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7 Retriever Training Secrets

Achieve peak performance from your retriever
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3. Don't Rush the Retrieve

Outdoor writer and photographer Tony Zappia trains his golden retrievers for national field trials in New York's St. Lawrence River valley. He contends that 90 percent of the problems encountered during training are the trainer's fault. Among the most common mistakes is rushing the retrieve. "When you are at the line, it's important to know when the dog is ready to perform a retrieve," Zappia says. "After the bird or bumper hits the ground, watch the dog, and let him settle down before releasing him. Let him concentrate for a while. When his ears perk up, send him."

"When you are at the line, it's important to know when the dog is ready to perform a retrieve. After the bird or bumper hits the ground, watch the dog, and let him settle down before releasing him. Let him concentrate for a while. When his ears perk up, send him." –Tony Zappia

Like Stewart, Zappia also incorporates steadiness techniques into his training sessions, as well as in play sessions with groups of dogs. "I'll sit them in a row, throw a ball in the yard, and send them to retrieve, by name, one at a time. This sharpens their honoring skills and steadiness for hunting and trials. I'll also throw the ball and make them sit and stay while I go pick it up," he adds. "This playful activity is less stressful than many other steadiness drills and helps you achieve the same result."

4. Overcome Diversions

In waterfowling, executing multiple retrieves in the proper order is often essential to recovering crippled birds. "Suppose a brace of birds is shot over water. One bird is close and lying belly up in the decoys and the other is a crippled glider that landed 80 yards from the blind. The logical approach would be to send your dog after the crippled bird. But this will require the dog to swim past the dead bird in clear view. If you haven't practiced diversions and your dog is not solid in his casting skills, he will likely switch to the short bird," Zappia says.

Diversions test a dog's determination to complete the task at hand. These include visual distractions like the example above, auditory distractions like gunfire at other birds, and even scent distractions—such as when a dog catches wind of a dead bird while pursuing a cripple. To build a gun dog's single-mindedness amid diversions, Zappia recommends "lining" exercises like the wagon wheel drill.

"Handlers must be able to cast their dog away from any distraction," Zappia says. "The dog and trainer must practice casting, lining, and blind retrieves so the dog not only complies with commands, but also trusts the handler giving the commands."

5. Know When to Back Off

Another common pitfall in retriever training is going too hard, too fast. Enthusiastic beginners often expect progress during every session and no backsliding. When a dog doesn't respond to initial training attempts, they double their efforts, and in turn double their problems.

Pamela Kadlec, author of Retriever Training for Spaniels and one of the most respected trainers and breeders of Boykin spaniels in the United States, says flexibility is an important part of her training philosophy. "You have to find out what 'clicks' with each retriever. I always have at least one dog in the kennel that will make me stop and rethink the methods I am using to get the best performance out of that dog," Kadlec says. "Most retrievers need a balance of pressure and patience. Putting constant pressure on a dog can have the opposite of the desired effect. In some cases, a dog can completely shut down and never retrieve again.

"Knowing when to back off and when to push forward can only be learned through trial and error. When in doubt, back off and give the dog a chance to work it out using gentler methods," she continues. "If one method doesn't work with a pup, try another. For example, I often find young pups don't like to fetch pigeons, but if you put a bird in a white sock, most pups will grab it right away. Similarly, if you are trying to teach a pup to retrieve in the water and he's not interested, go into the pond to show him that it's fun to go swimming."

"Knowing when to back off and when to push forward can only be learned through trial and error. When in doubt, back off and give the dog a chance to work it out using gentler methods." –Pam Kadlec

Butch Goodwin, owner of Northern Flight Retrievers in New Plymouth, Idaho, offers similar advice. "I once worked with a dog that for some reason would not hold birds or bumpers. I thought I was making progress, and seemingly out of defiance he would spit out the bird. I was banging my head against the wall trying to get this dog to hold, but he just wouldn't give in," Goodwin says. "A friend and fellow dog trainer stopped by and asked to take over. Within two minutes he had the dog holding birds, bumpers, and happily walking at heel carrying a bird. Later, he even had the dog fetch some bumpers.

"My friend saw that as the frustration level escalated, so did my pressure on the dog. Eventually it became a war of wills, and the dog was winning," he explains. "I learned a very valuable lesson: regardless of how frustrating the training becomes, keep it steady. And if your blood pressure starts to go up, back off and end the session on a positive note. Frustration will only hurt your training program."

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