By Gary Koehler
"Timing is everything in retriever training," says Chris Akin of Webb Footed Kennels in Bono, Arkansas. Akin has trained more than 4,000 retrievers in his 20-plus-year career. By design, he favors a go-slow approach with young dogs. The proof is in the results. Included among his former canine students are more than 100 grand champions and master hunters, titles that are not attainable without a keen understanding of a dog's mindset.
"Dog training in a nutshell is turning a negative into a positive," Akin says. "The first thing you have to do is make sure the dog knows what you are asking it to do. If that's not clear, you're setting yourself up for problems."
Akin prefers waiting until a dog is ready before beginning formal training. "Let a puppy be a puppy until it's six months old," he says. "People often demand too much of young dogs. You have to let them grow up a little. This gives you time to learn about the dog's personality. Believe me, they're all different."
Basic obedience is the foundation of all dog training. A structured program is a sound idea. But there is an important caveat. "Obedience is critical," Akin says, "because no matter how good a dog retrieves, no one wants a dog that's out of control. On the other hand, don't hammer them on obedience too early."
Too much pressure, such as making a puppy sit absolutely still while the handler throws fun bumpers, can have negative long-term effects. "The main mistake I see people making is steadying their puppy at too young an age," Akin says. "What that does is dampen the desire of the dog. And once you take away that desire, it's hard to get it back."
Housedogs Make Great Retrievers
Professional trainer Chris Akin does not believe in keeping a puppy outside. While some retriever owners believe that this toughens up a dog, he contends the isolation can be counterproductive. "The best dogs that I've ever hunted with were backseat dogs. You know, dogs that ride in the truck with you," he says. "They're with you so often, you're training them all the time."
Akin does not pitch dozens of bumpers to stimulate a pup's interest. A handful of tosses are plenty. "With puppies, we do three or four retrieves in the hallway of the house and that's it," he says. "Then we put the ball or toy away and may not use it again for two or three days. It's like candy and kids: give them too much of it and it's no big deal anymore. If you limit retrieving and only do it from time to time, it remains a big deal to the puppy."
Keep in mind, too, that everything is new to a puppy. Pleasant experiences will be remembered, but unpleasant experiences will not be forgotten either. "Some people put their puppies in water at too young an age. They don't consider the water temperature and how that can affect the puppy," Akin says. "This is just common sense."
Amateurs who have previously trained retrievers may be inclined to use exactly the same techniques with a new puppy. That does not always work. "If somebody trained a dog one way and it worked out well for them, they will probably try to repeat that," Akin says. "But you really can't train that way. You have to take each dog on an individual basis, work with them 10 to 15 minutes a day, and learn what makes them tick."
Akin suggests moving from obedience to force-fetching to retrieving—in that order—after the puppy turns six months of age. "Training a dog is no different than building a house," he says. "You first have to have a strong foundation."