A gun dog’s confidence is one of the most important factors in producing a competent dog eager to find game in the field. After all the training is done, and all the discipline and techniques are in place, if you have neglected to instill confidence in the process it’s doubtful you will realize the true joy a well-trained dog brings to the hunt.
Dogs have different personalities, just like people. Some are tough as nails, while some are very sensitive, and a whole bunch are in-between. Attempting to find the necessary balance between teaching disciplined techniques and maintaining confidence is quite a challenge, but one that must be achieved.
We cannot discount genetics as an important part of producing a confident hunting dog—it’s best to have a talented, willing student to begin with. But some dogs simply do not get a good dose of “prey drive” from Mother Nature at birth. It can be difficult to maintain a good working attitude with these dogs, especially for a novice trainer.
Using dummies in training is great while teaching some of the basic techniques, but they are no substitute for the real thing. For a dog to become a reliable hunter he should be properly introduced to birds at an early age, then experience will help him learn the habits of his prey at some point. The more positive the contact a pup has with game, the more self-assured he is likely to become. This in turn, will put more birds in your game bag at the end of each outing. One of the major rules I follow is: never force on game.
However, you’re going to get different opinions on that issue because there are some trainers who do not follow that rule. That’s a big no, no in my dog training world — birds are sacred. For trainers birds are an, “ace in the hole” because when you have a dog in training who has lost his eager, positive attitude a live shot bird can make everything right again.
Every dog has to go through the rigors of basic training, but when introducing any new aspects to your pup, not only birds, but even water, or unusual terrains, this should be done on the positive side to insure a confident attitude in those key areas. After all, a sporting dog’s performance in the field seldom suffers because he is overconfident. Of course, he should always be obedient. So, the goal is to produce an obedient, yet confident dog.
Each new type of game should be introduced under as controlled conditions as possible to avoid problems in the field. I have seen even aggressive dogs get traumatized after being speared by a wounded goose. As I explain to all my goose hunting clients, “make sure the goose is dead before sending your dog for his first few retrieves.”
The more birds a dog retrieves the more confident he becomes. When a dog becomes experienced in retrieving geese, he should hit an aggressive, winged goose like a linebacker, with no fear. That, fellow hunters, is fun to watch. So, birds are of primary importance, but there are other new situations to consider as well, such as terrain, muddy bottoms, and big open water with multiple decoys. I could go into each individual element, but the fix is the same: take it slow and find ways to make your dog comfortable in each new situation. That formula will make you and your dog a very productive team in any hunting situation.
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Grady’s column appears in WON every other week and he can be reached at reibar.com