How to solve dog training problems as they arise
“The only thing that never changes, is that everything changes.” Louis L’Amour
I think we can all relate to this quote by Louis L’Amour. Change is certainly the one constant in our lives. This is also extremely relevant when discussing topics like dog training and what is wrong with your hunting dog. Because dogs are living, breathing animals, they are constantly growing, learning, and changing.
What this means to you, as an owner, is that you need to be always on the lookout for changes in your dog’s behavior. Especially, unwanted changes. These changes often start out small. Sometimes so small that you think, “Well, that’s no big deal.”
But the problem with small problems, is that they tend to grow and multiply. What started out as a SIT refusal, has now become a creeping issue and your dog is four feet away from you by the time the bird hits the ground. Or, what started as a slow bird pick up has now turned into munching and the bird you get back is not even worth keeping.
If you don’t spend consistent time training your retriever, you may not even notice a problem until you are out hunting with a group of buddies and your dog decides to humble you like only he or she can do by outright breaking or refusing to pick up and deliver a bird.
As an owner of a hunting dog, you need to be on guard against problems as they develop, and you must also become skilled at solving these problems as they arise. By noticing the small problems, you can take small steps to get your dog back on track. Don’t let them grow and become huge issues that will require months and months of training to fix.
Common hunting dog problems
Here are some of the most common problems you should be watching your gun or duck dog for:
Dog won’t come back to you
In hunting, this can show up in a couple ways. Your dog may go out for the retrieve but then decide not to pick it up, or he or she may pick it up and decide not to bring it back to you. In either case, there were likely previous signs that your dog was moving in this direction. Probably multiple signs over many months.
If your dog has been through a complete hunting or competition training program, including force fetch, this problem rarely occurs. But if not, you should be aware that the foundation for your dog’s training is on shaky ground. Incomplete or haphazard training often results in learning gaps, and sooner or later you will see problems arise.
A hunting dog that won’t come back to you often starts exhibiting small signs that the training is failing. Things like:
- taking a long time to pick up the bumper or bird when training
- picking at the bird prior to picking it up
- making a large loop in the field or around you before bringing the bird back
If you start seeing these signs, you need to step in and take corrective action immediately. The quicker you make it clear that a behavior is unacceptable, the quicker your dog will understand and go back to the acceptable behavior you have defined.
If your dog breaks, goes to get the bird or bumper before you send him, this can be a real problem. Your dog may enter the field of fire before the shooting has stopped, putting himself in danger. This is less of an issue when upland hunting, but if you are a waterfowl hunter teaching your dog to be steady is vitally important.
If your dog was previously steady, but now is not, you have likely missed some pretty big ques or have not taken the time to correct the behavior as it eroded. Some signs that this behavior is breaking down include:
- Dog creeping away from you during marks
- Dog lowering body toward ground
- Dog lifting his or her bottom off the ground
When you see these behaviors, do not excuse them. I know it is fun to see your dog excited to retrieve, but you need to maintain control. Take the time to re-HEEL your dog or pull him up so that he is sitting tall. Make sure that your retriever fully SITS before you send him or her for the retrieve. If your dog breaks, call him back. Use pressure if necessary. If you are training, have the person who threw the bird or bumper go out and grab the item before the dog gets there. Whatever you do, do not let your dog get the retrieve. The retrieve is their reward. Some dogs will go through a lot of punishment if in the end they get the retrieve.
Won’t stay in range
Upland dogs can develop range problems quickly. Control is everything when you are hunting upland birds with a retriever. The best way to avoid this problem is by never letting it become a problem.
By nature, most retrievers will increase their range away from you while quartering. But you can deter this natural tendency by keeping tight control. Here are some ways to maintain control:
- Blow a sit whistle and have your retriever SIT occasionally.
- Call your dog back to you with a verbal or whistle HERE command, then release him.
Guide your dog through the field, slowly, methodically. The more you require him to come back to you and enforce the SIT and HERE command, the better your dog will become at hunting within close range.
Small movements of the mouth can quickly become larger, more destructive, so you need to constantly be on watch for mouth issues.
