The little springer spaniel was having a fine time greeting people, sniffing boots and checking out a place it hadn’t seen before. Its tail windmilled for each person that scratched its head, and the pup danced on its lead, despite the grim-looking guy holding the other end who kept yanking it to heel. Its owner aside, the springer was having fun—until the shooting started.
The place was a trap and skeet club, the pup was about 10 weeks old, and its owner was “introducing it to gunfire.” At the first shots, the dog nearly turned inside-out trying to run in the opposite direction. The man got huffy when several of us suggested that he take the petrified pup away from the range. Predictably perhaps, he put the cowering puppy in a crate just off the firing line, where it stayed until the club manager ordered the guy off the property.
I didn’t know the spaniel’s owner and haven’t seen him or the dog since that day, but I’d bet a case of shotshells that when the unfortunate springer hears anything louder than a sneeze, it looks for a place to hide. Rather than introducing the pup to generic noise, then gunfire—slowly at increasing levels of intensity—the idiot at the range opted for the lump-sum approach.
“To err is human,” says the old cliché, and who among us hasn’t made mistakes? But mistakes are one thing, stupid behavior is something else. Stupid is the guy at the shooting range; stupid is the person who tosses an 8-week-old retriever off the end of a pier to introduce it to water; stupid is the person who straps an electronic collar on a young dog and zaps it for disobeying a command it doesn’t know; stupid is … well, you get the picture. Years ago, a pro-trainer friend summed up dog training as keeping lesser mistakes to a minimum while trying to avoid doing anything really dumb. He added that having a grasp of what you should not do is as important as knowing what you should do.
One of the most common beginner errors is caving in to the urge to ramp-up a dog’s training schedule. When a pup is doing well, it’s tempting to drill it harder, for longer periods. This is usually a mistake; even a professional trainer risks lasting consequences by pushing a pup too fast when it isn’t mentally ready for the drills or the stress. You can cause a young dog to lose confidence by forcing tasks it isn’t prepared to handle. Keep early training sessions short and focused on developing specific skills in small increments of work. Never put a pup in a position where it can’t succeed or odds are good it will quit on you.
Always monitor your dog’s behavior for signs of frustration, slacking off, resistance or a tentative attitude. Whatever the signals, if you and the dog clearly aren’t on the same page of the training manual, stop for the day. Or, run it through a quick, easy drill—like “Sit” or “Whoa”—tell you’re dog he’s a good guy, then quit and think about why there’s a problem. Putting continued pressure on a dog when it isn’t responding can shift your efforts from mistake to stupid in minutes.
Don’t Overdo It
A corollary to overdoing drills occurs with retrievers. Novice trainers often believe the old myth that if a few retrieves are good, then pushing a dog to do a lot of pick-ups must be better. Reality is that too much retrieving, especially with young dogs, can be counterproductive. You can cause even a gung-ho retriever to lose interest or, worse, to stop fetching entirely. Such behavior virtually ensures the necessity of higher levels of force down the road.
Just as a trained, obedient gun dog is a pleasure in the field, a disobedient, out-of-control one is a nightmare best left at home. And you can easily create such a dog by not investing enough time into basic training—yard and early field work—and/or not enforcing compliance with commands you are instilling. Whatever breed you have and commands you teach, it’s critical not to shortcut the development of these core skills; they’re fundamental for future training and the development of a reliable hunting dog. There’s no such thing as “speed-training” a gun dog—at least there isn’t if you want a stylish, productive hunting partner.
You’re The Boss
As well as investing the time necessary to thoroughly school a pup in basic drills, a dog must be made to understand and accept that a command given is the equivalent of a command obeyed. Gun dog training isn’t a democracy; a dog has no say in anything that takes place. If you allow a dog to think it has the option of obeying only when it feels like it, you’ve lost the initiative—the dog will see itself as being in charge—and then you have a problem. After a dog knows a command, don’t issue it multiple times—as in, “Kennel, Kennel, come on Rover, Kennel.” Say it once and demand compliance. And don’t discipline a dog for bad behavior one time, then let it get away with the same infraction the next time. The dog will remember its success and try it again. Be consistent with your corrections and your dog will learn faster and need far less discipline.
Some years ago, I was on a big-time dove shoot where one of the gunners had a 4-month-old Labrador in tow, “To gain hunting experience,” the man said. This unfortunate pup, I discovered, was getting its introduction to birds, gunfire and retrieving in one big chunk and, like the springer at the shooting range, all the Lab wanted was to run away from it all as fast as it could. There was absolutely nothing positive for the young, untutored dog in that dove field.
Most of us want to get a pup into action as soon as we can. At what age a dog should be hunted depends on the pup, its training and confidence levels, and the hunting circumstance. Wise trainers keep these first hunts casual, upbeat and low-pressure. To avoid any negative experiences that could traumatize a pup, they don’t view these early jaunts as real hunting, and they aren’t out to shoot a lot of birds. These “hunts” are simply another step forward in training that puts a dog into different settings, after it’s comfortable with birds and gunfire.
A surprising number of owners assume that a dog old enough to hunt will transition smoothly from training to the real thing. Without help, it might not—to a typical pointer or retriever pup, the scenarios can be quite different. In one scene, it’s in a familiar field at the end of a check cord pointing a tame quail or picking up dummies and clipped-wing pigeons; in another, it’s in the middle of strange, dark grouse woods or in a rice field surrounded by goose decoys it hasn’t seen before. Too often, trainers don’t help dogs establish a causal relationship, a direct connection, between training and hunting. Make it easier for your dog to bridge the difference by simulating hunting conditions during training or, as I said earlier, by viewing a pup’s first season as an extended training period.
Mistakes are a fact of life. Most of us made them yesterday, and the odds are good we’ll make them today and tomorrow. The problem with errors in dog training is that we might have to live with their consequences for years. By avoiding or at least minimizing a few common but fundamental mistakes, we can help dogs achieve a higher level of performance and enjoy ourselves more in the process.
More Things You Shouldn’t Do
The world of gun dog training is crammed full of “don’ts.” Although different breeds and different trainers have different sets of “don’t do this” requirements, some of them are relevant across the board. Here are a few everyday mistakes that, if avoided, will save you grief.
1. Don’t play tug-of-war with a dog you expect to retrieve game; along with encouraging hard-mouth, tug-of-war teaches it to play “keep away” and tells the dog that it doesn’t have to give up the item. Likewise, don’t let it chew or mouth training dummies.
2. Don’t verbally or physically discipline a young retriever for picking up and carrying some item you don’t want it to have. You might send a message that retrieving is a bad thing. Simply take away the item.
3. Don’t use different terms, willy-nilly, for the same command. For example, “Here” and “Come” mean the same thing, so pick one and stick with it.
4. Don’t chase a puppy because you’ll intimidate it, or it’ll see it as game and you’ll have a harder time teaching it to come to you on command.
5. Don’t allow children to issue commands because they almost always end up confusing a dog.
6. Don’t use 10 words to teach a command when one will do. In other words, don’t yak it up when you show a pup what a command means.
7. Don’t ignore the seemingly “small things,” like occasional barking in a crate or kennel. Once such behaviors become ingrained they’re difficult to extinguish.
8. Don’t allow a pup to get away with doing anything—sleeping on the sofa, stealing food, eating birds—that you won’t want it to do for life.
9. Don’t get stuck in a training rut—same place, same time, same drills in the same order. Liven your dog’s attitude and adaptability by varying your training grounds and routine.
10. Don’t discipline a dog randomly. Be certain it can connect the discipline directly to a specific behavior. The same rationale applies to rewards.