by James Card, Associate Editor, Ducks Unlimited Magazine
Follow these tips from five expert trainers to help your dog reach its full potential in the field
"I think we are drawn to dogs because they are the uninhibited creatures we might be if we weren't certain we knew better," wrote the late George Bird Evans in Troubles with Bird Dogs. "They fight for honor at the first challenge, make love with no moral restraint, and do not for all their marvelous instincts appear to know about death. Being such wonderfully uncomplicated beings, they need us to do their worrying."
And worry we do.
But worrying will not in itself bring wisdom. Sometimes you need a little help from a professional to offer guidance on how to handle man's best friend. With that in mind, we asked a group of expert trainers to share some of their wisdom about how to make a retriever the best dog it can be. Here are some of the techniques they use to achieve peak performance from their retrievers.
1. Change the Scenery
Both dogs and people can excel in their comfort zone, but when faced with an unfamiliar situation or setting, they sometimes find it difficult to adapt. Mike Stewart of Wildrose Kennels in Oxford, Mississippi, recounted a story of a client from Memphis who regularly trained his Lab at Shelby Farms, a massive urban park near DU headquarters. At Wildrose, the dog didn't seem to remember any of its previous lessons. "He never does this at Shelby Farms," the client told him.
"As a joke and being a bit of an antagonist, I began to call his dog 'Shelby,'" Stewart says. "Ol' Shelby just never transferred the skills he learned in his familiar training ground to other locations. We call this generalization.
"Dogs don't transfer skills from one location to another without transitional training. Our training rule is to practice each individual skill or lesson five times in five different locations to ensure habits are well entrenched," Stewart explains. "Shelby never mastered his performance in different locations because his handler didn't provide diverse training experiences. Doing the same thing, the same way, and later expecting a different outcome can be a pitfall in retriever training."
For the trainer, this means developing a portfolio of accessible and varied training locations. These should include different types of terrain, such as wetlands, fields of tall grass, woods, and grazed pastures. But training should also be conducted in different types of weather and with other dogs and people. The greater variety of training experience you can provide a dog, the more confidently and proficiently it will perform in real hunting situations.
2. Make Patience a Priority
Obedience is the cornerstone of all retriever training, and for a dog, an important aspect of obedience is learning patience. "A common mistake made by many enthusiasts is throwing meaningless, repetitive retrieves in play or during training," Stewart says. "This is a fun activity in the yard and entertaining in training, but in reality the dog is learning to gain his reward—the retrieve—while often being quite out of control, overexcited, and sometimes even vocal. It's unrealistic to expect the dog to be steady and quiet in the field or duck blind when he has been regularly worked into a frenzy during training sessions."
"An easy way to instill patience is to drop a bumper while the dog watches and then pause before sending him for the retrieve." –Mike Stewart
Stewart encourages patience in all aspects of training, especially before retrieves or rewards are given. "An easy way to instill patience is to drop a bumper while the dog watches and then pause before sending him for the retrieve. To further build a dog's patience, incorporate denial into each training session by not allowing the dog to pick up a few bumpers during each round of retrieves," he says.