By Gary Koehler
Having trained his first retriever some 40 years ago, Mike Stewart knows dogs. He follows a specific training regimen while raising and handling British Labradors at Wildrose Kennels (uklabs.com
) near Oxford, Mississippi. Some of his methods differ from techniques employed by other dog trainers, but they work for him. Proof is in the finished product. Included among his long list of fine retrievers are Ducks Unlimited mascots Drake and Deke.
Stewart strives to produce what he calls "gentlemen's gun dogs." But do not misinterpret that description. His Labs are full of get-up-and-go and are always ready to get down and dirty when in the field. He eschews the use of shock collars and does not submit his retrievers to the rigors of force-fetching. Applying little pressure, he nurtures their education in a controlled and positive environment.
When asked how to handle a retriever that stops short during a retrieve, or dillydallies after picking up the bird, Stewart has some sage advice. "When I hear from people that their dog is not completing the delivery, one of the first things I ask is what's going on at home," Stewart says. "If they're playing games with the dog, like tug-of-war, or giving them toys to play with, I tell them to pick that stuff up and take those things away.
"Dogs can become very possessive. Toys and chew things promote possessiveness," he adds. "You don't want to get that started in a pup. Once the pup gets older and you start hunting him, he just might figure that the bird he goes out to retrieve is his, not yours."
The only chewable objects Stewart provides his pups are those approved for dental care—and only when the dog is in its crate. Indiscriminate chewing, he says, may also lead to "hard mouth," a related problem that sometimes results in chewed-up birds.
"I always look at everything that cuts across the board," Stewart says. "You can't have dogs doing one thing in one spot and expect them to do something else in another. Dogs are creatures of habit. If they are chewing or mouthing while in training, I say let's fix it here, not in the field."
The size and texture of training bumpers are important factors to consider when introducing dogs to retrieving. Stewart uses natural-textured canvas or fire hose and cork bumpers. "These have the feel of a bird when picked up," he says. "I start with larger bumpers, because these are not so enticing to chew, and they add volume to the carry. Plastic bumpers are easier for dogs to chew on and are unnatural."
Stewart also puts game bird feathers—chukar, pheasant, or duck—on the bumper. The feathers are attached to one side of the bumper with a strand of tape around the middle. When the dog picks up the bumper, he has feathers in his mouth, so he starts getting used to feathers.
Stewart gradually switches to smaller bumpers and adds feathers accordingly, but never too many too soon. This way, the dog becomes accustomed to the feathers, does not chew them, and learns that this feathery object is to be brought to the handler. The transition to actual birds (including frozen fowl used during training) becomes that much easier.
The dog is then conditioned to hold objects. Stewart places the dog on an elevated platform and uses pressure-point manipulation—a massage, if you will—to relax the animal. A wooden dowel is gently placed in the dog's mouth and the "hold" command is given.
"It's all done using a positive technique," says Stewart, who this fall will introduce a new training book (Sporting Dog and Retriever Training the Wildrose Way
). "It's easy to apply once you know where the points are that get the dog to relax. The dog will hold the dowel all day. We'll reinforce this skill when the dog is seated on the ground, condition him to hold the dowel while heeling, and eventually move to water."
When the conditioning is done properly, "hold" means hold, and the bird is delivered to the handler. No more dallying. No more stopping short. Mission accomplished.