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TRAINING YOUR FIRST RETRIEVER
HOW FAR IS FAR ENOUGH?
2005 Charro Ave • Longmont CO 80504
It seems like this question crosses the minds of many hunters who come into HRC with the thought of training their retrievers. It also comes up frequently the first time a member gets together with other club members for a training day or perhaps a training class.
There are a lot of answers to this question. Some are right; some not. And that’s true of the answer the hunter comes up with. It’s also true of the answers he receives from others.
Let’s spend most of our time on the hunter’s question. First, let’s spend just a moment on the answers the hunters with their first dog may get from those of us that have been at it for a while. Answers may vary from the long and thoughtful to the very short and very biased. While there is no one right answer to this question, there are times when we more experienced trainers jump too quickly to answer the question from our own perspective. Perhaps the new member would be better served if we answered with a question or several. What do you want from your dog? Have you owned a dog before? Have you ever hunted with someone else’s retriever? Was it trained? If not, do you know what a retriever is capable of? Do you have any interest in running hunt tests now or in the future with this dog?
Years ago, our club had a long-time member who, over the years, had two or three dogs. He had absolutely no interest in training beyond Started. He was happy as a clam, and never changed.
Another member shared that he hunted with one or two other people and he just wanted his dog to bring a duck back to the blind; it didn’t have to deliver to hand. It didn’t have to be steady; he’d tie it in the blind. Fortunately, he didn’t run into club members who said, “Easy, you just need to get an e-collar and force fetch your mutt.” Instead he ran into several who were willing to meet him where he was and to take him where he wanted to go. No further. And when his dog started bringing every bird back to him at training sessions, he was as happy as if he was just slipping into his brand new 1,000 Point Club jacket! That went so well, he asked if it might be possible to get the dog steady. He got that help and said, “That’s all I want. I can’t wait ‘til duck season gets here.” Clearly he was a happy camper.
Once seasons open, many of us who see each other regularly from about March through August never see each other. So it was with him and the folks who’d worked with him at club training sessions. They were happy that he was happy and HRC had another satisfied new member. Then, right at the end of duck season, one of those helper member’s phone rang, and it was this guy. Season had gone great, and his hunting buddies were impressed with his dog’s new skills. And he’d gotten to thinking it really might be handy to begin thinking about training the retriever to run blinds, and asked for suggestions and where to get information about teaching that. Hearing that, I really had to ask myself, what would have been the outcome a year later if at that first training day he’d been met with “The Program” or nothing?
Other times, a new member will show up and, while it’s the member’s first retriever, he’s seen what trained retrievers can do and has attended HRC hunt tests. This newbie starts right out with, “I want a Finished dog and I might even want to run the Grand.” This person has answered his question of how far, and now the next question is: “How?” This person is going to be receptive to information and suggestions and a workload that would drive away other new members if that’s what they were met with.
For those of us who get asked, it’s always good to remind ourselves to try to understand who is asking and what their exposure and goals are and what they want to commit to.
Our local club has had a guy who was a member back in the mid-eighties when the club started. He’d be a member for a couple years or so, and then disappear until his dog had aged and he was starting another pup. Then he’d join up again for a couple years, and disappear. He wanted a hunting dog and he wanted one with Seasoned level skills, so he’d participate until the dog had the HR title and go hunt. To my way of thinking, there is nothing at all wrong with that.
How far is far enough? I think it’s pretty clear that the answer is: It depends. And we need to recognize that there are a lot of new members who either don’t really know how far is good for them, or even if they are capable of training to where they ultimately want to be.
Perhaps, if you are one of those new HRC members who is not sure, let me toss out some thoughts and, risky and presumptive as it may be, some suggestions. It also seems right to sprinkle in some realities that may or may not be welcomed or even understood the first time around training a hunting retriever.
I think from almost the beginning of HRC it’s been said the heart of HRC is the Seasoned dog. I’m guessing that’s still so. An HR is achievable without the heavy commitment that is involved in training to the level of control that can result in the UH, HRCH, or GRHRCH titles. If you are new, and haven’t read the rulebook, a retriever, in order to pass at the Seasoned level, must be able to do the following: Walk at heel on and off lead; Be steady when the marks are thrown and the handler fires popper loads from the shotgun at the marks; Be capable of retrieving a double mark; Be able to be handled to a short blind retrieve by hand and whistle signals; and Be able to return to the handler with a bird in its mouth and not dropping it, when another bird (diversion) is thrown within sight of the retriever. What is this Seasoned retriever? It’s a HUNTING DOG! If you get lucky and shoot a triple, the dog may or may not be able to handle that, but you can handle the dog to the bird it didn’t remember. And for most of us, if we are real honest, we are much more apt to shoot a bird the dog did not see fall, and need to run a blind, than we are to shoot a triple.
This retriever capable of passing Seasoned tests and getting an HR title is a great hunting dog, and no doubt better than 95 percent of the retrievers you will run into in the fields and marshes when you are hunting.
Are there things the dog may not be able to handle? You betcha! If you’ve shot two ducks and the second one shot is laying belly up in the decoys in still, shallow water, flapping and paddling its way to Mallard Heaven, and the first bird shot has been caught in the current and in danger of getting into current no dog can retrieve in, you are probably not going to be able to call the dog off the short bird to go get the long bird first. If you’ve got the dog running a blind and there are lots of complexities and sources of suction, you may not be able to get your Seasoned dog to successfully run a blind to get that duck. If you hunt upland, your dog may not be steady to wing and shot, nor willing to honor another dog hunting upland.
