I’m fortunate to have owned and hunted over several different Labrador Retrievers in recent years. I’m equally fortunate to have also been involved in the day-to-day training and hunting development of a dozen other dogs owned by family members, friends and hunting associates.
The intimate relationships I’ve had with these Labrador retrievers have proven to me that this breed is routinely eager to please, driven to succeed and easy for even amateurs like myself to train. To say that labs are intelligent and intuitive learners is like saying Albert Einstein was an above average mind!
Unfortunately, those respective dogs have also shown me in no uncertain terms my own limitations as a would-be trainer. Admittedly, I’ve made my share of mistakes in both training and the handling of all these dogs. Thankfully labs don’t hold grudges and the mistakes made have not been for naught.
It’s impossible to overstate the enthusiasm, loyalty, talent and determination labs bring to the party. Suffice to say these qualities are a big part of what makes the breed so universally endeared among hunters, especially waterfowl enthusiasts who demand insane things from their hunting dogs.
Speaking specifically of my own faults and shortcomings in dog training, lack of patience has been my most common failing. Moving on to new and usually more interesting training tasks before a dog has effectively mastered the basics is a reoccurring problem around my kennels.
Labrador retrievers while super intelligent are not capable of reading an owners mind any more than they are capable of mastering complicated tasks without practice. Teaching a hunting dog even fundamental obedience skills takes time and more importantly repetition.
Labs and other dog breeds learn best through controlled repetition that allows the trainer to monitor and if necessary impart change on a dog’s behavior immediately as it happens. Unfortunately the necessity of repeating a drill over and over again can often create training regimens that become mundane and boring.
Becoming impatient and moving on to another task before one hunting or obedience skill has been completely mastered is a common mistake that typically manifests again and again as a dog matures and more complex training tasks are attempted.
For example, a dog that doesn’t heal crispy and or sit/stay well will be difficult to control and focus when setting up other drills like marked or blind retrieves. This is an overly simplified example, but the point is it’s better to move a lab along too slowly than to rush a dog into service.
Train to Hunt
This is the primary reason resourceful trainers/hunters don’t try to train their dogs while hunting, but rather train by simulating hunting situations in a controlled environment. During a simulated hunting drill it’s easy to stop and if necessary correct the dog or to run the drill over and over again until the dog masters the desired task.
In a hunting situation it’s rarely convenient to stop the action and correct a dog’s behavior. It’s even more difficult to recreate the situation that gives the dog a second chance. What naturally ends up happening is the dog gets away with an indiscretion and that indiscretion is likely to reoccur.
At some point a young or inexperienced dog is going to have to be exposed to live fire and real hunting situations. In these cases, it’s best if the dog owner puts down the gun and lets other hunters in the group provide the necessary function of shooting birds. Instead of worrying about hunting, the trainer needs to focus completely on the task of handling the dog until the animal proves itself trustworthy and capable.
Failure isn’t a Bad Thing
One of the other mistakes I’ve made over the years is not creating difficult enough hunting simulations during training regimens. Setting up less than challenging training drills leads the trainer towards a false sense of security.
Resourceful trainers set up drills that push their dog(s) literally to the point of failure. It’s important to understand that a fine line exists between success and failure in any training drill. The goal should be to set up drills that are a little too difficult for the dog to complete on its own, but drills that can be achieved if the dog gets a little timely help.
The keys words here are timely and help. Timing can be tricky when trying to get a dog to work a little harder to achieve a more difficult task. In the same token, helping the dog complete a difficult task turns lemons into lemonade and works wonders at building a dog’s confidence.
A good way to implement this concept is the process of stretching out a dog to become more efficient at making progressively longer marked retrieves. When a lab heads out to retrieve a bumper from a marked retrieve that’s a little longer than the dog is used to, chances are good the dog will become confused and pull up short.
When a dog pulls up short of a marked retrieve it typically happens at about the distance the dog has become accustomed to getting marks. Pulling up short is to be expected. It should also be anticipated that the dog will be confused and looking for direction at this precise moment in the drill.
The trainer can use this confusion to good advantage if he or she anticipates this behavior and reacts at the key moment. The solution to stretching the dog out the few remaining yards is accomplished by simply tossing a second and very timely bumper to the same location. To make this trick work flawlessly, the second bumper needs to be tossed right on top of the first and at the precise moment the dog hangs up.
Hunters and recreational trainers accomplish this goal by having one individual run the dog and a helper act as the remote gunner/thrower. The helper is instructed to “hup” the dog or fire off a training shot to get the dog’s attention the instant the dog hangs up. At that precise moment a second bumper is tossed right on top of the first mark. This simple step is usually all the encouragement the dog needs to stretch out the remaining distance and complete the retrieve.
This method of stretching out a dog works well on young and seasoned dogs alike and is an exceptionally good way of getting any lab tuned up for the prospect of long hunting retrieves.
Professional trainers practice this same training regimen, but often with the help of more sophisticated remotely activated bumper launchers that can be triggered as necessary to keep a dog driving in the desired direction. Remote activated bumper launchers also fire off a blank cartridge, working to get the dog’s attention at the precise moment the dog is confused as to what to do. Remote bumper launchers are a little expensive for the average dog enthusiast, but they allow pros and serious amateur trainers to work without the need for a helping gunner/thrower.
A Change of Scenery
In the same way that pushing a dog to failure works to develop an animal that thinks on the fly, it’s just as important to pick training areas that have uniquely different kinds of habitat types. Most hunters and dog owners fail at setting up retrieve drills that are complex enough to significantly challenge their dog.
During hunting season a dog is going to be exposed to a wealth of habitats including tall grass, cattails, open water, weed choked waters and harvested crop lands. The more a dog sees these varied environments during routine training sessions the more comfortable the dog will be in the field.
