Copyright © 2000 by Robert Milner

Training your dog is extremely easy if you control his environment and channel his behavior in the directions you want. Your dog will practically train himself if you keep from interfering too much. However, many common training practices are totally counterproductive. These are the major culprits to avoid.

Raising Pup Outside

The belief that hunting dogs should be raised outside in a pen persists with great tenacity. This belief is hogwash today. It was probably valid fifty or a hundred years ago. Then the kids were outside and spent a lot of time with the puppy during the formative years of both. That way kids and puppies learned to communicate with each other.

Today, however, the situation is different. The kids are all in the house watching TV, playing video games, or cruising the Internet. Any puppy relegated outside to the pen will grow up in relative isolation, deprived of the social interaction that he needs to develop communication skills, and more important, to develop the bond with people that gives him a desire to please. That desire to please is the basis of a lot of reward-based training. Without it you've made your job much harder.

Pup should be raised in the house. Then he and you both develop the communication skills to make Pup into a great gun dog. Additionally, Pup develops the desire to please that enables a lot of reward-based training. Raising Pup in the house makes things easier for both you and him.

Giving Pup an Unlimited Diet of Uncontrolled Retrieves

The practice of training Pup to retrieve by throwing him countless out-of-control retrieves is sheer foolishness. Pup is born with the retrieving instinct. His mother gave it to him. And whether you give him one retrieve or ten thousand retrieves, you are not going to improve his genetic inheritance.

I have occasionally seen young dogs that show little interest in retrieving. Sometimes further investigation uncovers the fact that such a pup retrieved wonderfully when he was younger, but suddenly quit. The cause can quite literally be too much retrieving. Thirty or forty retrieves in a row can bring the young pup to the edge of his physical capacity. He is growing at a phenomenal rate, and most of his energy is going toward that growth. Unlimited retrieves can put him in a state of exhaustion and physical pain.

The greatest and most insidious danger of unlimited retrieving is the price it exacts on Pup. You frequently see people throwing untold numbers of balls or training dummies for Pup to retrieve at will. They rationalize this by saying, "I'm developing Pup's retrieving." The real reason they do it is that it is easy and fun for Pup's owner. They don't think of the trouble it will cost Pup later, when they change the rules and want Pup to be steady and under control. They plan to get him steady later.

They are training Pup to be out of control on retrieves. They are training Pup to break, thus ensuring that they will have to use quite a bit of punishment later to train him not to break.

Again, Pup did not inherit obedience and self-control. That's where he needs training, and that's where out-of-control retrieves are totally counterproductive. Pup should have to wait for every retrieve he gets. Then you are training him to wait and to exert some self-control. You are making it easy for him to learn the behaviors you want. You are making it easy to train him without a lot of punishment.

Repeating Commands

Repeating commands is a common mistake people make when dealing with dogs. The practice is an excellent method for training Pup to respond on the third, fourth, or fifth repetition of a command.

Generally, if Pup doesn't respond to the first command, it's not because he didn't hear you. It's because he doesn't feel like responding. The solution is not in repeating the command. The solution is to trigger the response and reinforce your dominance. You should employ a dominance technique such as a direct, threatening stare or "looming over" body position. These techniques are behaviors employed by the pack leader to reinforce dominance in a canine pack.

In obedience classes, I frequently have the handlers go through the obedience drills in silence. That's one of the best ways to counteract the human habit of repeating commands. After all, the dog already knows the responses. He needs the right signal from his master to trigger the response. Silent obedience drills force the handler to speak in Pup's language and produce the right signal.

It takes a little effort to overcome our human nature on the practice of repeating commands, but it pays big dividends. It is much more pleasant to have a dog that responds quickly to the first command. Conversely, it is a pain in the neck to hunt with a dog that responds only when he's constantly bombarded with a steady stream of repeated commands.

Shouting at Pup

Yelling usually goes hand in hand with repeating commands. Again, Pup's lack of response is not because he didn't hear you…assuming you've trained him on the required command. It is, rather, because he doesn't feel like responding. If the cause is lack of training, back up and do the training.

Otherwise it is a dominance issue and should be corrected now with a mild rebuke rather than waiting until you've firmly trained in the trait of only responding when yelled at. Then it takes a more severe correction.

On a more basic level, shouting only makes it harder for Pup to respond. Shouting usually either excites Pup, or makes him afraid. Neither emotional state makes it easier for Pup to do what you want.

If a 6 1/2-foot NFL linebacker was standing in your back yard yelling at you-"You better come over here to me, you blankety blank!"-would you go to him? Not if you have half a brain. This is approximately the same picture you give your dog when you stand there yelling at him to try and make him come to you. The major difference is that he doesn't understand the words. If your dog is intelligent, he's not going to come to you in that situation.

Do yourself and your dog a favor that will make both your lives more pleasant. Don't shout.

