Mike Stewart Lead.jpg

Ducks Unlimited

Meet veteran retriever trainer Mike Stewart of Wildrose International.
Location: Oxford, Mississippi; Dallas, Texas; Sheboygan, Wisconsin; Mebane, North Carolina
How long have you been a trainer? 55 years training various breeds of sporting dogs.

Early Stages:

For new puppy buyers, what should be the training priorities in that dog’s first year?

Our first consideration when a new owner picks up their puppy is for them to understand that everything in the pup’s early life is training. It’s about habit formation as well as appropriate socialization (exposure to people, places and things) to develop confidence in a variety of situations and through consistency develop habits that will endure a lifetime. These include becoming accustomed to the lead, place training, crate training, housebreaking and instilling patience and eye contact in small durations – developing a bond and a level of communication and trust between the pup and the handler. 

Keep expectations reasonable for the pup’s age and lessons short as desirable behaviors are instilled and inappropriate, unwanted behaviors are avoided. 

What’s the biggest mistake you see amateur trainers make when dealing with a puppy?

The biggest mistake is instilling undesired behaviors at an early age that become entrenched habits such as chewing, jumping on people, resting on furniture, free running that turns into bolting when called, barking and whining for attention. People commonly miss the opportunity to begin instilling desirables in their pup such as tying out quietly, crate training, place training or acquiring a reasonable level of patience in everyday activities such as receive food, retrieving or receiving affection. Instill patience in all things.

How significant is choosing a name? Pros and cons to different names?

Naming a puppy is really a personal choice. Any name will do that is one syllable and does not sound like a command to be used in training. Example: You like the name McAllister… fine, the dog’s field name should be much shorter. Just call him Mac. I trained a dog named Sig which was shortened for field work but occasionally his name was confused with “Sit.” Just as “Mack” sounds very much like the command, “Back,” so perhaps a conflict. We like a short, distinctive name for field work and one that is not similar to a command we will use in training or afield.

Specific Behaviors:

What’s the most difficult introduction (water, gunfire, multiple retrieves, dog blinds, etc.) trainers deal with?

Really no introduction for the young dogs is all that difficult if done progressively at age-appropriate times. Dogs learn best through repetition and consistency presented in a causal relationship manner. That is one skill or behavior is trained to the point of success and then linked to the next appropriate skill. For instance, we want our retriever performing retrieves and delivery of bumpers to hand reliably before gunfire. Then, the thrown bumper becomes the distraction away from the shot of a cap gun presented at a distance. Gradually we move from the primer cap to a .410, then the .20 to a .12 progressively narrowing the distance between the shooter and the dog. The dog is focused on the bumper to retrieve as the shot is gradually introduced.

The same principle is used with water (always introduced in warm weather conditions), other dogs working, and including gear to be used afield. For instance, decoys. Begin with a few decoys placed in the yard and have the youngster retrieve through them. 

Avoid flooding in training (too much overload of distractions or stimuli) at the first introductions. Keep things simple, controllable, and always begin on land before venturing to the water.

What is the simplest way to correct breaking and improve steadiness?

The best correction for breaking is prevention. For early starts, avoid puppy running in. Patience in all things. Denials in training, 50 to 75 percent of any bumper thrown. The handler picks up the thrown bumpers denying the retrieve. This does not inhibit retrieving drive but builds patience.

Begin teaching honoring another dog’s retrieve and denying some retrieves in every training session with the young dog. Avoid marks, that is bumpers thrown in training and opt to use memories such as sight and trailing memories which require delays before the rewarded retrieve.

Best advice to avoid breaking is prevention in training and on the first hunt, use denials and require patience before the retrieve.

Mike Stewart Thumbnail.jpg

Ducks Unlimited

How do you approach correcting whining in a young dog?

Whining most often is a result of one of two variables, first genetics. Like produces like. Parents exhibiting undesirable vocal behaviors are the most likely cause and this situation is difficult to correct. The second more often cause of the noisiness is the handler’s/trainer’s fault. The squeaking is unintentionally reinforced by the manner in which the dog is being dealt with daily. Whining is a derivative of impatience which is often inadvertently reinforced and then becomes entrenched. The excitable dog “squeaks,” then receives a retrieve…a reward. Whining on the hunt is soon followed by bird recoveries thereby the behavior is rewarded. During training, too many immediate marks can easily overexcite the dog. A dog can be unintentionally rewarded by the handler who touches the dog while whining in an attempt to settle the dog. The touch is interpreted as affection and the behavior is reinforced.

