Tuesday, March 22, 2011

One-Man Dogs and One-Trick Ponies

Years ago, hunters would train their retrievers to be both one-man and one-job dogs. They thought that anything that detracts from the dogs loyalty to the hunter, or distracts the dog from its desire to find and retrieve birds, would produce an inferior hunting dog. There is some merit to this way of thinking if you want your dog to be a field trial champion, outperforming hundreds of other dogs in specific tasks.

But while many modern retrieving breeds are engineered (if you will) for hunting, they tend to be very human-centric in their psychology and serve equally well in alternative roles: household pets, therapy dogs, bomb-sniffing dogs and more. The question is, can they do more than one thing for more than one person well? In my experience, the answer is yes... with a few caveats.

It isn't necessary for a general hunting retriever to be a one-man dog. However, it is a good idea to establish a primary (not exclusive, just primary) loyalty to the hunter. To accomplish this, the hunter should be the primary (again, not exclusive, just primary) provider of food, training and direction for the dog. This is especially true for the period in which the dog is receiving basic obedience and hunting training. Once the dog is well-trained, other family members can play a more active role in the dog's care and management without putting its field dependability in jeopardy.

It also isn't necessary for a good, solid hunting dog to be a one-trick pony. Just as an engineer can be phenomenal in his field of endeavor, that same brain that allows him to excel can also be used to make him a great writer, singer or airplane pilot. Dog's are intelligent creatures; while it's fine for them to have a specialty, it isn't necessary to limit them to just one ability.

I'm absolutely in favor of making sure a hunting dog is well socialized, solidly obedient and knows every trick in the book. Dog's minds are a lot like human minds in that they retain flexibility longer when exercised thoroughly.

And remember, don't forget to praise your dog lavishly and tell her what a pretty retriever she is when she gets something right. Flattery will get you everywhere.

For more dog training tips and information on obedience classes in Denver, Colorado, visit the  FetchMasters website or email Tom directly.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Three Principles for Creating the Perfect Retriever

Pretty much any dog can play fetch; in fact, any dog can benefit greatly from playing fetch. Fetching provides exercise and mental stimulation, both of which help keep dogs out of trouble. But playing fetch does not a retriever make.

Retriever training teaches a dog a well-defined skill set pertaining to hunting, and certain dog breeds have been bred for many generations to have the qualities necessary to excel as hunting retrievers. Of course, the qualities vary somewhat based on the whether the dog is bred to hunt upland birds, retrieve waterfowl or both. But the primary quality they all share is a strong predisposition for retrieving.

But a dog's desire to hold something in its mouth and bring it to you is only the foundation. It takes a lot of training to convert a dog into a solid retriever. If you want a dog who is crazy about retrieving, and skilled at it to boot, here are some things you should keep in mind.

Keep your dog hungry for retrieving.
    I recently watched a television show in which a man used a device to throw tennis balls a great distance for his Golden Retriever. He would take his dog to the park and throw the balls until the animal got bored and stopped retrieving.

    A hunting retriever doesn't have the luxury of getting bored and quitting. He must retrieve whenever or wherever a bird drops, whether it be in an icy pond, a swampy cattail patch or the fiery depths of hell. A lot goes into developing this much resolve in a dog, but a big part of it is making retrieving the absolute pinnacle of joy in your dog's life.

    Retrieving should be her reward, her play, her job and the thing he looks most forward to. When I need to reward my dog for being obedient, I toss her a bumper. When she wants to play, I toss her a bumper. Before she eats, I toss her some bumpers. Before bed time, I toss her some bumpers. I toss her hundreds of bumpers. But here's the key: I never ever let her get bored with it. Typically, I only throw three or four bumpers in a session. But that's it. Always stop when she's still excited about it, and she'll always be ready for more.

    Everything points toward the hunt.
      Not only should a well-built retriever training program make the dog crave retrieving, but it should culminate in her being crazier than a loon to hunt birds so he can retrieve them.

      When gun proofing the dog early on, he should learn that gunfire means there will be something to retrieve, usually a bumper thrown from a distance. He also learns that birds are an absolute blast to retrieve. Then gunfire and her love for birds are knit together when he learns that gunfire means a bird will drop from the sky for him to retrieve.

