7 Retriever Training Secrets

Achieve peak performance from your retriever

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.

Retriever Training Expert Panel

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.

7 Retriever Training Secrets

"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.

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."

6. Pick Up a Pen

Just as a coach keeps detailed records of his or her players' stats, a retriever trainer should keep a journal of a dog's progress in training sessions. It's easy to forget the nuances of a dog's performance in the last session. A written record will help you identify strengths and weaknesses that can be reinforced or addressed in future training.

"Keeping notes on each dog's training helps. I can go over the notes and usually find out what the problem is and then make a change in that dog's routine." –Jim Karlovec

"I do a lot of training alone, and most of the time I follow a regular training routine. This works well most of the time, but on occasion there's a dog that doesn't quite fit into the routine," says Jim Karlovec of Flushing Star Kennel in Columbia Station, Ohio. "Keeping notes on each dog's training helps in this regard. I can go over the notes and usually find out what the problem is and then make a change in that dog's routine."

Another advantage of keeping a journal is that it keeps trainers on schedule. There may be a temptation to skip drills that are particularly time consuming or demanding, and a journal will help trainers conduct training sessions in the proper order. "If a brick is left out of the foundation, eventually the entire structure will fail," Karlovec says. A journal will keep trainers honest about whether they are working hard enough on the right drills at the right times. Too many blank journal entries will indicate that some problems may not be entirely the dog's fault.


7. Take a Hike

Once a dog has mastered casting and lining to visible bumpers, Karlovec shifts his focus to blind retrieves. One of his favorite techniques is to take a dog for a long walk in the woods. He drops a white bumper and continues walking another 50 paces before bringing the dog to heel and giving it a line for the blind retrieve. As the dog is running to get the first bumper, he tosses out another bumper in a different direction and the stage is set for the next blind retrieve.

"As you continue walking, get creative by tossing the bumpers over logs, across roads, and into different types of cover. Distract the dog by sending him on marked retrieves so he doesn't see you drop or toss the bumpers," Karlovec advises. "If the weather is warm, try to include ponds along your route so you can work on water blinds. This is a great drill to teach 'backs' and 'overs' in the water. As the pup gets proficient at this drill, lengthen the distance of the blinds and switch to different kinds of bumpers to mix things up."