Every time I write, “never take an untrained dog to the field,” I get emails and phone calls from fellow hunters claiming their dogs have never had a day of training in their lives and are wonderful and skilled hunting companions. I think perhaps these hunters have formed that opinion because they have never hunted over a truly well-trained dog.
And, what do I mean by “well-trained?” I mean, a dog that is reliable, steady, and, above all, obedient. I maintain that this final characteristic, obedience, can’t be a part of the dog without proper force training.
Many beginner hunters, especially those who are training their first dog, don’t always understand why basic commands need to be reinforced with pressure to become solid. They are under the misguided notion that once taught, a dog will perform all his lessons without much guidance. That’s only in a dream, fellow hunters. The idea that dogs are born knowing how to hunt is unfounded. “It’s the dog’s birthright,” argued one caller. And, while it’s true that well-bred dogs have the innate characteristic of wanting to catch birds, that’s just a platform to build upon. We trainers know this, and we also know how hard it is to convince some dog owners that we do know this. Our job is to take the talent within the dog and show the dog how to express it within the strictures of teamwork with the owner. Our goal is to mold the dogs’ innate abilities into a solid partnership so that the dog is in sync with his owner and looks to him for direction. Then, with field experience, the relationship becomes even stronger as it builds through obedience over time.
Speaking of “time,” if you wait for your dog to misbehave in the field to show you what lack of control and respect looks like, you’ve wasted valuable days and months and made the process of starting real training harder. It’s best to dig in at the outset and train properly before your dog develops bad habits. Making occasional mistakes during a hunt is tolerable if the reason is confusion, but even small disobedient mishaps, when repeated, quickly become habits that are hard to break
Real training is “force training.” A well-turned-out dog is one that has been “forced” on all his commands and is finally solid and comfortable performing them for the team. If you are one of the hunters who doesn’t believe in forcing learned commands, you will need your prayer beads and your waders handy. That’s because your dog will always have the potential of unruly behavior in the field.
Still, if you’re one of those hunters who resists the idea of forcing, and is accepting of the way his “natural” dog hunts, you are a very lucky person. As for me, I don’t want to take risks with my few days hunting and worry about whether my dog will be the steady hunting partner I want him to be.
I must say that I don’t envy the “newbie” gun dog owner these days. That’s because he can become overwhelmed with all the diverse information available on the internet. There is a seemingly-endless variety of books and videos with much conflicting information out there. I confess that I was once in the newbie’s shoes and was also resistant to the idea of putting pressure on my young dog. I used a non-pressure approach with my first Labrador and the result s weren’t pretty. I was asking, not telling, my dog to perform. I finally had to go back to the beginning and train my dog properly. I had to give up asking and start demanding. And, the idea of putting teeth into each command really paid off in practice. With the new electric collars of today, the amount of pressure can be tailored to each dog’s tolerance. It’s not punishment, and shouldn’t be used as that. The logical steps to teaching each command are simple and really work. I know I’ve explained all this in the past, but here’s a summary :
1. Teach the meaning of the command, and show the dog the proper action.
2. Have the dog perform the command without pressure.
3. Have the dog continue to perform but add pressure ( light collar stimulation)
4. Have the dog perform again without any pressure.
5. Have the dog perform again and add a word of praise.
6. Have the dog perform again without any praise.
If, at any time, the dog stops preforming the command, you can back up one step. Repetition helps, and the end of the training for the day should end with encouragement.
I know that an amateur can train his own dog himself adequately, but it takes self control and getting in tune with the dog. Dogs are willing creatures and really want to please, so the last advice I would offer is to be fair. There’s always another day.
* * *
Grady Istre column runs every other week and he can be reached at reibar.com.