Anthony Willison

Anthony Willison


The bond between hunter and canine is undeniably unique, and having the ability to work together to achieve the ultimate level of hunting dog utility takes a lot of work and dedication by both parties. Unfortunately, many retriever owners don't have nearly enough time or experience to develop a dog to the high level of performance of which professional trainers are capable. The following are some of the common mistakes made by amateurs, and some great advice on how to avoid them.

Welcome to Boot Camp

"One common mistake that I see is not starting your puppy with basic obedience early enough. This allows pup to build bad habits because it's not being brought up in a way that teaches them at a young age what life is about (retrieving)," says Lakeavian Star of Habitat Flats Kennels in north-central Missouri. "Most people misunderstand what socializing a puppy means, and it creates a dog that doesn't understand that it is a working dog."

Star continues, "Another common mistake that I see often is starting formal obedience before that dog has any momentum and desire. You can put the brakes on them, but you can't put gas in them. Meaning, that as a professional trainer, I will wait to begin formal obedience until I see the puppy has retrieving desire on land and water and possesses bird desire. In layman's terms, an extremely driven and confident dog."

Keep it Light and Keep it Moving

Many amateur trainers will feel more confident after training a hunting dog or two, but professional dog handlers will tell you every dog is different and it's important to take that into consideration. Maintaining a pup's attention while keeping things upbeat and relatively easy during short, effective outings is a far better option than hour long mega-sessions.

"Each dog progresses on their own timeline and pushing a dog into training he is not ready for can only cause problems," says Steve Smith of Otter Tail Kennels in northeast Wisconsin.

Slow Your Roll, Boss

Well-known southeast Michigan Labrador guru Steve Pitiglio, who has brought some amazing retrievers up through the ranks over the years, and is also an AA HRC judge, agrees. "Most trainers are in a rush but it's not a sprint, it's a marathon," Pitiglio explains. "Many amateur trainers think they've mastered obedience, collar conditioning and other basics, but so often they have not. When it comes to this stuff, my golden rule is to teach, while adding distractions to create failure, and then continue to teach for success one step at a time."

Take a Break

In their zeal to move forward, many amateur trainers will push too hard to squeeze a session in, even when they are distracted by other pressing matters. Dogs will quickly pick up on any attitude we bring to the field, including a stressed or hurried mindset, which is far from ideal. One benefit an amateur has over pro trainers who are often juggling sessions for numerous retrievers, is they are typically dedicated to only one dog, so time constraints are not a huge issue most of the time.

Maybe there a too many interruptions, or it's too hot, but when the wheels start to come off, it's best to walk away after an easy retrieve and an atta boy/girl with lots of love, then regroup for the next training session under better circumstances. Remember, always keep sessions as positive as possible.

Eat Well, Train Well

Young retrievers burn an immense number of calories during training sessions, not to mention these little athletes are growing at an astounding rate. This isn't just a simple matter of growing up and physical exertion, it's also mental as your pup's brain is a sponge working overtime to soak up all the information that it's being bombarded with.

This process requires body and brain fuel, so be sure your dog is eating the right food designed for just this scenario, such as Purina Pro Plan Sport Performance.

"Feeding quality food and meeting proper nutrition is critical," says Missouri veterinarian Ira McCauley. "A lot of trainers will follow the feeding guidelines on the bag, but it's important to pay attention to their condition because it's quite possible those general guidelines are not going to be ideal for your hardworking retriever. If the dog is skinny, increase the amount of food - if it looks too plump, cut back."

McCauley says some dogs may burn calories at a much higher rate than others. For example, a dog that is grinding out 45 minutes training sessions will likely need more food, possibly even double what a dog that is spending a lot of time in the kennel would get. He also advises to take advantage of the Purina Body Condition System to help stay on track with your retriever's specific body condition.

Stay on Task

Any hunter who has experienced the joy of a new pup and the rewards both the handler and the dog enjoy during the process of learning will tell you it's hard to not be lulled into thinking it's good enough, but it's critically important to follow a format that is concise and easy for canine hunting partners to understand and file in the memory bank. Too often, dog owners try to cram a lot into a young dog's mind too early and the results are often less than ideal.

"Amateur trainers are often excited about their new puppy and want it to start hunting as soon as possible. This can lead to skipping steps or moving forward before a dog is ready. They often compare their dog with someone else's, and expect too much too soon," explains Steve Smith of Otter Tail Kennels in northeast Wisconsin.

There is a reason professional trainers follow a very regimented process. It has taken many decades of dog handling trial and error to find the right combination of drills and advancements to achieve their goals. Jumping around from one or two related drills to something entirely new and different is not a good way to promote a healthy, uncluttered memory bank.

Follow the process regardless of how mundane it may seem. While some professional trainers may have slightly varying opinions on which drills to run at certain stages and how often to circle back (which is often dictated by the dog), the bottom line is pick one system and follow it.

Work With Other Dogs

This is something many amateur trainers fail to take into consideration and when the time comes to participate with real time hunting some serious issues can arise, including violent dog fights which may include costly vet bills (…been there).

Whether you find a training partner that has a pup that is roughly at the same stage or join a retriever club to expose your new dog to other retrievers, owning a dog that gets along well with others and respect their ability to operate as instructed, is something that will pay back huge dividends. This is especially the case with proper blind manners, or when multiple birds are down, and more than one dog is working on a retrieve. Again, obedience is a critical component of success.

"Obedience is key for all future training and hunting," says Jon Schuetz of Continental Kennels in Arkansas. "A dog that sits obediently, doesn't break, or make a bunch of noise and listens to commands is a pleasure to be around in the blind, and will get you invited back to future hunts; that all starts in obedience."