      When we're teaching him to sniff out birds and flush them, he learns that doing so results in that beloved gunfire that makes birds fall from the sky... you guessed it, for him to retrieve.

      Retrieving should be honed constantly.

      In the initial stages of teaching dogs to retrieve in a structured way, bad habits must be avoided at all costs. And if they do start to surface, they must be dealt with quickly. A retriever must learn, and occasionally be reminded:
      • They must not play tug with what they are retrieving. If you're going to let your dog play tug, do it with a piece of rope, and never send the dog to fetch the rope.
      • They also must learn to to get to the mark quickly and return to you quickly. If you keep the dog hungry for retrieving, you should never have a problem with him getting to the mark quickly. If he starts to slow down on the return, turn and run away from him. That'll speed him up and remind him that returning to you is as fun as getting to the mark.
      • They also must learn not to "mouth" or chew what they retrieve. Once a dog becomes hard-mouthed, it can be difficult to cure. The dog must be stopped immediately with a stern "No!", and the training session should immediately end. If your dog is loony-tunes for retrieving, that will get her attention pretty quickly.

      Following these principles will make the difference between a snappy, disciplined hunting dog that is a joy to shoot over, and a sluggish, unenthusiastic hound that embarrasses you in front of your buddies.

      And most importantly, don't forget to praise your dog lavishly and tell her what a pretty retriever she is when she gets it right. Flattery will get you everywhere.

      For more dog training tips and information on obedience classes in Denver, Colorado, visit the  FetchMasters website or email Tom directly. 

        Wednesday, January 26, 2011

        Teaching Your Retriever Hand Signals

        When hunting upland birds or waterfowl, it sometimes is necessary to direct your dog to an area you want her to hunt, or to downed game that she  didn't see fall. This is when hand signals come in, well... handy.

        I like to wait until after a dog's first hunting season to begin teaching hand signals, although I see no reason you couldn't start teaching them earlier. The following instructions assume a few things:
        • Your dog already is accomplished at retrieving single dummies.
        • Your dog knows not to break for a dummy until you verbally cue her.
        • Your dog heels moderately well.
        • Your dog has mastered the sit/stay and will stay put until you get several yards away from her.
        To begin teaching hand signals, take the dog to a nice, big field. I often use undeveloped tracts of land slated for improvements in Northeast Denver; there are many of them around Green Valley Ranch. But any place will do, as long as the grass isn't too tall (more on this in a moment).

        Once you arrive at your training grounds, follow these steps:
        • Imagine you are standing on home base. Then walk your dog at heel from home base out to where you imagine the pitcher's mound would be.
        • Have your dog sit on the pitcher's mound. (I like to blow one long burst on my whistle just before saying "sit." You might as well get in some whistle training while you're at it. This will be useful when the dog is out in the middle of a field and you need her to sit and wait for a hand signal.
        • Throw one dummy towards where you imagine first base would be. Don't throw it too far. For now, five or ten yards is fine. You want the dog to be able to mark the fall without difficulty.
        • Tell the dog "stay," and walk back to home base. When you get back to home base, the dog probably will be looking at you like you're crazy. That's OK. He'll figure out what you're doing soon enough.
        • Hold your right arm straight out at shoulder level and command your dog to retrieve the dummy.
        • Do this several times, and he'll soon start associating your right arm being held out with moving to towards first base. Once you feel she has it, start throwing the dummy towards third base and extending your left arm when you command her to retriever. You'll also want to throw the dummy towards second base and extend your arm towards it (this should look something like an overhand pitch) to teach her to move directly away from you.
        Don't rush it. One hand signal per training session (or even several training sessions) is fine. If you try to advance too quickly, you'll only confuse and frustrate the dog.

        Once the dog understands the three hand signals (left, right, and go back), you will want to gradually increase the distance you are tossing the dummies and work in areas with taller grass. The key is to only change one variable at a time. Again, too much too fast likely will discourage your dog. Remember, you want to build her confidence and skill level, not stump her.

        Don't forget to praise your dog lavishly and tell her what a pretty retriever she is when she gets it right. Flattery will get you everywhere.

        For more dog training tips and information on obedience classes in Denver, Colorado, visit the  FetchMasters website or email Tom directly.