Training Your Gun Dog

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If you want to be shown a glaring example of your shortcomings as an amateur gun dog trainer, share a duck blind with someone who has had their dog professionally trained. I did just that last year on a cloudy October morning, with more ducks flying than we even tried to count. Delou, my wirehaired pointing griffon, was beside me. A few metres away, my friend Russ sat next to his chocolate Lab, Mac. The birds had been coming in hard and fast since daybreak and it was still early enough in the migration that they were committing wholeheartedly to our decoy spread, offering us the kind of shooting that keeps gun barrels hot to the touch. The dogs were alternating retrieves and it was soon painfully apparent to me how much better Mac was at this game than my dog. Delou is a fine hunting dog, with a strong nose for birds and about as much hunting drive as I have ever witnessed in a dog. But, when I compared the two dogs, it was pretty obvious which one had been properly trained by an expert and which one had been trained by someone who is, well, me.

When I sent Delou for a retrieve, he would bolt to the bird, then he would mouth the duck a bit to make sure it was dead and I would try to hasten his retrieve with a couple of additional “fetch” commands. As he approached me with the bird, he would sometimes bring it to hand, but he would often just sort of toss the bird at me from a metre away. These minor transgressions never really bothered me until I shared a blind with Russ and Mac and saw how it was supposed to be done.

Mac’s retrieves were straight out and straight back, no hesitation. He was told to fetch once and that was all that was needed. When he brought a duck back, he heeled beside his owner, sat down and then handed the bird to Russ when asked for it. Mac is a highly bred retriever with no end of drive, but his wonderful retrieves were simply the result of proper training with a professional.

Now, if you’re anything like me, you probably want to train your gun dog yourself. If you ask me why I want to do it myself, I’ll tell you about the sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that I derive from the process and how it solidifies the bond between dog and master. If you ask my wife why I insist on doing it myself, she’d likely say it’s because I’m stubborn and a little on the cheap side. I’ll leave you to decide for yourself which is true.

Regardless of my motives, my first experience hunting with Russ and Mac started me thinking about all the mistakes I had made as an amateur gun dog trainer and the mistakes I had witnessed other amateur trainers making over the years. Some of them seemed like they could have been avoided with a little common sense, but for the life of me I couldn’t recall anyone ever accusing me of having much of that. So, I decided to compile a list of the most common amateur training mistakes I could recognize. I know these are true errors, because I am guilty of making many of them and continue to do so even as I add them to the list. However, if this list helps other gun dog owners be better trainers, then all the mistakes I made will not have been in vain.

