How old is too old? Considerations for teaching old retrievers to hunt.
During the fall, right after hunting season starts, our phone starts to ring. Often the calls are driven by an unsuccessful hunting experience with an older retriever. It’s as if the owner comes to a sudden realization their retriever isn’t quite the natural hunter they thought he or she would be. Now their only thought is, is it too late to train my dog to hunt?
Can you teach an old dog to hunt?
Older dogs can be taught to hunt. Here at Otter Tail Kennels, we have had good luck training many older dogs, some up to 5 years old. The question is often less about how old the dog is and more about the experiences of the dog up to his current age.
Not all older dogs can be successful trained to hunt later in life. But we have found that the answers to four questions often determine how successfully an older dog will handle training:
Question 1: Is the dog healthy and active?
If you want your dog to be a hunting dog, it is important that your retriever is in good health. Hunting training, as well as actual hunting, is a demanding sport. If your dog has hip issues, arthritis, or other health issues, its probably best to not pursue hunting training.
Question 2: Has the dog learned to learn?
Previous training is a key component that determines how well an older dog will learn. We are not talking about hunting training here. In fact, it is not about the kind of training the dog has done at all. It is about the dog learning to learn.
Dogs that have had to learn new things throughout their life have an increased ability to continue to learn. A dog that, for instance, has been obedience trained, will more easily take to hunting training simply because he or she has learned how to learn.
Question 3: Has the dog learned to handle pressure and structure?
To be blunt, some dogs run all over their owners. The owners don’t establish boundaries or discipline their dogs. Dogs from homes like this most often do not have the mental strength to endure the training required to become a great hunting dog.
Pressure comes in many forms. In its most basic form, it is simply telling your dog NO when he or she does something unacceptable or gets into something. Pressure can also be pushing your dog’s bottom down when saying SIT or knocking him down when he jumps on you. Pressure doesn’t have to be harsh, but it does need to be firm and consistent. A dog that has learned to handle pressure, will be better poised to handle hunting training.
Boundaries and structure are simply rules – a list of behaviors that are acceptable and a list of behaviors that are not. If there have been no boundaries or structure in your dog’s life, being trained for hunting will certainly rock his or her world and may be too traumatic for the dog.
Question 4: What kind of socialization and exposure has the dog had?
Our last question that helps us determine if an older dog is suited for hunting training is:
How well has the dog been socialized? Has he or she learned to handle new situations, new people, and new places with ease? Or has the dog been isolated and pampered through life.
Hunting requires a dog to adjust quickly to new situations, new terrain, weather and handle stress and pressure with ease. If your dog has not been socialized well, exposed to new places and situations on a regular basis, it will likely be tough to add these elements now.
Other considerations for training old retrievers to hunt
If you feel like your dog has been well socialized, handles pressure and structure well and has learned to learn, then he or she is likely a good candidate for hunting training, regardless of age. But there are a few other considerations you might want to think about.
What type of hunting do you want to do?
Each type of hunting requires slightly different skills. For instance, if you are looking to do waterfowl hunting with your older retriever, then it is helpful if your dog knows and enjoys swimming and retrieving in water. It would be exceedingly difficult to make an older dog with no exposure to water into a duck dog, not impossible but definitely more of a struggle.
In addition, if your dog does not like deep cover and is constantly seeking an easier route, your dog may not be a great candidate for upland hunting. Some retrievers do not have the drive to drag themselves through cover for hours on end, even if there is a bird in there somewhere.
Are the genetics there?
It may seem odd, but not all retrievers love to retrieve. Genetics play a huge role in a dog’s natural desire.
Does your dog have a strong desire to retrieve? Has he shown interest and desire for birds? For a dog to be trained for hunting, he or she must show a high prey drive and a high play drive. A dog that has a high prey and play drive can overcome a lot of training pressure because their desire for birds and love to retrieve is stronger than their desire to avoid pressure.
If your dog has never been exposed to a bird, you may not know if they have a strong prey desire. This is easy to discern with a live bird introduction. We do these introductions with a pigeon and sometimes it takes more than one to get a good read on a dog, but it is very enlightening to see how a dog reacts to a live bird.
Learn more about why you need to use birds to train your retriever.
Are there bad habits or bad experiences that will hinder training?
The challenge of training older dogs is that you often need to break down old bad habits before you can even start to build up good ones. Other times, a dog will have had a bad experience that will make training for hunting exceedingly difficult if not impossible.
If your dog is afraid of loud noises such as fireworks, he or she may have a difficult time learning to handle gun fire. Or, if your dog had a bad experience with a bird when they were younger, such as a goose or duck biting them, it may be nearly impossible to overcome that bad experience and become a great hunting dog. Again, not impossible, but definitely more challenging.
Does your dog’s personality turn aggressive with people or other dogs?
While this is not a deal breaker, especially if you mostly hunt alone, it is helpful if your dog can handle working with other people or dogs and remains obedient while doing so. Many trainers will not tolerate people or dog aggressive dogs. It is just too much of a liability and frankly, not worth the effort. So, if your dog is aggressive, hunting training may not be the right route.
Is it worth putting your dog through it?
Training is easier for younger dogs. They are not so stuck in their ways and are just more flexible to learning new things and handling new circumstances. As I mentioned, some older dogs will take to hunting training with no issues, especially if they have learned to learn and handle pressure well, but some will not. As the owner, you probably know your dog best. If you think it will rock your dog’s world, it probably will. And then you must make the decision, is it worth it?
Should I train my retriever myself or invest in a professional
I understand why some people may want to train their own dog. There is satisfaction in watching a retriever learn and grow in their training. Not to mention just spending time with your dog is enjoyable. Also, professional retriever training is not cheap. It is an investment. But the cost is often well worth it in the long run!
If you are grappling with the decision between doing training yourself and using a professional, consider this:
Do you have the time?
My guess is, no, because if you did you probably would have trained your retriever while he or she was younger. Retriever training takes time and patience. You must train consistently, follow a proven plan, and have the training tools and knowledge to do the training on your own. If you have the time, energy, patience and equipment, doing it yourself might be a good option for you.
If you do not have the time, tools, and knowledge, then enlisting the help of a professional is probably the best course of action. Many professional trainers prefer to start a retriever’s training when the dog is 7-months to 2 years in age. Over the age of two requires a lot more effort and some trainers simply cannot or will not justify the time and effort needed. As I have said, here at Otter Tail Kennels, we have had success with older dogs. One reason may be that we have an extremely low dog count. We only take 6 client dogs, and we train full time. This allows us to spend more time with each dog and put in the extra effort when needed.
Learn more about 7 considerations when picking a retriever trainer.
Final thoughts on is my dog too old to hunt?
If you have an older retriever that has learned how to learn, has been well socialized and can handle pressure, he or she most likely can be trained to hunt successfully. But training an older retriever is not as easy as training a younger dog. There will be challenges, so it can be helpful to find a professional who can help you navigate the issues that may arise during training.
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’m 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.