If you train your dog on a regular basis, you know how rewarding it is to watch your dog progress. Each day, each week, that you put in the work, you are likely rewarded with seeing your dog learn and grow. Unfortunately, what we, as professional trainers, often see is that owners love to do the fun training with their dog while ignoring or disregarding bad behaviors along the way.
An example would be setting up a long mark for your dog, something that is fun to watch your dog do and do successfully. And then ignoring the fact that your dog is surging or pulling you to the line. Or, setting up a challenging marking scenario including a triple with a blind up the middle then ignoring the fact that your dog creeps out several feet in front of you during the marks.
Yes, it can be enjoyable to watch your dog complete hard or complex marking tasks. But not at the expense of ignoring bad line manners or obedience issues.
If you constantly work on only the fun stuff and fail to work on dynamics your dog is struggling with, your progress will not be what you hope for. Working through your retriever’s training problems, even when it is difficult and requires tough choices, is where the real strides are made.
Doing the difficult during retriever training
Below are some examples of training struggles that can require you to make a difficult and sometimes embarrassing decision to do the right thing during a retriever training session.
Dog surging or pulling on walk to line
This is something we see on an ongoing basis, both in training and at hunt tests. As you walk to the line, does your dog surge ahead of you? Do you have to constantly command HEEL? Fixing this problem may require you to scrap your current training plan mid-stream.
What you don’t want to do is just keep moving forward toward the line while commanding HEEL repeatedly. Instead, you may need to do an obedience session instead of, or in addition to, the marking session. This can be a very difficult thing for an owner to do. After all, you probably planned for this training session for some time. You devoted your time to be here. You planned to do marks (the fun part of training) and you want your dog to do marks. I get it.
But unfortunately, that may not be the training your dog needs in this moment.
Noise on the line
If you attend a training session where live flyers are being shot over the dogs, and your dog voices on the line (barks, whines, yips) during the flyer and shot. As a trainer, you have a choice to make:
- You can allow your dog to still get the flyer (after all, you already paid for it and there are other dogs waiting for their turn.)
- Or you can deny your dog the retrieve and work on the noise issue.
This again is a difficult thing to do. You may want your dog to get the live flyer exposure. You may want to see your dog do that retrieve and see the joy your dog gets from that. But from a training perspective, your dog should not get that retrieve. If you allow your dog to retrieve the bird after making noise, you have rewarded your dog for a bad behavior. And you can bet that you are now going to see more of that behavior in the future.
Instead, need to do the hard thing. Correct your dog immediately for the noise then have the shooter walk out and pick up the bird. Your dog will watch this and understand that he/she has been denied a retrieve. This can have a lasting impression on your dog.
To repeat the mark, you can have the gunner hand throw the dead bird. If your dog remains quiet, send him/her for the retrieve. Your dog is learning the lesson. If he/she again makes noise, make a correction for the noise and again have the gunner walk out and pick up the bird. This can be tedious training, for you and the shooter, but you will be doing some seriously effective training by eliminating your dog’s reward when he/she makes noise.
Creeping on the line
Let’s say you have a triple marking scenario set up. You have gunners in the field, ready to go. But your dog has recently begun creeping at the line. After the first mark, he/she creeps a foot. After the second mark, a little further. By the third mark your dog is four feet in front of you.
Yes, you can re-heel. Some people will do that and then still allow the dog to get the marks. But this rarely will correct this problem. The dog will gladly re-heel because he is still going to get to do the retrieves. He still gets his paycheck.
The smart training decision requires doing the hard thing. Even if you don’t get to do the triple you had planned. Even if your dog doesn’t get to retrieve at all that session. Even if you must scrap your entire training plan to address the biggest problem at hand.
Creeping is a failure to obey the SIT command. So as soon as your dog moves on the line during the marks, you need to correct the movement. You must enforce the SIT command.
If a mark has been thrown, and your dog creeped out, you do not want to let your dog get that retrieve. You want to correct the creeping and have the gunner or thrower walk out and pick up the bird or bumper, denying your dog that retrieve. You may have begin fixing this problem by simplifying the drill or making the marks less exciting. And it may take several attempts to get your dog to SIT still during the marks and not move.
You probably won’t feel like spending your training time on an obedience issue when you planned on doing field work. No one wants to do these things. That is why it is such a hard decision. But it is what your dog needs in that moment.
During a hunt or test
You must do the hard thing during training so that your dog learns the lessons and you won’t have to see these behaviors during a big hunt or a hunt test. Because if you think it is hard to walk away from a marking scenario to work on obedience, try walking away from a big hunt or hunt test. Now THAT is hard and expensive.
However, sometimes your dog learns the difference between a training session and the real thing. Especially if he/she gets away with bad behaviors in some circumstances. After all, they are very smart animals.
So sometimes, you may even have to do the hard training during a hunt or test. This can be a very expensive training lesson. Hunt test entry fees are not cheap, and a week-long North Dakota hunt is not inexpensive either. But sometimes it is necessary.
This can be especially hard, not only because of the financial aspect, but in these circumstances, there are likely to be people watching you. It can be embarrassing and humbling to thank the judges for their time and walk your dog off the line at a hunt test because your dog voiced at the line. In higher level tests, you walking your dog off-line can cause problems for other hunt test participants if there was an honor dog in place. These situations will require a firm desire for your dog to improve and a strong back-bone.
Making this correction, doing this very difficult training work, can make a lasting impression on your dog and make the next test an incredible testament to your training.
Working toward your overall training objective
It is important to always remember what your overall training objective is for your dog. Each training session must work toward that objective, even if it requires you to change your training plan for the day or week.
Final thoughts on training your retriever – when training gets difficult
Training your retriever is a worthwhile and worthy goal. It is always fulfilling to see a retriever achieve his/her true potential. Sometimes the road to that goal can be filled with bumps and bruises, but that is okay. Any worthy goal is. If you can recognize a training issue early on and take the difficult but necessary steps to teach your dog, you will certainly achieve your goals in the long run.
If you are still struggling, 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.
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