is he is supposed to do.

Labs training on a place board

“Dogs genetically are place-oriented, so what you want to do is use that genetic trait to your benefit,” says Georgia-based dog trainer Todd Agnew of Craney Hill Kennel. “We personally believe in doing anything we can to make it easier for a dog to understand what it is we are trying to convey.”

Place orientation with canines is so strong, things that are positive or negative can be imprinted at a young age.

“When a dog experiences something really negative he will avoid that spot his entire life for the most part,” Agnew says. “Let’s say a dog stepped into a hornet’s nest. Even if he sees other dogs in that spot and wants to run over to them, he will still go around the spot. On the flip side, if something really positive is experienced in a location—like a treat on a place board—then he will go there willingly. We have all seen how a dog let out of a door will run to a spot where something good has happened, even if it is just a place where he found a squirrel or a bird. We can use that place orientation to our benefit in training.”

Place orientation teaches dogs that there is an exact spot where they need to be and the place board helps teach them that exact spot. For spaniels the word typically used to stop is ‘hup’ whereas ‘whoa’ is used for pointing dogs. Place boards help show dogs exactly where they need to stop.

“You can buy all sorts of place boards, but we just like to cut a two-foot by two-foot board from plywood,” he says. “A sheet of plywood doesn’t cost a lot, especially because you can make about eight boards from one.”

Agnew suggests looking at your backyard and visualizing it as lots of place boards (spatially). “From a dog’s perspective there are a half-dozen spots that all look different from the grass. Teach a dog that one spot which he can identify and it helps transition to when you take that board away and there are all these imaginary spots,” Agnew says. Then the transition to the yard with no boards becomes easier because the dog associates the command with the exact spot he was at when the command came.

“Now you can take that place board and do all sorts of things with it,” Agnew adds. “Flushing dogs generally quarter left and right to the handler. If you train alone you can start to move boards to the left and send a dog to those boards to help him get the general gist of what you want him to do. It’s just a stepping-stone to show a dog how you want him to go back and forth.”

Place boards are developmental tools. “This type of training doesn’t make a gun dog,” Agnew says. “Just because a dog casts from board to board in a controlled setting doesn’t mean he will run the same way with live birds around.” A place board is a training tool for helping shape behavior.

“The boards are becoming all the rage in the spaniel world, but trainers of Labs have been using place boards forever,” adds Agnew. “The truth is they were being used with spaniels in the early ‘90s. They’re ways to make it easier for a dog to learn. Spaniels in particular are not head-strong dogs, so it’s a gentler way to teach. Anything we can do to make it easier for a dog to understand what we’re asking is our philosophy. A place board helps do that.”

Agnew uses clickers and positive training methods in conjunction with place boards. “Our puppies are in the house for the first six months,” Agnew says. “I let them out at 5 A.M. and train them to run onto a place board in the kitchen for a click and a treat. That training carries over to other behaviors. For example, if the doorbell rings I have the puppies get on their place boards for a click and a treat. They stay on the place board as people enter our house and walk past them. There is no jumping up on the visitors.”

“Once I click—think Pavlov—the dog is salivating so I have linked the event,” he says. “So now if it takes me four seconds to hand him a treat, I’ve already clicked when the event happened. The click marks the point of good behavior and the treat reinforces that good behavior.”

Praise is important to reinforce good behavior. A pat or a kind word is great, but a treat is even better. Agnew uses treats because he wants a dog to learn to go to work and be a problem solver. “For a dog, the ‘problem’ is that he wants the treat. The problem solving then becomes him figuring out what he has to do to get the treat,” says Agnew.

Since clickers mark a good behavior they are perfect for training a dog at a distance. If a pup is 10 yards away and follows a command to sit on a place board, you’d give him a click. Then you’d hustle over to him and give a treat. The treat should be given quickly after the completed command. It helps put together associations for good behavior.

Place boards teach dogs where to be. When they correctly arrive at that place, clickers and treats mark and reward that good behavior. Practice makes perfect, so the more training you do the better your pup can learn, especially when more advanced training comes later on.

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