You are excited; you are on your first hunt with your new dog. You’ve either worked your tail off to make sure he is perfect (in your eyes) or you have sent him to a pro and the dog is doing amazing things. So picture this……….
The birds are wary. You have done everything different to try and sell them on getting close. Your calling is perfect. The decoys are perfect. Everything is working as planned, 70 yards their wings are cupped, their feet are down. It’s as Jim Ronquest would say “a mondo wad”. 50 yards and you can hear the wind cutting through their wings; it’s that quiet moment right before you call what you are certain will be a train wreck of a volley.Seconds before you drop your calls and scream take ’em you four legged companion breaks loose off their perch and leaps in the water or runs into the spread staring at the sky like an amateur dog with no training. The birds are back flapping, you’re screaming NO!! HERE!! SIT!!! among other words that can’t be mentioned. Your hunting buddies are feeling the frustration. First thought in your mind is that you can’t believe that this has happened, first thought in their mind is …” you spent how much on that dogs training, or this is why you couldn’t come drink beer during the summer because you were “TRAINING YOUR DOG”. All credibility is gone.
If you have hunted long enough or with enough dogs I can assure you it’s going to happen. Sometimes it’s unavoidable but sometimes it’s not the dog, sometimes, (most of the time) it’s the owner’s fault. Yeah I said it!
In this article I am going to explain how a very minimal investment of your time can make a huge difference in the way your dog acts when you’re in the blind, and when you’re at home with the family. I have spoken with several gun dog training experts and the answer is very clear and basic. It may be unavoidable at some times but the risk of bad dog behavior or bad blind manners can drastically be reduced. If you are a self trainer like myself, or you have sent your dog away you need to know, the work never stops and when you don’t work on strengthening the relationship between you and your pup your credibility as the owner and your rank in the pecking order diminishes with your dog.
The dog has to know who he is supposed to be listening to and just like you need to learn the mannerisms, behavior and quirks of your dog the dog needs to learn you as well. I spoke with Kristen Hoffman owner of Heron Hawk Kennels located in Gum Springs Virginia. She said rapport with your dog is critical and one of the best ways to achieve this is to work on obedience at a minimum. Reinforce the basics and involve the family in training. This establishes rapport, and the rank in the family hierarchy with your dog. She also speaks to consistency in that it doesn’t have to be the same type of training everyday but it needs to be consistent training. Simple things like teaching your dog to roll over or lay down can go a long way in the relationship. It’s about building a bond and working with your dog. I asked her why the step away from obedience all the time, and she said that just like people dogs can get burned out and they want to shut down that’s why changing it up isn’t always a bad idea as long as you have a strong foundation in those basics of obedience . The important thing is for the dog to learn that you (the owner) are the boss and by working on things like obedience and building a rapport, the dog learns quickly their rank in the family and not only becomes a better gun dog but a better family dog.
It’s been my observation that a lot of people first experience disappointment when they get there dog back from a pro or don’t put in the grueling leg work to take their dog through a complete process themselves . The dog is hesitant, doesn’t listen and often times gets confused or doesn’t want to work. I get asked a lot about this and while I am not a pro trainer, I usually ask the question …..”When was the last time you worked with your dog?” I usually get a staggering response of “well I visited a couple of times but the dog has been with a trainer working all summer…or…well we did SOME obedience but he listens pretty good and he retrieves tennis balls?”
I Spoke with Chris Akin form Webb Footed Kennels and he said that the number one thing a dog must have is retrieving desire and that at a young age it’s about building that desire. He said that retrieving is instinct and things like force fetching and obedience are manmade and must be taught. Another critical component that he spoke to was also the relationship between the dog and the owner. It’s important for the dog to know who is in charge for several reasons and the relationship begins and ends with obedience. I asked him to elaborate and he said that when a dog has been with him for 6-8 months there is no doubt that the dog knows its job but when it’s time to go home the dog has no idea who the boss is and the dog has got to learn to work with the owner. On top of better behavior from the dog the dog learns quickly its place in the pecking order. Chris said that dogs are extremely intelligent and are constantly evaluating situations, and when an owner doesn’t establish the relationship where they are the boss the dog figures it out and starts to rule the roost.
All the professionals I spoke with and the pros that I have had the privilege of working all have one thing in common. That one thing is a process, where no steps are skipped and the dog experiences consistency and like a student of martial arts must master each step before moving to the next.
However, as important as the process is, so are the experiences. When researching this article I reached out to Lyle Steinman of Castile Creek kennels. I gave Lyle a scenario of an owner picking up their finished gun dog and taking them home to experience their first hunting season. I asked at that point what the owner should be doing with their dog. He said that all his dogs go through the same training “process” and that not every dog is going to be an amazing gun dog but the one thing he does say is that he knows that no matter what… that dog is going home with good obedience and at a bare minimum that if the dogs obedience is kept up he knows that the dog will be a great and loyal member of the family. Lyle was speaking to the value of obedience. He too said that the relationship of the owner and the dog is critical and that through a minimum amount of training and upkeep with things like obedience the dog will maintain that place in the ranks and the relationship will be that much stronger but the most important skill the dog has got to learn is obedience. Lyle also said that it’s important to continuously work with your dog to give them experiences that will simulate how they are hunting. Things like working in the back yard on remote sends or lying in a mutt hut can be key. Lyle said that outside of the gun dog work the owner should be taking the dog everywhere they can so that the dog becomes exposed to different sights sounds, people, and other dogs. Good socialization is a great way to eliminate the anxiety that dogs can get when they experience something for the first time.
I was very honored that these pro trainers took the time out of their busy schedules to talk with me. I consider these folks to be the best. While all three are from three different sates they all have one thing in common and that is that they believe in gun dogs having a solid foundation and they believe that it’s just as important for the owner to learn as it is for the dog. It’s obvious that as an owner you cannot expect to just add water and have an amazing hunting dog or family dog. If your dog has been with a pro then your dog has been taught how to do the job and it is your job to build the relationship and let them see and experience the sights and sounds of a real hunt before “game day”. How would you perform if you were flying in a plane for the first time when the only experience with flying was in a computer simulator and the pilot said she’s all yours and jumped out the plane……………………….
Thank you again for taking the time to read this. I encourage all of you to take 20 minutes out of your day and begin to work with your dog on the basics and on the relationship .