How do I make my gundog a confident and independent Retriever.
As I am writing this I appreciate greatly that there is more than one way to skin a cat and not every method works for every dog, but in my experiences these are the methods I achieve the most success with.
So lets start at the end, ultimately you would like your dog to go one hundred yards blind stop to the whistle and take hand signals, whilst having the confidence to hold an area at a great distance from the handler. This is not something that is achieved over night. Many hours are needed and in my opinion to get your gundog to the top standard part of your soul is poured into them by the end of it.
This guide will take you right from puppy stage all the way through to the finished result all be it not everyone reading will want to take it as far which is fine, but if this can help you teach your gundog how to be a more confident, independent and reliable retriever then that's great.
This weekly blog will take you through step by step retriever training through each stage of a dogs development.
I refer to a puppy as a dog who is not ready for formal training, i.e. sitting and staying or walking nicely on a lead. The question is often asked when do I start training my dog, this question can be misleading as training does not have to be formal. In my opinion a trainer should judge for themselves when their pup is ready for formal training. I often scope it on when my pups are too confident that they are no longer naturally biddable, ignoring your voice or mouth whistle and are beginning to find out how fun it can be to be independent from the handler. It is important that they are showing a tendency to be independent from the handler, as this will benefit them down the line and tap into the dogs natural ability. So yes the answer to how old should my pup be before I start training formally, is how long is a piece of string, or more broadly anywhere between 6 months to a year old. My first field trial winner was a year old before he started any formal training on a lead or sitting and staying. However leading up to this you can enhance their natural ability through fun, play and good confidence building exercises which we will go through in this segment.
Giving a puppy the drive to retrieve well.
Most dogs be it pet or worker are happy to fetch an easy retrieve on plain grass that isn't to far away. We want to build a puppy that will hold an area from a short mark in some light cover.
To build this right from a young age is important.
A few ground rules
generally speaking I would not allow my own gundogs to have toys in their home environment. For
the items they desire be it tennis ball or dummy does not belong to them, it belongs to the handler and they need to understand that, The psychology behind this makes a retrieve much more desirable and exciting for the pup. If they own there own toys be it teddy kong or ball they will not be as keen on retrieving as they have had there fill of these items in the luxuries of their dwelling. We want a retrieve to be a real treat to get the fire burning inside them.
Get the pup use to picking a retrieve bringing it back and making a short fuss of them then remove the retrieve from their mouth. We don't want pups getting use to parading items round and encouraging a poor delivery, we need them in the mindset of go out pick it and bring it back and returning the handlers belonging. The dogs reward is finding and returning and having a fuss made of them not keeping the item.
Not too many retrieves.
Too many retrieves can sour a dog and make them bored of retrieving. If your operating on once daily sessions say 5 or 6 days a week a puppy need no more than one or two retrieves a day. keep it exciting and build on it gradually.
Let them run in.
The stimulation of chasing is the foundation for the drive they need to confidently hold an area and search. You cant run before you can walk and we don't want to make this element of training boring. Steadying to thrown retrieves comes later in formal training.
It is important that your new puppy has a childhood lots of fun with the handler through play and fuss creating a real bond and partnership with the handler. I refer to these dogs as pups but really this training is aimed at dogs that are 5 to 10 months old. Some dogs need this form of training for longer all depending on their character and ability. What we aim to be doing here is giving the dog confidence with searching for retrieves and enhancing there own natural ability that has been bred into them over the years.
allocate a training area that your pup is familiar with somewhere they know and somewhere where you can let them off the lead and be safe. Be fun walk them round off lead encourage them to freely investigate different smells, have a good charge round and make a fuss of them plenty. Remember this is purely fun and a really positive experience for them. Break up the free roam by calling them into you and setting up a retrieve and remember puppies cannot mark... at all, in fact they might as well be blind. So make sure you show them the object let them smell it move it and make it interesting in your hands, whilst you have their focus throw it or roll it a short way in open territory preferably short grass let them run in and pick it call them back by voice or mouth whistle.
