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Banding Together for Waterfowl

Retriever Training Plan

Make a plan and constantly evaluate
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Story at a Glance
  • A training plan causes us to remain focused on skill development, to reflect and to document.
  • The plan must be detailed, flexible and under constant evaluation.
  • Successful training is progressive learning achieved through consistent repetition of related skills to the point of habit formation.
  • Training a pup is much like eating an elephant: It's best done one bite (step) at a time.

We now have a realistic picture of the desirable characteristics of our hunting companion. With these outcomes clearly in mind, begin with the construction of a written plan by defining the major components involved in the training process that will best produce your desired results.

The plan will be composed of three parts:

I.  Categories
A.  Subcategories
1.  Skills

Categories are the overall desirable characteristics of the gun dog. Subcategories are the component abilities of the dog to fulfill the requirements of the categories. The skills are the individual commands, drills, concepts, responses and abilities the retriever will need to master in each defined subcategory. Obviously, this list can be quite extensive.

The plan utilized by the Wildrose Basic Retriever course includes six categories (core characteristics for a quality gentleman's gundog, which is our goal):

  • Obedience
  • Steady/Honor
  • Marking
  • Conditioned Delivery
  • Handling (Hand Signals/Whistle Commands)
  • Lining

Step One:  The defined categories you select become the "headings" for your training plan. You construct your plan around these areas of concentration either in outline form or by spreadsheet.

Step Two:  Define the component skills necessary to achieve each category. These become the subcategories. Once these are in place, break down each skill necessary to fulfill the subcategory to its smallest component. These become the individual skills that must be mastered to meet the requirements of each subcategory and, in turn, your categories. These skills will be taught individually, then collectively, to the point of habit formation.


I.  Obedience (Category)

A.  Sit/Stay (Subcategory)

  • Sit command/on whistle (skills)
  • Sit on hand signal
  • Sit on recall
  • Sit/stay with distractions
  • Sit on tree stand boat pit blind
  • Sit alone remote: 5 min.______ 10 min.______
  • Sit quietly in blind beside hunter 20 minutes, etc.

B. Heel

  • Heel command on lead
  • Heel over obstacles, etc.

As you develop the subcategories and skills, list everything that comes to mind. What is it going to take to get the desired performance? What will the dog need to know? Read articles and books, and brainstorm with others. Write each skill, command or task down on Post-It notes or cards. Once completed, group the skills assembled by subcategories, then place them in a logical format of progression within the subgroup.

When you get to a more complex concept, break it down into individual components and drill each to a point of success. Afterward, begin to link the skills together for a successful concept.

Take the rough draft and put it into a smooth, workable tool: checklist, outline, flow chart or spreadsheet. Realize, of course, it is likely you will be working on several skills within several subcategories and categories at the same time. This is as it should be. Progress on a broad front. Just be sure to "make haste slowly" - drill a skill to the point of habit formation. You should repeat a skill at least five times in various areas to ensure it is understood and engrained.

Once this exercise is completed, you should see a logical progression in your training plan; thereby, you have established a functional learning chain for your pup.


  • Be patient
  • Move through the plan at the pup's learning pace. Each pup differs.
  • Re-visit and reinforce mastered skills frequently as you progress.
  • Begin and end all sessions under control with obedience drills.
  • Maintain standards. Don't get lax in areas previously mastered in your program (proper delivery, line manners, crisp stops on whistles, etc.)
  • Keep your plan flexible. Realign sequences as needed. This is a work in progress.

The main objective of the training plan is to keep you focused and moving in the right direction systematically. It should cause you to reflect and evaluate progress. With a competent plan you will be less likely to skip small-yet-important steps in training, thereby preventing holes in your dog's performance.

The plan enables you to be consistent and directed toward logical habit formation in the pup, which may not be achieved if you are too random and sporadic in your training exercises.

Parting Thought
Training a pup is much like eating an elephant: It's best done one bite (step) at a time. How long will it take? Best answer: It depends. Once again, all is relative in nature.

By Mike Stewart of Wildrose Kennels - Home of Deke the DU Dog

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Related:  retrievers

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