5 Key Points for Training Your Retriever

Robert Milner explains training fundamentals
Story at a Glance

Keypoints to be discussed in this article are:

  • Obedience first
  • Coming on command
  • Too much dog
  • Electronic collars
  • Selective breeding

Copyright © 2000 by Robert Milner.

1. Obedience First

The most common deficiency in the average hunter's gundog training program is a lack of emphasis on obedience and steadiness.

If I could persuade the average gundog owner to do one thing better as a trainer, it would be to spotlight obedience and emphasize the non-retrieve. The non-retrieve is when the pup sees a bird or dummy fall but doesn't get to retrieve it. The trainer or another dog retrieves it while the pup watches.

We took a wrong turn somewhere in the evolution of training and now go about the retrieving and steadying processes in a totally illogical manner. We take a young dog and give him hundreds of retrieves with no restraint. For the first thousand retrieves, we encourage the dog to take off at will after the falling dummy. Then, after we have him well trained to break, we change the rules and decide to make him steady - which requires a certain amount of punishment to counteract the breaking behavior we have just trained.

The sequence should be reversed. Train the pup on obedience first, and train him to be steady by teaching him to expect to be steady. This is done with non-retrieves.

As soon as the pup is proficient at basic obedience, the "stay" drill should include some falling dummies. While he's sitting, toss out a dummy or two. Then go and pick up the dummies while he watches. If you are picking up 75 percent of what the pup sees fall, then he doesn't expect to retrieve everything that drops from the sky.

He becomes steady, with little effort and no punishment. Additionally, he develops into a calm, pleasant hunting companion. The same principle applies to the older dog in hunting situations. If you send the dog immediately every time a bird falls, then you are training him to break. Make his life easier by making him wait.

When duck hunting, wait until you have several ducks on the water before you send your pup to retrieve. Unless wind or current is carrying off the ducks, it won't hurt them to float for a half-hour. If you are shooting doves, pick up the short, easy ones yourself. Let your pup sit for 10-15 minutes before he is sent for the difficult retrieves. The exception, of course, is the crippled bird, for which you must send the pup quickly to reduce the odds of escape.

The practice of delayed retrieving also pays dividends by making it easier for your pup to learn hand signals and blind retrieves. If you have four or five dead ducks on the water that have been there a while, your pup is not going to remember exactly where they are. He knows they are there and will eagerly cast off in their general direction, but his certainty will waver and he will be prone to seeking help from you.

Conversely, when you engage in the practice of immediately sending your pup on every fall, you are training him in self-reliance. When he's launched on the splash, he knows exactly where that bird is and will quickly pick it up. After he's found several hundred birds all by himself, it is going to become difficult to convince him that he needs help from you in the form of hand signals.


2. Coming on Command

One of the most common obedience problems is failure to come on command.

This is as prevalent in young, green dogs as breaking is in older hunting dogs. Both problems stem from a lack of obedience. If a dog is well trained to heel, sit, stay and come, he'll do nearly anything you want. The problem lies in the definition of "well trained."

A dog is well trained in obedience when he is obedient in the face of any level of distraction. That means he will respond properly when the neighbor's cat walks by, when another dog is playing next to him and even when shotguns are going off and ducks are falling.


3. Too Much Dog

The average hunter appears to be "overdogged," or to have a dog that is too hot for him to handle.

I place the blame for this on our field-trial system. Our retriever field trials were brought over from England in the early 1900s, along with the golden and Labrador retrievers. The trials were small and very representative of a day's shooting, and the skills judged were those that had value to the hunting dog and hunter. The trials emphasized game-finding ability, softness of mouth and calmness of demeanor.

The typical Labrador retriever of 30 or 40 years ago was a gentle, calm dog. Today, an unfortunately large number of Labradors are hyperactive and difficult to train. The basic reason for this shift in breeding selection appears to be our field-trial system.

Unfortunately, our field trials - mainly because of increasing entries - have evolved over the years into elimination contests that evaluate skills that are of little importance in a hunting dog. These behaviors include lining, angle entries into water, pinpoint marking and precise handling at long distances. Gone by the wayside are line manners and obedience, as well as game-finding initiative.

Moreover, training precision lining and long-distance handling require a great deal of repetition and some degree of punishment. The dog that excels at these skills tends to be hyperactive, with a high pain threshold, which is exactly the type of dog we are breeding today.


4. Electric Collars

The electric collar, which can create as many problems as it solves, is becoming far too predominant a training tool.

The electric collar is a great training tool in the hands of a good trainer. However, there is an astronomically greater number of electric collars than there are good trainers. The truth is: In order to train a dog with the electric collar you must be able to train him without it.

The collar does not magically impart the knowledge and skills of dog training to the guy holding the transmitter. Most folks buy an electric collar to solve a basic obedience problem, and they generally end up abusing the dog and not solving the problem, or trading one problem for an even bigger one. Proper training can solve nearly all problems in basic obedience, and you don't need an electric collar to do so.


5. Selective Breeding

We have forgotten the basic goals of breeding selection and have embarked on a course of producing better dogs by training rather than breeding.

The Labrador is the breed I most commonly work with, and I am alarmed at the trends I see. It has become the general custom to force-fetch train every dog. This corrects any tendency to drop birds, mouth birds or run off to the bushes with birds. It also masks the genetic tendencies toward those behaviors.

We are now masking with training the major trait that we spent a hundred years developing through selective breeding - namely, delivery to hand with a soft mouth. If we take a hard-mouthed dog and put him through the force-fetch program so that he delivers gently to hand, then he will behave like a great dog. We may even make him a field champion through superior training. However, his puppies will still have that genetic tendency toward hard mouth, and we will be going backwards in the selective-breeding process.

Two other examples of behaviors that have a very significant genetic component that we mask with training are:

Hyperactivity
We train the hyperactive dog to be under control and be a gentleman. The electric collar is quite popular for this. Put a hyperactive dog in the hands of a good trainer with an electric collar and that dog will make an excellent gun dog or field-trial dog, but his puppies probably will inherit the same hyperactivity. His puppies will be just as difficult to train as the sire was.

Cooperative Nature
We generally characterize these dogs as "soft" and tend to give them away as pets when they flunk the electric-collar program. Thus we are tending to remove from the breeding pool dogs that exhibit this valuable trait. This trait of "cooperative nature" is of extreme importance to the average hunter, because the average hunter is usually quite unfamiliar with dog training.

The gist of all this is that the average hunter is low in dog-training skills, which is as it should be. The community of dog experts should be promoting the selective breeding of a dog that the average hunter can train and enjoy. We should not be breeding a dog with a bundle of genetically transmitted behavioral tendencies that make him difficult to train into a good working dog. The average hunter should not have to get a Ph.D. in dog training in order to come up with a dog that is pleasant to hunt with and pleasant to live with.

We probably need to look back to England for solutions. They still have the same field trials they had 80 years ago, still selectively breed for major traits and still get rid of dogs that lack a cooperative nature and predisposition toward trainability.

I, for one, get my personal dogs from England. They are calm, cooperative and pleasant to live with, and they find all the birds I shoot. I've gotten lazy and prefer a dog that has gotten most of the required talents through selective breeding.