To reduce the undesirable behavior, require the dog to settle quietly in exciting daily activities such as waiting to receive food, waiting to enter the car, etc. In training, employ denials and delays with all retrieving drills. Run exercises at a slower pace and expose the dog during training to excitable conditions that will likely be experienced on a hunt. Transitional training activities like working with other dogs, shooting clays as the dog sits steady and working from a blind with lots of realistic action, the dog learns to handle the excitement and realize that every retrieve (bird down) is not theirs. Reducing anticipation helps. 

The correction for a young dog that is a vocal “No” and deny any affection, retrieve, or reward of any type.

What are your rules or guidelines when dealing with training in the summer heat?

Training in summer heat is a challenge. Actually, high temperatures present more of a danger to gundogs than cold weather. Any temperature over 80 degrees, especially in humid conditions, should be approached with caution. Heat exhaustion and stroke in a hard-working retriever can come on fast and is best avoided. 

In hot weather, training early when the ground is cooler and likely a bit moist from dew is best. Keep the distance of the retrieves, lining and handling shorter. Find shaded areas such as tree groves to set up exercises. Swim the dog, especially in deep water which should be cooler than shallows. Be sure to hydrate between exercises, break training down into mini activities with significant pauses between drills. These breaks offer valuable time for denials, slow heelwork, training on hunting stands, boat rides, rides on ATVs, etc. Utilize the time as your dog cools down before the next activity. Do not offer food before training on hot weather hunts. Digestion increases temperature.

Learn about and watch carefully for all signs of heat exhaustion.

Hunting Focus: 

What are the main training indicators that your dog, regardless of age, is ready for the fall hunting season?

Young dogs are ready for their first season when they are over one year of age and have completed a basic gundog course that teaches the 7 Habits of a Successful Retriever – Obedience, steady/ honor, delivery of birds to hand, handling, whistle response and lining unaffected by diversions and marking falls. Also, thoroughly introduced to gun fire. Then a dog is ready for the final phase of their training process, the actual hunt. When transferring skills to field situations, the handler must realize that the “rookie’s” first hunts are extensions of training. Set the dog up for success. Maintain discipline, patience, desired skills and keep expectations reasonable.

What are some of the most common bad habits dogs tend pick up during the hunting season, and how are they addressed?

The hunter/handler must keep an awareness about the young dog that is experiencing their first season. The desirable behaviors of patience, quietness, steadiness and whistle handling control can erode quickly during the excitement of an actual bird hunt. The hunter cannot lose focus on the dog’s performance or possible dysfunctions while paying too much attention to the actual shooting. The first hunts are actually extensions of training, so consider, “what is dog the learning?”

Watch for and correct mouthing birds, dropping before delivery, switching between down birds, noisiness, breaking and not honoring other dogs. Quickly recognize retrieving shyness or negative reaction to a condition experienced, exhaustion, and hypothermia. Note the problem situations and prepare to correct immediately through training just as a football coach notes mistakes on the field on Saturday and strategizes solutions the following Monday. Hunts are gameday for the dog and handler.

What are your ideal expectations for your retriever throughout the waterfowl season?

My desirable is that the client and their gundog achieve successful results on their hunts with the dog doing a few things exceptionally well as they progress as a team through field experiences. Focus on the core skills and maintain minimum standards as the dog learns the trade throughout the season. Between hunts, it’s rehearsal. Run the drills that reinforce the basic desirables for the hunt. We want to gain actual field experiences in a variety of conditions with plenty of bird exposure. Just be mindful in the world of canine training that nothing is learned through failure. Training and field experiences will be successful with repetition and consistency preforming skills and behaviors correctly 5 times in 5 locations which will produce predictable habits. And that is “Training the Wildrose Way”—creating predictable habits that will endure a lifetime.