Then remove the object and return it to your game bag or pocket out of sight. Make them feel special like they have achieved something by making a big fuss of them. Carry on with your walk round and if you feel inclined let them have another retrieve but don't practise off two retrieves every session. Keep the desire to retrieve burning. This walk round with free roam and retrieve should last no longer than five to ten minutes, short and sweet is key to learning quickly. This can be broken up In a session to last longer by sitting on the ground with them making friends and enforcing your partnership together. It is important to find the right balance during these exercises particularly if you have just the one dog. I often work pups together to create competition and keep them confident off of each other. Furthermore these exercises will be aimed at single dog owners training a dog for the first time and I wont delve into development of more than on puppy at the same time.
Bearing this in mind a young pup will be looking and investigating your training ground and will become bored without a reward, we don't want them to “dry up” and not be enjoying themselves so to aid this it is important to keep it short and let them find the odd reward in there territory they are investigating. Whether you drop a tennis ball without them seeing and hunt them onto it so their investigating isn't for nothing but again find the right balance they don't want to be finding balls every 10 yards, because it will become boring one or two every session is plenty just so they tearing round isn't for nothing. Not every dog is a natural hunter but this blog will be purely retrieving based you don't need to follow this word for word but if there are a few tips you would like to try in your own sessions that's great.
As for the distance of your retrieve it is very much trial and error, see what your dog is capable of and stick to that at this stage. Let them run in it wants to be easy out and back giving them plenty of confidence.
Progress with this over the coming weeks and judge for yourself when you feel the your dog is ready to move on, the next step will be.
Carry on your normal training exercise but when setting up a retrieve just start holding the dog back ever so slightly. To do this I usually get on ground level with them and place my right hand on their chest, throw the retrieve as you were before but just hold them there until the retrieve lands and then release. This aids with the excitement of the retrieve as the dog is desperate to go and chase like he has been allowed to in previous sessions. I find the tension of holding them back helps to further there drive to retrieve. During this time vary the distances have some short have some on the edge of what there currently capable of. Still sticking to one or two retrieves a session.
To carry on building onto this when your dog is use to this and still showing good retrieving enthusiasm, start now throwing the retrieve into very light cover just enough so the dog is not totally reliant on there eyesight. We want to see the dog start developing and holding an area ideally your puppy wants to be 8 – 10 months old at this stage at least.
If your dog runs out and loses confidence straight away that is fine, their just not ready to move on. Dogs do not want to be failing retrieves at this age. We need to keep them confident to progress so hunt the dog onto it make a big fuss of them and go back a step and try again in a few weeks, or make sure the retrieve is easier than what you had just tried.
Equally if your dog is happy to go out and search but loses confidence very quickly, a tip I use is have multiple retrieves either already in that area to make the chance of success much higher, or whilst they're holding the area and your judging there not far off giving up pop another retrieve out there to heighten the success rate. If this is the case, if they do give up at this stage you will probably be able to encourage them back out as they will be confident enough to do so, once back out pop a tennis ball in the area without them seeing. My game bag is full of tennis balls for this reason even later on in training with older dogs. Confidence is key and as long as your pupil keeps having success they will grow in confidence.
Over the coming weeks or months keep testing your dogs ability gradually make them harder but remember to always keep it fun.
When I am bringing on a potential trial dog I want to get them ideally to the point where you could throw them a mark in cover and leave them there for as long as it takes. Hopefully they have the drive to keep looking and searching and your input would be irrelevant. You could go have a sit down somewhere but your dog is still searching. Now this is somewhat temperament based a dog has a certain amount of natural ability waiting to be unlocked but not all dogs are like this don't be disheartened if this is not the case with your dog. These methods will unlock as much potential as they have but it is important to remember as a trainer the reward is getting as much out of that individual dog as you can and you should take a pride in doing that.
Look out for the next stage of your dogs development in next weeks blog.