Mixing habitat types into a retrieve is especially useful in building a dog’s confidence. Try setting up a training drill that pushes a dog through some high grass cover, into and across a little water and then back into a patch of grass before the dog encounters the bumper. Getting a dog used to traversing complex habitat types like this insures the dog will not get confused when facing similar challenges in the field.
Selling a Lab Short
Over the years I’ve been guilty of judging a prospective dog’s skill sets too quickly. This of course ties into my general propensity for impatience! While training we naturally start to see cues to a dog’s strengths and also their respective weaknesses. It’s very easy to jump to premature conclusions when a dog struggles on a particular task.
Labrador retrievers if you will forgive the analogy are a lot like kids in that they don’t all learn, mature and develop at the same rate. Some of these dogs learn quickly and others take more repetition and time to “get it” during a training regimen. As lab owners we have to remind ourselves that there is no prize for being done first. The prize is in having a dog that completes important tasks on command.
A few years ago I was working with a friend’s lab that wasn’t showing much enthusiasm towards fetching. This dog would go through the motions and fetch bumpers for awhile, but after just a few retrieves she started losing interest in the game.
I had serious doubts this particular lab was going to turn into anything but a family pet. The owner suggested force fetching the dog to see if the light bulb might flicker a little brighter. I had my reservations, and in honesty was leaning towards tossing in the towel on this particular dog. Thankfully my friend pushed the issue and begrudgingly I agreed to put the dog through the force break process.
After just two weeks of force break drills, the demeanor and focus of the dog changed dramatically. By the time force breaking was completed a few weeks later and marked retrieve drills were once again started this dog had turned into a whole new animal. A dog that was once half-hearted at best, started fetching with a renewed spirit and enthusiasm.
The moral of this story is I might have given up on this particular dog had the owner not strongly encouraged me to push forward with training. Thankfully this yellow lab eventually developed into a trusted and capable hunting companion.
Expecting too much
Labs, even the most talented dogs, are not immune to mistakes. No lab is perfect, nor should we expect our dogs to perform flawlessly every time we train or hunt with them.
Unrealistic expectations in what a hunting Labrador should be able to do creates a slippery slope. Not every dog has the tools to become a Field Trial or Hunt Test Champion. That doesn’t mean those dogs can’t be capable and even exceptional hunting companions.
The savvy in this discussion is establishing reasonable expectations based on an individual dog’s aptitude rather than comparing one dog to another. Any hunter who has been fortunate enough to own and/or hunt over an exceptional lab will naturally expect other dogs to perform to that standard. It’s simply not realistic to judge the potential of one dog based on the performance of another. Dogs are individuals and their hunting skills and weaknesses must be evaluated as such.
Labs that are a little slow to get the picture aren’t necessarily “wash outs,” but rather dogs that will simply need more time and help to accomplish established goals. Like a student who’s struggling with a particular subject in school, a little extra tutoring is often needed to bring certain dogs along.
A Wash Out isn’t all Bad
Professional trainers and others who participate in hunt tests and field trials are often working with and observing many dogs at the same time. It’s understandable why these individuals would “wash out” certain dogs in favor of others who are progressing more quickly. Time is money to a professional dog trainer and it makes little sense to pin hopes of trial success on a dog that clearly isn’t as talented as others in the kennel.
The flip side of this discussion is a dog that’s a typical field trial “wash out” is still more than capable as a hunting companion. Raven, one of my labs that has passed on, came from a breeder/trainer who primarily concentrates on field trials. Raven wasn’t meeting this breeder’s exceptionally high standards and in effect became “dead wood” in his kennel. I purchased Raven and literally had him in the duck blind fetching birds within days.
Some trainers refer to these dogs as “started hunters” and the process of working with one of these animals makes sense in many ways. For one, the hunter can see what he or she is buying going in, compared to purchasing a puppy and hoping for the best.
Unfortunately, there is no set standard as to what constitutes a started dog or a price for that animal. Some breeders consider a started dog an animal that is fetching to hand and steady to shot. Others include force broken into the mix. It kind of depends on when the trainer/breeder decides to pull the plug on a particular dog as to how much training it has received and mastered.
In the case of my Raven, he was fetching to hand, steady to shot, force fetched, had been worked with real birds and was even started on the whistle stop and hand signal commands needed for progressing to blind retrieves. I literally purchased a functioning and experienced hunting dog and all I really needed to do was carry on with the training regimen the breeder had already established.
Within one hunting season Raven was a finished and polished hunting dog capable of multiple marked and blind retrieves. Raven went on to give me tremendous service for the next 10 seasons. While the cost of a started dog is considerable compared to that of a typical puppy, the rewards are instant and justified in many cases.
The most important point regarding started dogs is you can see and judge exactly what you’re buying. While most of this feature has identified mistakes I’ve made with the labs I’ve owned and worked with, buying a started dog turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made. Training success and failures involving Raven helped me work more effectively with many other dogs including Mason, who enjoyed a long and successful hunting career. My current hunting dog, Drake, is benefiting from the things I learned training his predecessor.
Frustration Breeds Failure
In closing, it’s important to note that during training there are naturally going to be moments of frustration when a particular session isn’t going well. The frustrations associated with training dogs are a natural part of the process and over time I came to realize nothing good comes from losing my cool.
The key is not to let frustration manifest into something that makes a bad situation even worse. When a dog is struggling with a particular task and as the trainer you feel
yourself getting frustrated, it’s
best to kennel the dog and take a break.
That nugget of wisdom took me the longest to learn. It also points to the fact that as dog enthusiasts we’re just as prone to being bullheaded and to making mistakes as the dogs we’re working so hard to polish.