Pleading When He's out of Reach

Changing to a pleading tone of voice seems to be another universal human trait triggered by dogs. When the dog gets far enough away that we think he's beyond our control, we revert to an asking tone of voice. You know the one. It has a question mark on the end of the vocalization. If a dog could speak English, you might as well be saying, "Don't obey me. You are beyond my control." Dogs don't speak English. They speak in the language of tones and mannerisms and body language. They understand very well what that question mark on the end of a vocalization means. That tone signals "don't obey."

Here is where consistency is key in dog training. Always project yourself as if you are in total control. Act the same and use the same tones and mannerisms whether your dog is next to you on a leash or 200 yards away.

Letting Pup "Run off Some Energy"

This is a terrible practice. It will very likely get Pup killed one day, and it trains him to be under control only when he's tired. The very time you most need him under control is when he's brimming with energy and anticipation.

If you regularly let Pup run off energy upon coming out of the house, pen, or car, you are simply training him to be out of control for the first ten minutes around you. Some day you will drive up to a hunting place and park next to a highway. You will let Pup out of the car. He, having been so trained, will be beyond your control for the first couple of minutes as he runs out into the highway in front of an oncoming automobile.

Training Pup to control himself when he's tired is not going to do you much good when he's well rested, fresh, and in the duck blind raring to go. He will lack the self-control necessary to make him a pleasant hunting companion.

Giving Pup Too Many Marked Retrieves

Pup gets a marked retrieve every time he sees the bird or dummy fall and thus knows its location. A blind retrieve is when Pup did not see the object fall and must be guided to it by his handler.

The practice of waiting months before starting Pup's hand-signal training is usually justified on the basis of needing to wait till he's older and more mature to start blind retrieves. It is an illogical practice. Old age never made it easier to learn.

This practice falls under the same principle as giving him tons of retrieves and then changing the rules to make him steady. It is making an easy job hard.

The more marked retrieves Pup gets, the more you are training him to find the bird without help from you. The more you do it, the more difficult it is going to be to convince Pup later that you really know where the bird is.

Make both of your lives easy. Start the blind retrieve and hand-signal training on the front end. As soon as he is steady and doing marked retrieves start him on blind retrieves.

Testing Instead of Training

Many handlers discover anew each day the limits of their dog. They test him to see if he can do what they plan to teach him. A common example is training Pup to do long marked retrieves.

The typical way to teach Pup to do very long marked retrieves is to go out and try it. A helper is sent out 150 yards. He gets out there, shoots, and throws a dummy. You send Pup. Pup goes the distance of the longest retrieve he's had. He starts hunting in a circle at 30 yards and never gets out to the dummy. Now you've taught him to fail.

The right way to do it is:
a. Remember that his longest retrieve was 30 yards.
b. Send the thrower out 150 yards.
c. Walk out with Pup until you are only 30 yards from the thrower.
d. Have the thrower shoot and throw the dummy.
e. Send Pup on the 30-yard retrieve, at which you know he will succeed.
f. Back up to 60 yards from the thrower, and have him throw again.
g. Send Pup on this 60-yard retrieve.
h. Continue backing up from the thrower in 45-yard increments until, on the fourth retrieve, Pup is going the full 150 yards.

Structured properly, the lesson is a success, with Pup ending it quite confident on 150-yard retrieves.

Testing Pup to see if he can do what you want is a universal human tendency. It is also universally bad. Always engineer the lesson so that Pup succeeds.

Experimenting with Introductions

Introductions to new things are frequently conducted as an experiment to see how Pup reacts. If you are lucky, Pup will react favorably and the introduction will have been successful. If you are unlucky, the introduction will scare the heck out of Pup and you will have a very big problem that may take weeks to solve.

Introductions are often related to the bad practice of testing to train. A classic example is to walk up to Pup and shoot off the 12-guage to see if he's gun-shy. With this type introduction, a surprising number of dogs are found to be gun-shy.

The right way to introduce Pup to shooting is to start 150 yards away, watching another dog retrieving. Pup will be very interested. Then a shot is added on each retrieve, while you and Pup still watch from a distance. Then you move closer until, very soon, you are right next to the retrieving performer and Pup is thoroughly enjoying the shooting-because, of course, it is associated with his favorite thing: retrieving.

Why trust to luck? The proper way to train Pup is to engineer the training session to ensure success. Whatever you are introducing Pup to, it is your job to ensure that no unpleasant associations occur.

Changing the Rules in the Hunting Field

The two major bad practices you see in the field are (a) never using a leash and (b) sending Pup to retrieve the bird while it's still falling.

Many hunters invest hundreds of hours in training their dogs, and then throw away the rules when they get in the field. They forget what a leash is for and let Pup indulge in whatever disobedience he fancies.

They spend hours training Pup to be steady. Then they get in the duck blind and start sending Pup to retrieve while the duck is still falling. After a few repetitions, Pup takes this practice to the next level. He goes without waiting to be sent. Next he progresses to bailing out of the blind at the gunshot.

It makes no difference how much pre-season training you do, when you get to the duck blind Pup is going to give you the amount of obedience and control that you require in that setting. If you want Pup to be under control in the duck blind, you have to tell him by demonstrating the limits of behavior.