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10 Common Mistakes in Training Your Retriever

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, a number of frequently encountered practices are totally counterproductive to producing a trained gundog. The major culprits are:   

1. Raise pup outside in pen 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 50 or 100 years ago. Then the kids were outside and spent a lot of time with the puppy during both of their formative years. Both kids and puppies learned to communicate with each other. Today however, the situation is different. The kids are all in the house watching TV or video games or cruising the internet. Any puppy relegated outside to the pen today, will grow up in relative isolation, deprived of the social interaction with people that he needs to develop communication skills, and more importantly, to develop the bond with people which 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 gundog. Additionally pup develops the desire to please that enables a lot of reward based training. Raising pup in the house makes his and your job of training momentously easier.   

2. Give pup an unlimited diet of uncontrolled retrieves "to develop his retrieving"   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. It was given to him by his mother and whether you give him one retrieve or ten thousand retrieves you are not going to improve his genetic inheritance.  I have occaisionally seen young dogs that show little interest in retrieving. Sometimes further investigation uncovers the fact that this 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. Additionally, in hot weather the practice of unlimited retrieves can put pup is serious danger of heat stroke.  The greatest and most insidious danger of the practice of unlimited retrieving is the price that you make pup pay. 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 steady and under control. They plan to get him steady later. That is when pup pays the price. They are training pup to be out of control on retrieves. They are training pup to break, thus insuring that they will have to use quite a bit of punishment later to train him not to break. 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. Then 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. 

3. Repeating commands to get a response   Repeating commands is a universal human trait when dealing with dogs. The practice is an excellent method of training pup to respond on the sixth or seventh repetition of a command. Generally, if pup doesn't respond to the first command, it is not because he didn't hear you. It's because he doesn't feel like responding. The solution is not repeating the command. The solution is to trigger the response, and reinforce your dominance. One generally should employ a dominance technique such as a direct threatening stare or "looming over". These techniques are both behaviors employed reinforce dominance by the pack leader 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 responsive dog who responds quickly to the first command. Conversely, it is a pain in the neck to hunt with a dog that only responds when he's constantly bombarded with a steady stream of repeated of commands.   

4. Shouting at pup to get a response   Hand in hand with repeating commands one usually encounters yelling. The arguments are the same as for repeating. Pup's lack of response is not because he didn't hear you.  Assuming you've trained him on the required command, it is because he doesn't feel like responding. If the cause is lack of training, back up and do the training.   Obviously it's not an acuity of hearing issue. 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 respond when yelled at" trait. Then it takes a more severe correction.   On a more basic plane, shouting only makes it harder for pup to respond. Shouting usually either excites pup, or it makes him afraid. Neither emotional state makes it easier for pup to do what you want.   If  a 6 - foot NFL linebacker was standing in your back yard yelling at you, "You better come over here to me, you *#?@^*#!!!. Would you go up to him? Not if you've got a brain. This is approximately the same picture you give your dog when you are standing 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 up to a human in that situation.   Do yourself and your dog a favor to make both your lives more pleasant. Don't shout.   

5. Changing the voice tone to begging when he's out of reach   Going over to a interrogatory 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 the 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 and on a leash, or 200 yards away. You want to always keep in the bluff, regardless of how far away pup is. 

6. Let pup run around out of control daily  "to run off some energy" prior to training  This is a terrible practice. It very likely will get pup killed one day, and it trains him to be under control 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 10 minutes around you. Some day you will drive up to a hunting place and park next to a highway. You will park and 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 considerably in the self control necessary to make him a pleasant hunting companion. 

7. Give Pup 10,000 marked retrieves before starting him on hand signals  Pup gets a marked retrieve every time he sees the bird or dummy fall and thus knows its location. A blind retrieve is that where pup did not see the 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 older and more mature to start blind retrieves. It is an illogical practice. Old age has never made it easier to learn. This practice falls under the same principal as giving him tons of retrieves and then changing the rules over to becoming 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 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.   

8. Testing instead of training.   Many handlers discover anew each day the limits of their dog. They testing 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 would have been:  (1)   Remember that his longest retrieve has been 30 yards.  (2)   Send the thrower out 150 yards.  (3)   You walk out with pup until you are only 30 yards from the thrower  (4)   Have the helper shoot and throw the dummy  (5)   Send pup on the 30 yard retrieve, which you know he will succeed at  (6)   Back up to 60 yards from the thrower, and have him throw again  (7)   Send pup on this 60 yard retrieve.  (8)   Continue backing up from the thrower in 45 yard increments until on the fourth retrieve, pup is going the full 150 yards.  Viola! 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 trait. It is also universally bad. The successful way to train a dog is to always engineer the lesson so that pup succeeds.   

9. Introductions to guns, water, etc  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 successfully accomplished. If you are unlucky, the introduction will scare the heck out of pup, and you will have a very big problem which may take weeks to solve.  Introductions are frequently a specialized case of 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 gunshy. With this type introduction a surprising number of dogs are found to be gunshy. Instead of testing pup, the handler obviously should have assumed that the gun might scare pup. He should have started with the shots occurring a long distance away from pup, associated them with something that pup likes, and gradually moved the shooting closer. Then training would have occurred instead of testing. The right way to have introduced pup to shooting would have been to start 150 yards away, watching a dog retrieving. Pup will be very interested. Then a shot is added on each retrieve with you and pup still watching 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 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 insure success. Whatever you are introducing pup to, it is your job to insure that no unpleasant associations occur. 

10. Changing the rules in the hunting field.  The two major bad practices you see in the field are: (1)never using a leash. (2) sending pup to retrieve while the bird is 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 and wait until sent to retrieve. Then they get in the duck blind and start sending pup to retrieve while the duck is still falling. After a few repetitions, Pup, of course, 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 accomplish, when you get to the duck blind Pup is going to deliver to 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.

Robert Milner -
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