I have been involved with training gun dogs since I was a little boy. I used to get home from school and jump in my dads truck and ride with him and his training group to throw birds in the evenings. On the weekends I would get paid to be a bird boy at AKC hunt tests, AKC field Trials, HRC tests, and even NAHRA tests. I have seen a lot of great dogs and I have met a lot of good trainers and handlers. On the flip side I have seen and met some really bad ones as well.
When I moved out after college, I decided it was time for me to get my own dog and train her from the ground up to be a lean mean waterfowl retrieving machine. I had access to a lot of information but like most things I do, I wanted to do the research and find the best methods and practices. I had a general idea of where to begin but the more I learned the more I realized that training my retriever was definitely going to be a long journey,and that if I wanted to do it right it would take a continuous investment of my time and it would be a true test of my patience and dedication. Through many trials and tribulations I found great success’ and great failures. You have to expect failures along the way because, trying to train an animal who by nature, is driven by instinct, and by design lacks any ability to communicate with you other than subtle mannerisms , there will be pit falls and slip ups.
I have trained my dog “Pearl” and together we have earned her Master Hunter title. I continue to work with Pearl and I have started working with another dog (Ruby), and I am here to tell you that there has to be an infinite process when it comes to training your gun dog. To define infinite, I mean that once the dog has achieved the level of training you desire , you cannot quit the work and expect the dog will retain everything. You have to continue on the path and treat your dog like an athlete . To be more specific I think of it this way….You are the catcher and they are the pitcher, its your job to keep them sharp and on their “A” game, and to provide direction when its game time. This analogy can best be summed up by a quote I found in an article written by Brian Smith on The Coaches Insider:
On day one of spring training, it’s up to the pitchers to start throwing. But it’s up to the catchers to start a relationship that will be able to withstand adversity, tension and fights, so the team will be able to compete at a high level throughout the entire season.
Just like top performing athletes practice and condition in the off season to maintain the highest levels of performance you and your dog will need to do the same thing. In this article/series I wanted to talk about my journey and hopefully guide you in a direction that will help you find answers that some of you may be looking for on your own retriever training journey.
The first step that I think everyone needs to realize is that dog training is a process that needs to be followed step by step. When you take short cuts you do yourself and your dog a disservice and have the potential to create large gaps in their training. For example: I am a firm believer in force fetching a dog. This is a very stressful process for both the dog and the handler and one that a lot of self trainers will tend to not do, or not complete, but in my opinion a critical step that you can base a lot of foundational work on, and one that eliminates a TON of problems in the long run. Several years ago I went on a hunt with a buddy who had a dog that he told me was trained. I asked if he wanted me to bring my dog but I was told “no, don’t worry about it we’re good”. Well the moment arrived… a flock of geese started to work, everything was perfect, as the geese started to maple leaf down from the stratosphere I knew it was gonna be an in your face kind of deal. The geese made their last swing and the feet came down. Now I don’t know about you but it’s usually been my experience that once those feet drop and those geese start to drop their tails the concept of them having reverse is gone and the only thing keeping them alive is poor marksmanship. We called he shot…..and the geese started to drop. Once the smoke cleared and the high fiving was done it was time to pick up our bounty. I said to my buddy…”you want me to let the dog out so she can start picking up these geese and we can get back to hunting?” My question was answered with ….”well she wont pick up geese” . ARE YOU KIDDING ME????? I asked him why and his response was that she never really cared to and that she likes to run out to them but wont pick them up. We weren’t hunting in a field we were in a blind, in a tidal marsh at high tide where wading wasn’t an option and the birds were moving. The geese were laid out all over . I asked if the dog was force fetched and was told…”no not really”. It was kind of like hearing someone say that their wife was half pregnant. So you see while it wasn’t the end of the world and we were able to get our birds, it was a reminder of why there are step by step processes and why you cannot skip steps.
There is a pile of good information available from folks like Mike Lardy, Chris Akin, and Pat Burns, and there are a lot of good pro trainers around that use a step by step process. My advice to anyone is that you find a local pro or develop a relationship with a support structure or mentor and ask them to teach you the process. The books and DVD’s are great but the one hang up I have is that dogs, just like people have different personalities, learn things differently, and respond to situations differently. So when you get stuck or there is a problem you can’t solve, the books can’t really trouble shoot the problem to provide a specific correction for your dog. That’s why I strongly recommend a mentor or at the bare minimum someone you can talk to on the phone who is reputable and is willing to work with you. This will allow you to have immediate access to someone who can evaluate your dog and trouble shoot unique issues. My Mentor and my version of Gun Dog Wikipedia is Kristen Hoffman with Heron hawk Kennels here in Va. and she is someone I cannot thank enough.
Chris Akin’s approach of “crawl, walk, run” in his DVD Duck Dog Basics is spot on. For those of you that are anxious to get your duck dog retrieving I applaud you, but you need to understand that there is a difference between a game of fetch with a tennis ball in the back yard and a 150 yard retrieve on a crippled duck in thick cover. A good training process that you follow and treat as the gospel will get you to that high level of performance, rushing it and short cuts will not. Don’t be too eager to do things like start working with an E collar, or shoot guns over your dog. Enjoy the dog training process. While they are usually slow and redundant it is building a foundation that eliminates comments like ” I don’t know why she wont pickup that bird ” and turns them in to “DAMN I can’t believe that dog went all the way out there and found that bird!”.
There are countless pieces written about things like “How to Train Your Gun Dog ” or “5 Steps to having an Awesome Retriever” and “How to Teach Your Dog to Clean your Truck and Clean your Ducks” …. ok maybe not the last one but that would be awesome. My point is that this will start off a series where I am going to focus on issues that relate to my experiences as a “blue collar trainer” and on some of the mistakes I have made. There are people much better versed than I am on the art of training a dog, I am not a Pro trainer but I am a Pro Learner and I have grown to love learning the retriever training process. So rather than tell you what to do and how to do it I will focus more on what I did and more importantly some of the mistakes I have made and what I did to fix them.
This off season I will be sharing my stories of trials and tribulations and talking about how I worked through the issues. I am constantly looking for solutions and methods that work , and I have no problems talking about the wrong turns and mistakes I make. My goal is to provide information and entertainment and hopefully streamline some of the work, with how and where to start. For those of you that know me and may even know my dog Pearl you may find a lot of humor down the road. If you like this article I ask that you please share it with family and friends , and subscribe to our FREE news letter .