Develop a retriever training plan to meet your goals.
Each year I take a few minutes to jot down some goals for myself. Maybe you are the same. I find that if I do not put them in writing, I never make any real progress on completing those goals. But here is a spin you may not have considered – setting goals for your working retriever!
If you aspire for your retriever to become an exceptional hunter or earn a Hunt Test title, it is vitally important that you plan and set some goals. Wishing and hoping is not going to get you there.
There may be things your retriever needs to learn to progress. Or there may be habits you need to eliminate. Either way, it is unlikely you will see much progress or change if you do not plan and work toward that change.
How to develop a retriever training plan
How do you go about developing a retriever training plan for your working dog? There are four steps I take each year to determine what I should work on with my retriever in the year to come.
Step 1: Review retriever’s past performance
The best way to figure out what you need to work on is to simply review the prior year. Reflect on your hunting and/or hunt tests and perform an honest evaluation on how your dog did. Look at your dog’s successes and failures. Ask yourself some questions:
What did my dog do well this year?
What did he/she do poorly?
- Are there additional skills my dog needs to learn to accommodate my style of hunting or to succeed in the next level of hunt test?
Does my dog perform the skills he/she knows cleanly and consistently?
- Does my dog perform to my standards, or do I consistently lower my standards for the dog?
Step 2. Take note of the good and bad
As you review your dog’s past performance, write a list of things that went well and areas where your dog needs to improve. Even if you believe your dog performed well – found all the ducks, flushed and retrieved like a dream, and got the passing ribbons, there are likely still areas where your dog can improve.
- Did your dog sit nice and quiet in the boat?
- When quartering, did he/she progress in an effective pattern and respond quickly to your HERE call even on flyaways?
- Did he/she sit properly in the holding blind and remain steady until sent for the bird?
Write down any and all areas where you would like to see improvement.
Step 3: Consider dog training goals and expectations for the upcoming year
If you have completed a list of your retriever’s good and bad performances from the year, now is the time to look forward. Using your notes from the year, start setting your dog training goals for the upcoming year.
- What would you like your retriever to be able to do this coming year?
- Would you like him or her to be able to do multiple marks or blind retrieves?
- Maybe you just want them to be more obedient in the home, or quiet in the hunting blind?
Your expectations should be realistic for the age of your dog and the dog’s ability. For instance, if you have a young retriever, 1-year or younger, expecting him or her to be extremely polished in all areas is not a realistic goal. Make sure that your training goals are in line with your dog’s age and ability.
But do not underestimate your retriever either. Often owners have very low expectations, and their retriever is capable of so much more.
Once you have given this some serious thought, write down your goals and expectations.
Step 4: Develop your retriever’s training plan
Now the hard, but of course, most important part. Use the data you have just uncovered to develop a training plan to get your dog from where he is to where you would like them to be. This can be challenging. You may not even know where to start. The plan will be different for each dog depending on many factors including age, experience, previous training, etc.
From your list of goals and expectations, start making some notes for each goal:
- Will your dog need additional training to meet the goal?
- Or, does he/she dog already have the knowledge and it is just a matter of more practice and consistency in your expectations?
Plan for how you are going to work toward each goal.
Making goals for retriever training – identifying and addressing the underlying issues
If you followed the steps above, you should now have a list of things to work on. As you walked through the steps and reviewed your notes from previous hunting trips and/or training logs, you may have noticed a common theme – obedience.
- Your dog does not stay close enough while quartering?
- He doesn’t SIT still in the boat?
- She doesn’t HEEL correctly?
All these issues stem from obedience.
Obedience – the elephant and the frog
I think of obedience as the elephant and the frog. Let me explain.
Obedience is the elephant in the room because it is the one thing we all need to work on. We understand the importance of obedience. But we really do not want to talk about it or address it. Why? Because it’s not glamorous or exciting. Let’s face it, obedience can be downright boring. For you and your dog.