Some dogs have nervous energy, and you can often see that energy in how they hold and deliver a bird. This can be a difficult habit to stop, but your goal should be to never see it develop. This will be next to impossible for some dogs who are extremely high strung and cannot calm themselves. But for the rest of the dogs, a good solid HOLD without moving or munching the birds is possible.
The best way to deter mouth issues is with a good hold and force fetch program. Through this type of program, the dog is taught how to properly hold an item and not move their mouth or chew.
If your dog has been through a force fetch program, you should be able to easily discourage any inappropriate handling of the birds or bumpers by reminding your dog to HOLD. Sometimes this requires you, as handler, to slow down the process. Taking a bumper or bird from a dog quickly, can make the problem worse for some dogs.
Instead, force the dog to relax and simply HOLD the bird for a few seconds. Take a moment to pet him or her, while the bird is in his mouth. Each time your dog starts to move the item in his mouth, command NO, HOLD. Wait until all movement has stopped before taking the bumper or bird from his mouth.
If a dog is properly conditioned to gun fire, the chance of a dog becoming gun shy is rather small. Especially if you limit gun shots to situations where your dog is getting to retrieve. The gun shot and the retrieve should be paired together. In this way your dog will associate a positive experience to the gun shot, instead of a negative one. Learn how we condition dogs to gun fire here.
If, for some reason, your dog is showing signs of fearing the gun shots, the first step is to stop using a gun around your dog. You are going to need to back up in training and re-associate the gun shot and retrieve. Go back to introducing the gun shot at a long distance away from the dog and only with a retrieve. Do not move it closer until you feel the dog has again become comfortable with the sound and his or her focus remains on the retrieve.
Solving dog training problems requires review and repeat
Whenever you see a problem developing with your hunting dog, whether small or large, it is important that you stop what you are doing. Do not continue down the same path you are on. Your dog may be confused, or just stubborn, but regardless the solution is the same. You need to go back to the previous steps and review them.
Was the problem a slow degrade or did it occur suddenly?
Did you skip steps and now you are seeing the reason those steps were important?
Think of your dog’s training as a foundation for your retriever. As you train, you are giving him or her the knowledge and confidence to grow and learn. Your dog needs to learn and understand her job, her role in this life. If any part of that foundation starts to crumble, you cannot continue to build. You have to go back and repair that part of the foundation. Help your dog understand what is expected and move back through the training steps to get her there.
If you never trained your dog using a firm foundation, a proven training plan, you might see your foundation cracking up all over the place. If this is the case, you really need to get a proven training plan and start working through the steps, one by one.
Setting young retrievers up to fail
Sometimes the problems you are having with your young retriever in the field are self- induced. That is to say that you have put your dog in a position that he or she was not ready or able to handle. You have in essence, set them up to fail.
In your excitement to get your new hunting partner out there in the blind or the field, you may have pushed your dog into something they are not ready for. The result is often devastating. This is where we often see dogs that are so gun shy, there is no way to fix it. Or dogs that have terrible experiences with birds that leave them psychologically scarred and destroyed.
Young dogs need training, good solid training but they also need slow guided hunting experience. They need time to develop their skill and confidence. Read about how to make the first hunts successful.
Dog training is a long game
Training your retriever to hunt or compete is an ongoing process. You will never be done. Sorry if that is discouraging to some of you, but these living, breathing wonderful creatures require constant upkeep. If you expect your retriever to work for you, you will need to be either advancing or maintaining your retrievers training for his or her entire life. It’s that simple.
Looking for more help? Review the cornerstones of retriever training here.
Final thoughts on what is wrong with my hunting dog
Your dog is bound to test his boundaries and try to do things his own way. That is normal. But if you remain observant and vigilant in maintaining your retriever’s training, you will likely be able to correct any small deviances quickly and without issue.
Just remember that your dog will be a happy and well-adjusted hunting partner living within the rules and boundaries you establish. But if you allow the standard to change, they will be ready and willing to exploit that change in their favor. It is all up to you.
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.