  1. Too much emotion – At the top of the list of skills that a professional dog trainer possesses is the ability to detach emotion from the training process. Without question, that this is one of the hardest parts of training for me. Not only am I delighted when Delou does something correctly, I am also disappointed when he doesn’t respond the way I want or intend. But training a dog is not about being happy or sad, it’s about teaching the dog what is expected of him and seeing that he does it. It’s tough to leave your emotions behind, but if you can accomplish that, you will be far ahead of many amateur trainers (including me) and the road to having a well-trained dog will be much smoother.
  2. Consistency in commands – Dogs learn from repetition and consistency. That means your commands should be the same every time. If you use the term “fetch” for a retrieve, that should be the only word you use for that action. The command should not be interchangeable with “fetch it up,” “bring it here,” “go get it” or anything else. If you use the word “come” for recall, the same rule applies. You should not be telling your dog to “get over here” or “come here now.” It’s amazing that dogs can learn to understand our verbal commands at all, when you think about it, why make it more difficult for them?
  3. Repeating commands – A properly trained dog only needs to hear a command once. If they don’t obey, they need to be corrected or forced to oblige. This is easier said than done and I continue to be guilty of repeating commands, even though I know better. I’d like to say I have an excuse for my behaviour, but the truth is it’s simply a bad habit.
  4. Train to the individual dog – Not all dogs are created equal. Some of them are stubborn and will test you every chance they get. Others, like my dog, are softer and more biddable. If I am even a little forceful with Delou when we train, he will shut down and lose interest. Yet a more dominant or willful dog might require some stronger corrections and a firmer approach. It’s important to understand your dog’s temperament and how much pressure you should put on him during training.
  5. Training sessions are too long – Even a dog that can handle more pressure should not be pushed for too long when training. Working your dog two or three times a day for 15 minutes each session is a far superior schedule than one 45-minute session. Young dogs, in particular, have short attention spans. The idea is to keep it fun for the dog so he actually looks forward to training and gives you his full attention. Keep reminding yourself that training a dog is a marathon, not a sprint. Also, it’s vital to end each session on a positive note, even if it means going back to a simple drill or command.
  6. Lack of a training plan – There was a time, not long ago, when you pretty much had to rely on the experience of someone you knew to learn how to train a gun dog. But with all the information available today on websites, DVDs and in books, there really is no excuse for not having a proper training plan. A plan will include things like basic obedience commands you should start with, training with practice dummies before using live birds and so on. There is no perfect system or even a “best system for all dogs” that I am aware of. Every trainer and dog combination is unique and if you do some research, you will likely be the best judge of the system for you and your four-legged hunting partner.
  7. Rewarding bad behaviour – This one can be a little difficult to recognize. Let’s say your dog shows fear or apprehension at some point in his training, whether he is learning to whoa on a table, picking up a bird or some other task. When this happens, you should not reward your dog with comforting words and a scratch behind the ears. Offering affection and praise after unwanted behaviour only teaches the dog that it’s acceptable to act that way and reinforces the behaviour.
  8. Calling the dog for punishment – A friend of mine once complained to me that his beagle didn’t always come when called. I found this a bit unusual, because the dog would run to me from 50 metres away when I called it. Granted, I often had a little treat for him in my pocket, but the issue sure didn’t seem to be comprehension of the command. Months later, my friend told me he was having trouble with the beagle raiding the garbage every chance it had. I asked how he dealt with this and his answer was that they would call the dog over when they found him in the garbage and reprimand him severely. Eventually, the dog learned to run and hide behind the couch when he was caught in the garbage and the only way they could coax him out was by showing him a treat and calling him from his hiding spot. When the beagle eventually gave into his impulse and emerged from his hiding place to take the treat, they would reprimand him for raiding the garbage. Now, I’m guessing that even most amateurs can see the folly in this process. First of all, reprimanding a dog more than a few seconds after it does something is useless – dogs live in the moment and a reprimand is only of value within a few seconds of the offense. But even more important, calling a dog and then reprimanding it for any reason is counterproductive, as the dog may not come to you in the future when called. If you want a dog to come to you when it is called every time, you can never, ever reprimand him when he obeys the recall command. If your dog just snacked on your best pair of gloves, made a chew toy of your wife’s favourite shoes or decimated the living room rug, you need to catch him in the act and reprimand him on the spot or let it go. If you call him to you, you must praise him when he obeys or the dog will think you are reprimanding him for coming when called. Sometimes, you just have to grit your teeth and shell out for a new rug. (You are allowed to mumble curses about the dog while paying for the rug.)
  9. Improper introduction to gunfire – This is not only a fairly common mistake, but can also create one of the hardest problems to cure when it goes badly. Nevertheless, I’m continually surprised at how many gun dog owners tell me that they introduced their dog to gunfire by taking them to the local shooting range, or just firing a 12 gauge over them one day “to see how they react.” True, many dogs survive abrupt introductions to loud noises, without ill effects. But every once in a while, sudden exposure to gunfire will terrify a dog and cause it to cower under the bed at the very sight of a shotgun. There are many strategies designed to introduce a dog to the sound of a firearm and the one thing they all have in common is the word “gradually.” Remember, no dog is born gun shy; they are made that way by poor training techniques.
  10. Misuse of e-collars – I’m probably going to get some flak for this one, because so many gun dog owners use one of these devices. But I firmly believe that misuse of e-collars is one of the worst errors an amateur can make when training a hunting dog. While I personally don’t train with an e-collar, it’s not because I have anything against their judicious use. I just don’t feel I have received the proper instruction or have the necessary experience to use such a powerful tool safely. The untrained amateur can (and probably will at some point) “stimulate” a dog at the wrong time. For instance, I have seen otherwise wonderful amateur trainers “nick” a dog with an e-collar when it wasn’t quick enough to pick up a bird. While you may get away with this, you may also be teaching the dog that it can expect a light shock just before it mouths a bird. I have also seen other owners “buzz” a dog when they thought the dog was pointing something they weren’t supposed to, like a deer, only to then watch the unseen grouse that the dog was actually pointing at fly away. You don’t have to be a dog whisperer to figure out the problems that can develop with just some minor errors in judgment and the odd oops. The fact is e-collars can be a good way to train a gun dog, and a great way to ruin one.

Finally, while it’s not really a training mistake as such, I think it’s important to remember one cardinal rule when it comes to working with your gun dog: above all else, training is supposed to be fun. The time you spend working with your dog should be enjoyed almost as much as the time you spend hunting together. So, if you’re in the field one day and you see me pulling out what’s left of my hair during a training session with Delou, please do me a big favour and remind me how much I am enjoying myself.

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