We have all heard it said, "We don't plan to fail; we fail to plan." This is one of those absolute truths that's true of retriever training, as well as life in general. A training plan causes us to remain focused on skill development, to reflect and to document. It requires one to think in terms of causal relationships rather than individual drills or exercises.

It encourages the handler to proceed more slowly and not skip mastering important small steps, which may prove problematic later in training. A progressive training plan actually promotes the dog's learning chain: sequenced thinking and learning built upon the successes of the former lesson or skill. This is, of course, the way dogs learn behaviors.

The plan itself must be detailed, flexible and under constant evaluation. You may find yourself re-engineering and altering the sequence of things, adding steps, deleting unproductive drills, etc., over time, which is expected and proper procedure. Also remember, what works for one gundog may not work for another. Dogs, like people, have different aptitudes, maturity, temperaments and attitudes. Training plans must be flexible to account for these variables.

Each training session should be a planned, thought-out event. What are you going to achieve? Are today's lessons building on previous exposures/successes? Do we see a natural progression even if we are working on problem areas? This is no place for random jumping about to a variety of drills you read about in your newest training magazine. Stick to the plan!

Successful training is progressive learning achieved through consistent repetition of inter-related skills to the point of habit formation. If you randomly apply tips, concepts, drills, exercises or commands, confusion may occur or you may leave holes in your dog's development, which will become evident in later performance.

Rules to Remember

1. Drill a command, skill or concept twice, as long as you think it should take to learn. Then double that amount of time again to insure habit formation. (Example: If you think it should take five days to teach a skill, it will take 10. Then double the repetition to 20 days to insure the pup mastered the command or skill.)

2. "Make haste slowly," says P. R. A. Moxon, a famous English retriever trainer and author. Don't be rushed. Use patience and consistency. It's tempting to rush or avoid boring drills to "get to the good stuff." Don't! Master each step before moving to the next level.

3. Document and evaluate each session from two perspectives: the dog's responses, attitude, success, problems, etc., and yourself as a handler and trainer. How could I improve? Did my actions cause a problem? How was my patience? Did I read the dog correctly? Were my commands clear? Was I consistent? Self-reflection is equally as important as the focus on your dog.

4. Break down all concepts and skills into their simplest parts and teach them separately. Once success is achieved, begin linking the skills together to form the concept or the desired outcome. Remember: testing is not teaching. Failure teaches a dog nothing. Build the pup's confidence through successes. If problems develop, simplify the exercise until success is achieved. Again, plans must be flexible. They should reflect a teaching approach, not testing.

The Plan

The first step in the actual plan is for you to carefully define your expect outcome for your training process. Begin with a picture of the desirable qualities and abilities for your pup based on your expected utilization. What do you want from your gundog: competition, upland game, waterfowl, both upland game and waterfowl, companion dog, hunting companion, game tracker, flushing gundog, pointer, etc. Once you have a realistic picture in mind, begin building your model composed of the necessary elements, which will give you the desired outcomes. Now that you have listed your desired outcomes in writing, build your plan with the necessary elements that will enable you to:

  • Stay focused
  • Teach progressively
  • Employ repetition to the point of habit formation
  • Evaluate results
  • Remain flexible
  • Break down all skills into their individual components

We now have a realistic picture of the desirable characteristics of our hunting companion. With these outcomes clearly in mind, begin with the construction of a written plan by defining the major components involved in the training process that will best produce your desired results.

The plan will be composed of three parts:

I. Categories
A. Subcategories
1. Skills

Categories are the overall desirable characteristics of the gun dog. Subcategories are the component abilities of the dog to fulfill the requirements of the categories. The skills are the individual commands, drills, concepts, responses and abilities the retriever will need to master in each defined subcategory. Obviously, this list can be quite extensive.

The plan utilized by the Wildrose Basic Retriever course includes six categories (core characteristics for a quality gentleman's gundog, which is our goal):

  • Obedience
  • Steady/Honor
  • Marking
  • Conditioned Delivery
  • Handling (Hand Signals/Whistle Commands)
  • Lining

Step One: The defined categories you select become the "headings" for your training plan. You construct your plan around these areas of concentration either in outline form or by spreadsheet.

Step Two: Define the component skills necessary to achieve each category. These become the subcategories. Once these are in place, break down each skill necessary to fulfill the subcategory to its smallest component. These become the individual skills that must be mastered to meet the requirements of each subcategory and, in turn, your categories. These skills will be taught individually, then collectively, to the point of habit formation.


I. Obedience (Category)

A. Sit/Stay (Subcategory)

  • Sit command/on whistle (skills)
  • Sit on hand signal
  • Sit on recall
  • Sit/stay with distractions
  • Sit on tree stand boat pit blind
  • Sit alone remote: 5 min.______ 10 min.______
  • Sit quietly in blind beside hunter 20 minutes, etc.

B. Heel

  • Heel command on lead
  • Heel over obstacles, etc.

As you develop the subcategories and skills, list everything that comes to mind. What is it going to take to get the desired performance? What will the dog need to know? Read articles and books, and brainstorm with others. Write each skill, command or task down on Post-It notes or cards. Once completed, group the skills assembled by subcategories, then place them in a logical format of progression within the subgroup.

When you get to a more complex concept, break it down into individual components and drill each to a point of success. Afterward, begin to link the skills together for a successful concept.

Take the rough draft and put it into a smooth, workable tool: checklist, outline, flow chart or spreadsheet. Realize, of course, it is likely you will be working on several skills within several subcategories and categories at the same time. This is as it should be. Progress on a broad front. Just be sure to "make haste slowly"-drill a skill to the point of habit formation. You should repeat a skill at least five times in various areas to ensure it is understood and engrained.

Once this exercise is completed, you should see a logical progression in your training plan; thereby, you have established a functional learning chain for your pup.


  • Be patient.
  • Move through the plan at the pup's learning pace. Each pup differs.
  • Re-visit and reinforce mastered skills frequently as you progress.
  • Begin and end all sessions under control with obedience drills.
  • Maintain standards. Don't get lax in areas previously mastered in your program (proper delivery, line manners, crisp stops on whistles, etc.)
  • Keep your plan flexible. Realign sequences as needed. This is a work in progress.

The main objective of the training plan is to keep you focused and moving in the right direction systematically. It should cause you to reflect and evaluate progress. With a competent plan you will be less likely to skip small-yet-important steps in training, thereby preventing holes in your dog's performance.

The plan enables you to be consistent and directed toward logical habit formation in the pup, which may not be achieved if you are too random and sporadic in your training exercises.

Parting Thought

Training a pup is much like eating an elephant: It's best done one bite (step) at a time. How long will it take? Best answer: It depends. Once again, all is relative in nature.

By Mike Stewart of Wildrose Kennels - Home of Deke the DU Dog