Avoid these activities with your new retriever puppy to reduce issues later
No one wants to screw up their hunting dog. But, unfortunately, many do. So, it is a real concern. Too often we have clients drop off their dogs for training with these words, “I didn’t want to mess him up, so I haven’t done much of anything with him.”
Those words make me cringe. By NOT doing anything, the owner has likely done exactly what he didn’t want to do – messed up his hunting dog. So, how do I not ruin my hunting dog puppy?
Ruining your retriever by doing nothing
When dogs are young, they learn quickly and soak up lots of information about the world in which they live. If the owner chooses to not do anything, the dog does not stop learning, he just learns wrongly.
- He learns bad behaviors that he does not know are bad.
- She does not learn how to deal with new situations, people, and locations.
He does not learn how to deal with the pressure of correction.
And now, he is at a disadvantage for further learning. Training will be much harder on a dog that has not learned to learn. If you don’t want to ruin your hunting dog puppy, here are some simple rules to follow.
Drop the misconceptions
Let’s start by addressing some misconceptions.
Raising your hunting dog in the home will ruin him
Ninety percent plus of the dogs we train as hunting dogs are raised in the home. This does not ruin them. Or, at least it does not have to. But there are some things you should understand about raising your gun or duck dog in the home.
Being in the home means that your dog will need to learn to listen and obey more than one person. It is important that your retriever listens and is obedient both in the home and outside the home. And it is vitally important that the commands he or she is expected to obey are the same everywhere. For instance, it would be bad if your spouse uses the command COME to get your dog to come and you use the command HERE. This would create confusion. In addition, it is also important to establish rules and boundaries for your dog and enforce them both inside and outside the home.
If there is consistency in both commands and enforcement of boundaries by all family members, having your hunting dog in the home is not a problem.
Your gun dog puppy – what’s cute now… may not be later
Puppies are cute little balls of energy. Therefore, it is not uncommon for people to be excited and overlook behaviors that seem cute at the time or just ignore certain etiquette hoping that it is just a stage the puppy is going through.
Unfortunately, this way of thinking can come back to bite you as the puppy grows up (pun intended).
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Behaviors and games you should avoid with a hunting retriever puppy
Here are a few puppy behaviors that left unaddressed can cause problems for your duck or gun dog down the line:
- jumping (on people or furniture)
- biting (hands, feet, arms, etc.)
- barking and yipping
- playing tug-a-war
- chasing or keep away
Let’s discuss each of these in more detail.
Dogs jumping on people is a huge issue. And it is frustrating to me as a trainer because it really doesn’t have to be. The problem is that many owners do not want to address this problem when the puppy is young, because they view the jumping as cute. Or, they add a human element and assume that the puppy just wants to be held and loved.
The psychology behind a dog’s jumping is much more basic than that. They want to dominate you. Even as puppies, dogs have a pack mentality and are looking to find their place in the pack. To do this, they exhibit certain behaviors that, in a dog’s mind, enforce that they are higher in the pack than you are. Jumping is a big one. If they can get themselves higher than you or get their head higher than your head, that is a win for them.
Affection on your terms
Controlling this behavior when a puppy is small will make it much easier to discourage as they grow. Please understand, I am not saying you can never hold and cuddle your puppy. You most certainly can and should. But, do it on your terms, not theirs. Don’t pick them up because they are jumping on you. Don’t’ reward the jumping by giving them what they want. Instead, wait for a time that the pup is doing something good, sitting still, laying down calmly chewing on a toy, then pick him or her up for some loving.
If you do not want your retriever to jump on you or on your furniture, as a puppy this is easy to correct. But you must be consistent. Each time your puppy’s feet are on you, or on the furniture, simply push him or her down and say OFF. Taking the time to correct this behavior as a puppy will make your life much more enjoyable as the pup grows, increasing in power and strength.
In addition, any time the puppy lifts his/her feet off the ground while you are petting them, immediately stop petting them until they put their feet back on the ground. This will quickly teach your puppy that if they want petting they need to keep their feet on the ground.
