by Dave Carty
Bad scenario number one: Your retriever runs to the mark and only about halfway back to you, then spits out the bird to devote attention to something else. Two: In the field, the dog won't return when you call, even though it minds flawlessly at home. Three: The dog breaks at the sound of the shot, dives out of the blind and, for good measure, wrecks the decoy layout while swimming through it.
Reality check: These are problems dealt with by every trainer — pro and amateur alike — and they may occur over and over again.
If there is one constant in dog training, it's that there are no quick fixes for any chronic problem — shock collars notwithstanding. There is no trainer alive today who has not run into a wall at some point in his or her career. Verily, while the sheer number of problems is as numerous as the stars in the heavens, most of them fall under four general categories.
Each category presents a dilemma and an opportunity for a sober reassessment: Are the problems due to a glitch in your training? If so, you will need to get through the situation at hand, then work on a long-term solution.
Texan Jeff Henard of High Praise Retrievers has suggestions for both. Henard is equally well versed in the ups and downs of repairing canine behavior.
Problem 1: The dog refuses to complete a retrieve.
"During an exciting situation, the dog's true habits are going to come out, good or bad," Henard says. "My wife is an eighth-grade math teacher, and in a lot of ways, training dogs is like teaching math to kids: You have to teach them to add and subtract before you can teach them to multiply and divide.
"So, if the dog refuses to retrieve, I go out there and first try to get the dog to pick up the bird. If that doesn't work, I'll put the bird in the dog's mouth and make him hold it. You have to try to get the dog to be successful, and your commands have to show the dog in black and white — this is right; this is wrong."
Once back home, Henard says, the dog is re-schooled through a fetching regimen that forces him to retrieve in exciting situations — while guns are going off, duck calls are being blown and so on. Eventually, he says, the dog will show that he understands what it is being asked of him, regardless of distractions.
Problem 2: Your dog won't return when you call.
Henard suggests nipping this one in the bud.
"In this situation, I calmly herd up the dog and put him in his box," he says. "Then, if there is a break for lunch, or later that afternoon, I will take him out and have an obedience session with him on a check cord or with a shock collar. He has to show me he knows what 'here' means."
And at home? You've got it — he drills the dog in returning on the whistle over and over again.
"We teach dogs book smarts in the yard," Henard says. "But they have to learn street smarts in the field."
Problem 3: Your dog breaks at the shot.
If your dog has spent the off-season "sitting on the couch eating Scooby snacks," as Henard likes to say, it's almost a foregone conclusion that, for the first day or two of the season, the dog will break when it hears a shot. Here, Henard believes an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and recommends steadying practice before the season begins — "to get the dog back in the mindset of working and retrieving birds."
Dogs will still break on occasion, and for these infractions, Henard recommends an on-the-spot refresher course.
"If there's not a lot of birds flying around, we'll have a little training session," he says. "We'll take a bird and throw it, and have someone else fire a shot. If the dog breaks, we correct him.
"Hunting," Henard says, "is controlled chaos. Typically, when dogs do things wrong, it's because they haven't been trained to do them right."
Problem 4: Your dog won't quarter to the gun.
In the uplands, a retriever that stays within range is a must. Unfortunately, that's not always what happens.
"One of the big mistakes people make with Labs is not putting any scent out or not running the dog in thick cover," Henard says. "You turn a Lab out where there's no scent and no cover, and you've got a track meet."
If one of Henard's dogs takes off and flushes birds out of range, he first tries bringing him to heel until the dog settles down. If that fails, he puts the dog up. Henard believes that bad behavior is self-reinforcing.
Later, Henard will retrain the dog in quartering. He'll zigzag through a field, planting birds at visual reference points — a tree, a fence line, etc. That way, the dog learns to run from one visual reference to the next, expecting game. As the dog's training progresses, Henard uses fewer birds until the dog is quartering naturally before him.
That's a list of the biggies. If you have not yet run up against one of them, take a deep breath, for you most certainly will. But with patience and persistence, these problems nearly always can be solved.