by Dave Carty
"If you have a dog, you have what you have," Glenn Kania says. "It's up to you to get as much potential out of that dog as you can."
Kania owns DeltaMarsh Kennels in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, and is a big believer in letting aptitude dictate the progress of his dogs.
True to his beliefs, Kania chucked former careers—as a commercial pilot and owner of a trucking firm—to breed and train what he modestly calls the "world's finest gunning Labs." That was 25 years ago, and he has been molding gundogs ever since.
The idea that dogs have widely varying abilities for absorbing and retaining lessons is hardly news but is nonetheless a concept that is widely ignored, particularly among those who may be training a dog for the first time. Instead, they may try to push their young dogs too fast, too soon, without the necessary background work. The question is: Why?
"Ego trips," Kania suggests. "Or maybe somebody's had an exceptional dog. Or maybe," he says, "from watching pros work competitive dogs."
Kania should know. He spent years on the trial circuit, but he gave that up in the early 1990s to devote his time to producing hunting dogs, which, then and now, dovetailed with his passion for waterfowling. Whatever the reason, Kania feels that pushing a dog too hard is almost always a mistake.
Few would argue that some dogs are quick studies and some are not. Less well known is the fact that a dog that learns slowly may catch up with a fast learner down the road.
"Case in point here," Kania says. "I used to be a Chessie person. That's all I used to work, own and train at one time. Chesapeakes are a much slower maturing dog. But once you've taught a Chesapeake, and he knows what's going on, he's got a tremendous memory. It's what the breed has going for it."
Similarly, Kania says that among most of the retrieving breeds, females are usually quicker on the uptake, at least until they come into their first season, when males start gaining on them.
Regardless of the dog's aptitude, however, Kania suggests that early socialization and training set the stage for more intensive training later on.
"In my opinion, if I start off with a puppy at six-and-a-half, seven-and-a-half weeks of age—that's when I start working them—by the time they're up to five-and-a-half months of age and have their mature teeth, I've got my entire obedience package into that dog," he says. "The dog has been created into a bird monster, and as soon as I walk it out the door, the dog's looking for something to pick up. Then, at nine, 10, 11 months of age, I usually have a real solid dog.
"But you've really got to understand that up until eight or nine months of age, that's prime training time," he says. "Years ago, people never took dogs in until they were a year old. I really, really think you're missing the boat if you're not putting your time and effort into these dogs when they're younger—at five-and-a-half, six, seven or eight months of age."
Kania says that by the time a dog reaches age two years old, most trainers will have produced the animal they'll have for life. Which seems to contradict the idea that dogs learn and mature at their own pace. But most retrievers, like people, grow out of their "teenage" years at a predictable age. Kids ostensibly become adults by their early twenties; dogs typically become adults around age two. And two years allows plenty of time for variations among individual animals to manifest and be dealt with.
In fact, Kania says that assuming all other things are equal, getting two dogs to the same point—a well-trained, reliable gunning companion—could involve time frames that vary by as much as nine months. In other words, one dog might reach that point at nine or 10 months of age, while another might not get to the same level until nine months later. The goal is to pace the training schedule with the dog's willingness to learn so that, eventually, both animals do get there.
How do you know when you are pushing your dog too hard? Kania says that if you pay attention, your pooch will tell you when it needs a break.
"Let's say you're walking your dog at heel, and you're walking real slow," Kania says. "Then you pick up the pace. You ever watch your dog's tail set? As you pick up the pace, the dog's happier. So let the dog be a barometer. Read your dog. That's what I tell my clients. Look at the tail set; look at the ear set. You have to be able to read your dog and stay two steps ahead of it. You have to react to what the dog is about to do versus reacting to what it's already done."
The upshot is, in the big picture, faster isn't necessarily better.
"Speed training ... I really don't see that as a viable means to working a retriever," Kania says. "But if you have three months to train them, you do the best you can and do what you can."
And then, Kania suggests, you stay with the program throughout the dog's first season, devoting that first year afield to maintaining your pup's progress—at its own pace.