Allowing a puppy or dog to bite or nip at you, even on your hand, is just asking for problems. Even if the bites are gentle and they are not injuring you. Puppies do not understand that the behavior is okay only if he doesn’t bite hard. Also, a soft bite to you may be considered a hard bite to someone more sensitive.
The best course of action is to correct the behavior while the puppy is young. Young pups learn very quickly that biting is not allowed if there is a stern command (NOBITE) and correction each time it happens.
To correct this behavior, each time your puppy tries to bite you, grab the bottom portion of her jaw and fold her gums over her teeth and squeeze. As you do this, say NO BITE. Puppy teeth are very sharp so the pain along with the stern command will quickly make an impression and stop this dangerous behavior.
Barking and noise
Barking, or noise of any kind (i.e. whining, growling), are annoying at best and not something you want to see in a hunting dog. Sitting in a duck boat with a dog who is continuously barking is never fun. Correcting this behavior is quite easy when a puppy is young.
Each time the pup barks at you, or makes noise at an undesirable time, simply grab the puppy’s muzzle, squeeze it and say QUIET. If you are consistent with this correction and do not reward your retriever when he or she is making noise, you should be able to establish some control over your pup’s noise early on.
Tug-a-war is a common game people play with their dogs. The dog enjoys it and it seems harmless enough. But for hunting retrievers, this game can cause severe issues when you need the dog to GIVE you the item they retrieved, say a duck or pheasant.
Puppies encouraged to tug with their toys, can and often do revert to tugging, pulling, or shaking the bird when hunting. They dig into the bird with their teeth destroying the bird. This can be very frustrating, but how can you blame the dog or become angry if you encouraged tug-a -war in the past?
The best solution is to never play tug-a-war with your hunting dog puppy and make sure that your spouse and family understand this rule also.
Chasing or keep away
Does anyone enjoy chasing their dog around the yard or field in an attempt to recover a toy, dummy, or bird from them? I cannot imagine anyone does, and yet this is a common problem we see in hunting dogs. It is another issue that is frustrating to see as a trainer, because it is rather easy to correct as a young puppy.
This issue usually exists because of mistakes made while teaching a young dog to retrieve. We have a great post on how to introduce a hunting dog to fetch.
The best way to discourage chasing is by not taking away the item your retriever brings you right away. Instead, let him hold the item while you pet him and tell him GOOD DOG. The item the pup retrieved is a prize to him. Let him hold it for a while, then when you take it from his mouth immediately throw it again for him to retrieve. This teaches your retriever to bring retrieved items to you because the result is praise and more retrieves.
If you find that your pup runs away with the item, do not chase him. Instead, next time, put him on a long lead or check cord prior to working on retrieves. Continue with the praise and throws but now you have a way to make him come back to you. Gently pull the lead while saying HERE and then praise him as he comes to you. With repetition, your puppy will learn that running away does not benefit him.
Rewarding undesirable behaviors
One of the biggest problems we see as retriever trainers is that many people do not understand simple dog psychology. Dogs will be dogs. They will test you on a regular basis with undesirable behaviors or behaviors that they already know are not acceptable. It is vitally important that you do not reward their testing with praise or a retrieve.
This means that you need to be on guard and always thinking one step ahead of your retriever. Know that there will be times when you will fail, and your dog will get away with something. That is okay, as long as you work hard to be as consistent as possible the majority of the time.
If, at any time, your retriever does commit an offense by doing something you do not want or like them to do, you must not reward them for the behavior. This sounds like common sense, but we see it all the time. An owner calls their dog with a HERE command and the dog looks at them but does not make any effort to come. So, the owner says HERE a second time, or a third time, still no movement. On the fourth command of HERE the dog finally comes, and the owner praises the dog. While it might seem like that would be the right thing to do, since the dog did finally come, any praise at that point reinforces to the dog that they can wait for multiple commands to obey and they will still get praise.
Instead, only praise your retriever when they obey quickly and immediately after you say a command.
Other ways you can ruin your hunting dog puppy
Besides allowing the games and behaviors discussed above, there are a few other ways you can ruin your hunting dog puppy or at least make it harder for him to achieve his true potential.
