Understand what your retriever can do at what age
If you have a young retriever that you plan on using as a gundog or hunting dog, you may be excited for your pup to move from the puppy stage to the “hunting machine” stage. And that is understandable. Unfortunately, too many people try to rush their dog into hunting. And the results are not pretty. It is important to manage your dog training expectations.
Really great hunting dogs are not built overnight. Or, even over a few months. Exceptional hunting dogs grow into that role through proper training. But the training must done slow and steady, with the right exposure and training, at the right time. It is a progression that takes years to refine.
What should my retriever be doing and when?
As professional dog trainers, much of our time is spent fixing problems caused by over-eager owners pushing their dog to hunt too quickly. Retrievers are wonderful, resilient dogs. But that doesn’t mean that you can randomly throw them into situations they are not prepared for and there will never be any consequences.
Remember, while working through your pups training, don’t skip steps. Don’t be tempted to move ahead to the “fun” stuff and skip the boring stuff. It is vital that your dog training be based off a proven plan and that you follow all the necessary steps in the correct order.
If you are not sure what those steps are, seek professional help.
What affects rate of training?
Dogs, like people, are all different. Each breed is different but it’s more than that. Each puppy from a litter is different. Even though they have the same mom and dad, each pup still each has his/her own strengths and weaknesses. In additions, each pup matures at his/her own rate.
Here are some of the things that can affect how fast or slow a dog progresses through training.
Not all dogs mature at the same rate. So, while some puppies might be ready for obedience training at 9-weeks of age, others may not be ready until four months or older. But, how do you know when your pup is ready?
We use a test and evaluate method to determine if a pup is ready for training. This involves choosing one command, generally SIT and start training. If the dog seems to understand the command after a few days or a week, then the pup is ready to move to another command. But we never progress though to another command until the pup is performing the SIT command reliably.
Training builds on training. That is why it is so important to start teaching, socializing, and giving your puppy pressure as early as possible. Pressure is one of the missing links for great hunting dogs. But the trick is that you don’t advance quicker than your dog is ready, and you don’t skip steps.
Socialization and exposure
Socialization is the single most important thing you can do for your puppy. The more things your puppy is exposed to at a young age, the better.
Learn more about socialization in Raising a Lab puppy to be a duck or gun dog.
Please understand that socialization is gentle and calculated exposure to new places, people, and situations. It is not shooting off a shotgun next to an 8-week-old puppy or throwing your pup into a lake. Those things are not socialization and should never be done.
Good socialization will help your puppy learn and adjust faster to new situations. It will also help your dog progress through future training faster.
Using crates to create good behaviors
A dog crate or kennel is one of the most important pieces of equipment a dog owner can have. Crates are important for training and housebreaking. They are a den, a safe place where your dog can feel protected and secure, and with proper training and exposure, your dog will love his/her crate.
Age to crate train
Crate training is the very first training we do with a new puppy. We always pick up our pups at 7-weeks of age and we start crate training them the very first night. I won’t lie, it not an easy thing to do. There is a lot of noise and little sleep those first few nights, but in the long run it makes life easier for us and more stable for the puppy.
Managing housebreaking expectations
Housebreaking or house training a puppy is one of the most difficult things for any dog owner. Some dogs learn this very fast, and some…. well, they seem to never learn. Some learn but are just stubborn and continue to test for months and years. There is no magic pill or training.
But there are some very common errors that people make housebreaking that prolong the process. The biggest one is not using a crate. The best way to speed along the housebreaking process is to never, NEVER leave your puppy out of the crate unattended. To speed the housebreaking process, you need to catch your puppy going potty in your home. You cannot make a corrections until you witness the undesirable behavior. So, you must be very diligent to watch the puppy closely while they are out of their crate.
Also, if you read through the crate training post, you know that you must have an appropriately sized crate for your puppy so that they cannot walk around in it. A proper sized crate will keep your puppy from having accidents in their crate assuming you are taking them outside on a regular basis.
Managing behavior expectations
When should a puppy begin learning manners and what kind of manners should you expect from your dog?
While many people are reluctant to teach their puppy manners because they feel it is being cruel or expecting too much of a young pup, we begin teaching manners day one. It is much easier to teach a 7-week-old puppy to not bite your hand or jump on you than it is to teach a 7-month-old dog.
Puppies learn quickly and it takes very little correction to get your point across. In addition, if your puppy learns not to bite and jump when they are young, you generally will not have these issues as they get older.
Managing obedience expectations
We generally begin obedience training at somewhere around 9-10 weeks of age. And I use the term obedience training loosely. Pups this age are ready to learn the SIT command. Around this age we also start using a couple other commands, but they are used mostly as an associative command. This means that we are just trying to get the pup to associate the command with a behavior they are already doing.
One example is the HERE command. When a pup is 7-9 weeks old, we squat down and say “HERE-HERE-HERE” to get the puppy to run to us. Since very young puppies usually love to come to us anyhow because they want attention, the HERE-HERE command is said while the puppy is already running to us. The hope is that as the pup ages, he/she will associate the HERE command with coming to us and we build on that to solidify the knowledge.
Learn more in Two commands your retriever must know.