Obedience is also the frog. I am referencing the book “Eat That Frog” by Brian Tracy. This book is about doing what you don’t like first to get it over with. Tracy calls this “eating that frog.” No one gets excited about doing obedience training with their hunting dog. It is much more enjoyable working on marking set ups and retrieves. And the dog enjoys retrieving a lot more than obedience, too. But we all need to eat that frog!
Retriever training basics
As I have stated, obedience is key.
When hunting with your buddies it is impressive to have a dog that can find all the birds. But putting up with a loud, unruly dog is hardly worth it to me. And I’m guessing your hunting partners feel the same.
I get my hunting enjoyment by just spending time with my dog out in the water or in the field. Getting birds is just a bonus. However, if the dog does not listen to me or if I constantly have to remind them to listen, it is far from enjoyable.
Trying to camouflage or avoid your dog’s lack of obedience isn’t doing anyone any good.
Therefore, when formulating your retriever’s training plan for the year, make sure obedience is on it and high on the list. In fact, it is helpful to start each training session with some obedience. Make it a habit. Take Nike’s advice and Just do it!
Consider this. When you are out hunting and you let your dog out of their crate, do you want him/her to be under control or running around like a crazy dog? If every time you start your training sessions, you start by expecting your retriever to be under control, it will transfer to the field.
Balance in retriever training is vital
When you start working through your training plan, remember to include balance. Always monitor your dog’s attitude and attention to what you are teaching. You can learn more about balance in training here. Too much obedience and your dog can become unmotivated. Too many fun retrieves and your dog may become out of control.
Using the right tools for retriever training
Have you ever noticed how much easier a job is with the right tools? Yes, you can often make do with a substitute, but the job progresses faster and easier when using the right tools. It is the same with dog training.
A few of the basic tools needed for dog training include a leash (6 foot or longer), a chain collar, a whistle, and an item for the dog to retrieve (i.e., dummy, bumper, Dead Fowl, bird). Learn more about the most important tools for dog training here.
One tool that I cannot live without is my electronic collar. I always train with the dog wearing an electronic collar. It may not be turned on. I may not even have the transmitter with me, but I put it on the dog at the start of every training session.
Why? Because I want the dog to associate the electronic collar with fun! I don’t want them to think of the collar as a discipline or correction. For more details on using the electronic collar the right way, check out this post.
Things to consider before you start your retriever training plan
Before you jump right into your training plan, there are a few things you should consider:
If you live in the north country and will begin your plan while there is still snow on the ground, please keep in mind that having your dog run through snow requires a lot of physical exertion.
Is your dog healthy? Error on the side of caution and have your dog checked out by a veterinarian to make sure they are good to go.
Monitor your dog’s behavior during training and make sure you stop if you see anything that does not appear normal.
If your dog has not been worked consistently, he or she may be out of shape. Start with shorter marks and progress slowly.
Doing the training yourself or delegating
If you are looking to do the training yourself, I suggest you follow a specific training philosophy. People often mix training programs that conflict with each other. For instance, they take a training tip from one website or blog post and another one from a different post. I call this the pick-and-choose method of training and it is rarely successful. The result is usually a very confused dog and handler.
Most successful retriever trainers have developed an extremely specific training regimen. And they are successful because they follow their plan step by step. They do not mix methods.
So, the best options if you plan to train your dog by yourself would be to:
Purchase a complete training program. Some solid retriever training programs I would recommend are Mike Lardy or Danny Farmer.
Work directly with a professional trainer. Here, at Otter Tail Kennels, we offer a one-on-one consultation program and a phone/video program. With these programs you can work directly with us to meet your training goals.
But if you don’t have the time, energy or equipment to do the work. Then you are probably better off finding a professional to help you meet your goals. A professional will be able to determine where your dog is at currently, and formulate the steps needed to get it to the level you want to reach. While there is a cost to this, you may be surprised at how quickly a professional can get you to your goals!
Final thoughts on setting goals for your retriever
When planning goals for your retriever for the upcoming year, don’t sell him or her short. Setting goals for your retriever is not just about you accomplishing your goals, it is also about allowing your retriever to achieve his or her true potential. Take time to develop a retriever training plan that will meet your goals and grow and challenge your retriever.
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 (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.