Common Mistakes in Retriever Training

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Use a Thoughtful, Steady Approach with Your Duck Dog

Training Too Often

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1 | Training Too Often

Perhaps the most universal blunder in dog training is overtraining. Too many amateur dog trainers and first-timers think more is better. This cannot be farther from the truth and can do more harm than good.

When your pup is new and younger than 4 to 6 months, depending on the dog’s disposition, hammering the dog with hour-long training sessions every day will lead to nothing but frustration for you and the dog. Five to 10 minutes is plenty for young dogs. If you notice your pup getting tired or becoming distracted or bored, it’s time to stop.

When your dog begins to mature, sessions can be stretched to 15 minutes to a half-hour, but again, watch your dog, and let its demeanor dictate your action. A dog’s body language and attitude will tell you a lot about it, like whether it’s bored, confused or tired. Remember, your dog is a canine athlete, and just like human athletes, your furry friend needs time to recover mentally and physically.

Photo © James Buice

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Always Training in the Same Area

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2 | Always Training in the Same Area

Training in familiar territory can be a benefit when running drills to reinforce fundamental behaviors, such as pattern blinds or wagon wheels. However, consistently training within the same postage stamp of the world is not the best way to condition your dog to accept new challenges in terrain and situational awareness. Although a low cut, well-groomed soccer field or backyard is a fine place to teach your dog certain things — such as early-mark retrieves, pattern blinds and fundamental aspects of behavior — these close-cropped areas will not do for blind retrieves, nor will your dog benefit from learning everything in a yard.

Scout out various training locations. Find a local pond or pasture with fencerows, ditches or other obstacles to challenge your dog after they reach that phase in their training regimen. For water work, don’t always simply toss a dummy into the water and send your dog from your side to retrieve it. Don a pair of waders, toss out a few decoys and simulate a duck falling past the decoys to force your dog to swim through the spread to retrieve the fallen mark.

If you switch training locations and simulate actual hunting scenarios, your dog will be better adjusted when it hits the ground on a new property during the season. It will also keep your pup from becoming conditioned to one piece of land, which makes its job easier than it should be because it’s overly familiar with the setups.

Photo © James Buice

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Over-Correction

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3 | Over-Correction

I see this and cringe — the “trainer” with a heavy hand, thinking an e-collar is the magic wand. Provided your dog has been properly collar conditioned, the e-collar has benefits, but in the hands of the neophyte, it can do more harm than good. Rule No. 1: If your dog does not understand the task presented, it’s pointless to punish the dog for failure to properly execute. Imagine that someone tells you to climb an apple tree, pick an apple, climb down and then deliver that apple to him. But you look at the tree and don’t see an apple because it’s a peach tree. You then look with confusion at the person giving the order and are promptly smacked in the face for disobedience. Negative reinforcement on an unclear or unlearned task will only muddle the water and can result in your dog shutting down because of lack of confidence and understanding.

After your dog has acquired the proper conditioning and fully understands a task, you can use correction when it’s being stubborn or refusing to execute a known command. Now, when I say correction, I don’t mean cranking up the juice and pressing the button on your e-collar remote. You can convey displeasure in several ways, including your voice and stance or physical appearance. For example, if your dog decides it doesn’t want to sit after you have drilled that behavior into it, walking up to the dog and looming over it with a menacing scowl while giving the command can be just as effective as smacking it on the behind or charging the collar. Remember, you are — or should be — the alpha, and the dog knows that. So, when in doubt, or if you’re a newbie trainer, use e-collar correction as the last resort until you and your pup understand the task.

Photo © James Buice

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Failure to Follow a Flow Chart

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4 | Failure to Follow a Flow Chart

A flow chart is a series of evolutions outlined in sequential order, with each evolution building upon the last. Although these vary in form and fashion, they reinforce the same thing: Progression is fortified by the completion and understanding of the previous module. You wouldn’t want to teach your dog a double-blind retrieve before it was force-fetched, just as you would not have a well-trained dog without drilling the fundamentals of sit, here and stay early. A flow chart is a guideline for creating a dog properly; cultivating natural instinct with training in the proper order and time frame.

If you’re not familiar with a flow chart, you can find and print several online to give you an idea of training progression and the whats and whens of retriever training. If you are not familiar with the evolution process or believe you know more than generations of dog trainers before you, that brings us to our last category.

Photo © James Buice

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Not Knowing When to Bring in the Pros

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5 | Not Knowing When to Bring in the Pros

Professional dog trainers do this for a living. People like you and me are amateurs at best. A professional trainer is worth his weight in gold, especially during the early evolution of a pup, when novices often do the most damage. Pros can also help with the complex and often frustrating task of force-fetching. They are a wealth of information and experience.

Do you absolutely need a trainer to create a good bird dog? No, but you run the risk of creating problems down the road if you’re not careful.

Photo © James Buice

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Smart Training

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6 | Smart Training

Training your bird dog is a rewarding experience, but it should not be impulsive or taken lightly. It takes time, commitment and a strong understanding your dog and the training regimen required to break it out. By avoiding the common pitfalls in training and consulting a pro when necessary, you will have a companion that performs at the top of its game.

Photo © James Buice

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A good bird dog isn’t born. It’s made.

Although breeding and natural instinct play decisive roles in a dog’s ability to perform, you cannot simply pluck a retriever from a pile of puppies and rely on instinct to create a reliable, well-trained gun dog. It takes training, discipline and hard work to build upon those intrinsic genetic traits in even the highest-bred canine. Training and conditioning is a long process and cannot be rushed. There is no silver bullet, and it’s easy to make mistakes, especially among those who hastily want to get their dog in the field.

Let’s look at some of the most common mistakes and oversights made in retriever training.

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