Another associative command is EMPTY. We say this command while the puppy is going potty, and we say it over and over again while they are doing their business. Over time the puppy will associate the command EMPTY with going potty and when we want the puppy to go potty right away (because we need to get going somewhere) the dog will go potty almost on command.
Moving on to the HERE command
Once your puppy is sitting consistently on the SIT command without correction, you are ready to move on to the HERE command. Remember, ideally you have already been using the HERE command associatively. But now we are ready to teach HERE as a command and correction. This is done with a long lead, 30 feet or more. Let your puppy run around and occasionally call him/her to you with the HERE command. As soon as you say the HERE command, start pulling on the lead so that the pup must come directly to you. Say the HERE command repeatedly as you pull the puppy to you.
Now, the important part. Pet your puppy and give him/her praise and then release him/her to play again. This is vital. You must teach your pup that coming to you is a good thing and that they will get pets and praise. If each time you call your puppy to come to you, you take the pup inside and put him/her in a crate, they are not going to want to come to you! Teach your pup to want to come to you.
Do this drill in many different locations, and both inside and outside. When your pup decides to run away from you, correct him/her by pulling in on the lead.
The HERE command takes time to get consistent and rarely gets completely solid until a dog goes through e-collar conditioning and training. Please make sure you understand how to collar condition a dog before you strap an e-collar on your dog and make a correction. E-collars are one of the best training tools when used correctly and one of the worst when used incorrectly.
Always remember, obedience training is not a straight line. Dogs learn, test, regress, learn again. Just keep at it!
Managing your retrieving expectations
If your retriever puppy is destined to be a hunting dog, you are going to want to work on retrieving with your dog while he/she is a puppy. We start working on retrieving when the puppy is around 8 weeks old. We have a very defined way that we introduce retrieving and you can learn about it in our post
If you get your puppy retrieving well before 4-months of age, you are in good shape. Once your dog starts teething you will want to stop retrieving until the adult teeth come in. Once the adult teeth come in, your dog should retrieve well again.
Giving them room to be a puppy
Dogs are dogs and we must never forget this. They are not robots. Dogs do make mistakes. They will test you (some daily, some hourly) but never underestimate their ability to learn. Dogs will rise to your expectations or fall to them if you set them too low.
You need to find the line between letting your puppy or dog be a dog and do dog things and keeping your behavior expectations in line with what your dog can do.
Managing your hunting dog training expectations
We don’t start formal hunting dog training until a pup is around 6-months old. They must have their adult teeth in before we begin our programs. The reason for this is that while a pup is teething, we stop all retrieving. We do not want a pup to associate pain with retrieving.
When to start gun dog introductions
To keep your hunting dog progressing in his/her training, you need to understand what you should work on and at what age. We have a hunting dog training timeline available in this post. The trick is to slowly but consistently expose your puppy to hunting concepts and elements without moving too fast and expecting too much. Some introductions may take several exposures to get your pup comfortable, others may be completed in just one exposure. Watch your pup and his/her reaction. Move forward only when your pup is ready.
One of the most important introductions that must be done prior to taking your dog hunting and must be done correctly is introduction to gunfire. Learn how to do this correctly in our post How to introduce your retriever to gunfire.
Expectations of first hunt
Let’s be clear here, your puppy is not ready for his/her first hunt until you have completed all the necessary introductions and training. Putting your pup in a position of hunting before he/she is ready to handle the pressure and expectations of hunting is a huge mistake. And many, many owners make this mistake and then cannot understand why their dog is not hunting or is scared of hunting or worse.
When a dog has completed our training program, then, and only then do we take them on an actual hunt. We may do hunting scenarios during the training process, but these are carefully planned set ups that allow the dog to learn about hunting and what is expected of them while in a controlled setting that we have designed.
Do not rush this process.
When your dog has completed a basic hunting dog training program, either one you have done the training, or one where a professional has done the training, then you are ready to take your dog hunting. But even so, that first hunt should be orchestrated to give your dog the opportunity to have quick success. Learn more in our post How to make your retrievers first hunt successful.
Expectations after professional training
If you have sent your dog to a professional for training, you may think that all the work is done, and you can just pick up your dog and take him/her on a weeklong hunting trip. But this is not completely accurate.
Professional training is a great thing for your retriever. Professionals know all the steps that need to be accomplished and when to do the work. They also know how to correct problems that creep up or bad habits that are making training difficult. But while a basic hunting dog program is designed to give your dog all the knowledge he/she needs for hunting, it is not designed to give them the on-the-job-training that actual hunting will give them.
This means that there is still some work to do once you get your dog home. Taking your dog on short, successful hunts and slowly increasing the duration and difficulty of the hunts over time. This will give your dog time to grow and mature into a hunting machine.
Final thoughts on how to manage dog training expectations
Managing your dog training expectations means you need to understand what your dog is capable of at what age. Then you must use patience and training to slowly increase your dog’s knowledge over time. As I stated in the beginning, great hunting dogs are not built overnight. They grow into that role through dedicated training and hunting, where the dog can learn more and more information and is taught how to use that information to make great retrieves.
Remember, if you really want your retriever to grow and progress this year but doing the training yourself sounds overwhelming or maybe your schedule is just too busy to get it done, I am here to help! You can email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or just give me a call. I would be happy to discuss your goals for your retriever and tell you about the programs I offer.
Until next time, happy retrieving.