These are not everyday situations, and they are why HRC has a Finished category and an Upland Hunter program. If you will aim to see coyotes and coons go hungry and seek true bragging rights in the swamp and afield in the uplands, you’ll need to commit to the additional training and control required of a Finished dog.
If you just want a hunting dog, and don’t have strong feelings that you don’t want steady or ability to run a blind, I think most of us hunters who’ve been involved in HRC for any time at all will urge you to start out with a goal of a Seasoned retriever. If all you ever want is a Started dog, I hope you’ll feel comfortable saying so and I hope we old mossbacks will say, “Fine, let me help.”
How to get there really isn’t part of the “How Far” question, but hard to separate the two, so let me just toss out a few thoughts.
Training Programs. There are a number of well-designed, complete retriever training programs available. We each are convinced the one we use is the best, but the truth is, several are complete and more than adequate. If you get hooked up with a group to train with, whose approach you are comfortable with, and most use the same program, smart money might be on using that same program. It will help you get the most help from others, which I think most of us will look back and say was critical in training our first retriever. If you are not hooked up with a group, just ask around at a training day and you’ll quickly get a good idea of the most commonly used programs. Most now are a combination of video and printed materials.
E-collars. You need to decide if you want to use the collar. Most do, but some don’t. The e-collar is neither a magic wand nor a tool of the devil. A collar can be abused, but abuse is seen as frequently from a variety of sources, including verbal, ruining the dog’s attitude through training methods and pressure that is confusing to the dog, physical abuse, etc.
Perhaps the most important difference of the collar is that it is so immediate and capable of use at a distance, that it is easier to make training mistakes that really hamper progress, if not ruin the dog. In my humble view, anybody who uses an e-collar without first following a complete collar conditioning program, both to introduce and then use the collar in the field, should be horse-whipped and then welded to the ground with a high six on an e-collar strapped around their own neck. I’m serious. Our retrievers deserve better.
Force-Fetch. It seems to me sort of a shame that this became the common term for this part of training. Trained Retrieve or Conditioned Retrieve are probably more descriptive labels, done the way it should be in today’s training world. The old notion of force-fetch being a pro’s hell-week for the dog shouldn’t exist today. Is it the most fun part of training for the dog or the trainer? No. But I think most who pursue advanced training will tell you it is very important and much more important for training other aspects and establishing training/handling relationship with the dog than it is for teaching the dog to hold and fetch. There are several written or video instructions for this, and the first-timer will be well-advised to study one to help make the program a success and minimize the negative aspects.
A few realities. It’s common for trainers with that first dog to go along and stay at the Started level with no steady, no work toward blinds, etc., and then a couple years later decide they’d like to pursue Finished. Trust me, very seldom can this happen and even come remotely close to the potential of your dog. The same with hunting the uplands with a young unsteady dog, particularly pheasants, and then deciding you’d like a steady dog and run the Upland Hunter tests. All I can say to you newcomers is, “Good Luck!”
Sometimes the fastest way to get the furthest is to go slow. For example, it is very much possible to have the same dog run beautiful, long, straight blinds and be a dynamite upland hunter. But the odds of ever running beautiful, long, straight blinds the dog enjoys are close to zero if you hunt upland with the dog before the basics of cold blinds are fully taught and solidified in the field.
Well-known retriever trainer Mike Lardy suggests that dogs can take quite a bit of pressure, if they know how to remove the pressure. There is so much truth to this and it is so common that the dog has no clue how to turn off the pressure. This can quickly become detrimental to the dog’s progress and result in a dog with no confidence, bordering on the neurotic and darned sure not enjoying training. Often, pressure is equated with the collar, and improper use, is perhaps the most dramatic offender, but lack of any step-wise program that prepares the dog for what is asked of it can provide just as much pressure and be just as destructive.
I think most experienced trainers who have been beginners themselves and seen lots of beginners would say that it is critical that the hunter who wants a trained retriever, regardless of targeted level, must get and follow an accepted, complete retriever training program and, usually, get a little help from their friends. Other than being willing to settle for a hunting dog that is unsteady, and may or may not reliably bring the bird back to the hunter, to end up with a really useful hunting retriever at the Seasoned or Finished level, it is really a matter of following an accepted progression in training. All good programs build on what comes before and have built-in ways of checking if what’s come before has been properly digested by our young charge, so progress is not lost, nor essential steps skipped.
I’m showing my bias, but for most people, even those willing to settle for very little, I think using a good accepted program from the start makes all the sense in the world. When you’ve gotten the dog trained to as far as you want to go, you can stop. If then, or later, you decide you want more, you’ve built the foundation to move on to higher skills. Correcting the problems of a house build on an inadequate foundation is very difficult and expensive. It’s often not much different in training the hunting retriever.
Welcome to HRC. Have fun. Hopefully you’ll find a lot of helpful assistance from more experienced HRC members. Follow a program the dog can understand and keep it fun for the dog. Anyone learns better if interested, engaged and enjoying the subject than if they are bored, confused or scared. That’s true for our dogs, also. Keep the momentum up for maximum progress and minimal setbacks.
This article originally appeared in the Feb/March 2015 issue of HUNTING RETRIEVER.