Not socializing your retriever
One of the best things you can do for your young hunting partner is to socialize him. This means you want to expose him or her to as many new locations, situations and people as possible. Retriever puppies learn to handle new situations through experience. The more they are exposed to, the better. Learn more about how to do this by reading Raising a Lab puppy to be a duck or gun dog.
Rushing the process
I know that you are excited to get your retriever out in the field hunting. After all, that is why you got him, right? While the excitement is understandable, many hunting dog puppies are ruined by overanxious owners that are not willing to wait for their dogs to be trained and ready to hit the duck blind.
Rushing this process and exposing your retriever to situations that he or she is not prepared to handle can cause problems and may even negatively affect your dog for years to come. It is better to miss out on one year of hunting so that you can have a dozen years of great hunting experiences with your new hunting partner.
Gun fire introduction
Many dogs are ruined by bad introductions to gun fire. If introduced correctly, dogs do not have a fear of gun fire and instead understand that it means they will get to retrieve. If introduced poorly, you many have just relegated your hunting partner to a life on the couch as fixing this problem is exceedingly difficult and often impossible. Here is more information on how to introduce your pup to gunfire the correct way.
Getting angry and losing your temper
Another way owners can ruin their retriever puppy is by taking out their anger and frustration on the dog through yelling or striking the dog. Dog training requires a lot of patience. If you do not have the temperament for it, it would be better to enlist the help of a professional.
Don’t misunderstand me. Working and hunting retrievers need to be able to handle and work through corrections and pressure, but these corrections should never be administered through anger. Dogs that have been struck or beat become timid and unsure of themselves. They do not flourish as strong, confident hunting partners but instead are always waiting for the next temper tantrum from their owner. If you are frustrated with your dog, put him or her away and walk away. Don’t resume training until you are sure you can maintain a calm training presence.
Not training for the experience
Dogs are not natural hunters. They may have a natural desire to chase and retrieve birds, but that is not the same as hunting. Dogs do not naturally understand how to sit next to you in a blind and wait to be sent for a bird. They do not naturally understand they should deliver the bird to their owner and then sit and wait for the next one. They don’t know how to retrieve out of a boat, sit still while a shot gun is shot next to them, and swim through decoys.
If you are an upland hunter, while some dogs do quarter quite naturally, they do not understand that if the bird flies away they should not chase it, or what to do when more than one bird is shot down. Successful performance in these situations is achieved through training. And training is what you do before you put the dog in this type of real-life hunting situation.
If you are serious about hunting and want to have lots of great memories hunting with your new hunting partner, make sure you take the time to train him for the situations you expect him to perform in or enlist the help of a professional to get him there.
Dogs are not people
A dog does not have the reasoning ability people have. They need clear and consistent boundaries allowing them to feel confident about their actions. They cannot understand why today it is okay to jump up on you but tomorrow it is not. Or why any behavior is okay one day but not the next. If you are feeling sad and because of this you allow your dog up on the sofa with you, you should not get angry with them if tomorrow they jump on the sofa with you. They have no way of knowing the reason it was okay yesterday, but today it is not.
In addition, because dogs are not human, lecturing or negotiating with them does not work. They do not have the mental capacity to understand. What they do understand is body language and any commands they have been taught. Learn more about communicating with dogs here.
Final thoughts on how to not ruin your hunting dog puppy
When raising a puppy that you want to eventually become a duck or gun dog, it is important to ask yourself the following question. Is the behavior I am allowing or encouraging today going to make future training more difficult or confusing? If the answer is YES, then you probably should not allow it.
Doing nothing with your puppy, is not the way to ensure you won’t ruin it. In fact, it is likely the fastest way to ruin it. Take advantage of your puppy’s young mind and teach him how to be a good citizen in your home and away. That will go a long way toward helping him adjust to expectations as he ages.
Remember, if you want your retriever to grow and progress in his/her hunting this year but doing the training yourself sounds overwhelming or maybe your schedule is just too busy to get it done, I’m here to help! You can email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or just give me a call (651-303-6459). I would be happy to discuss your goals for your retriever and tell you about the programs I offer.
Until next time happy retrieving.