If your retriever is also your waterfowl hunting partner, you probably realize the importance of teaching your dog to be steady. A dog that jumps out of the boat or blind at the first sight of a bird is not going to be a great hunting partner. And if your dog takes off after your first shot, you are going to be worrying about your dog’s safety rather than taking another shot at the birds that are coming in. Here is how to teach your retriever to be steady to shot.
What do we mean by steady?
Let’s start with a definition of steady. I prefer the definition given by Mike Stewart in this Ducks Unlimited article. “Steadiness is being under control at all times despite distractions, diversions or temptations.”
This is exactly what we are looking for when we teach our dogs to be steady to shot.
Why do we want dog to be steady?
There are several reasons why you should want your dog to be steady.
Flare the birds
If your dog is moving around, barking, yiping or taking off on a whim, he/she is going to flare the birds. Waterfowl is easily flared and a rambunctious dog will certainly cost you chances to bring down the birds.
Better marking of fallen birds
A dog that is steady will sit and watch the shot bird as it falls all the way to the ground or water. This will result in a much straighter line for the dog to the bird, better marking and less lost birds.
Ready for multiples
If your dog is trained for multiple retrieves, a steady dog will wait for all the birds to fall and be sent for the birds. This means he/she will mark the two or three birds that need to be retrieved. In addition, if your dog is trained for it, you can No the dog off a dead bird and send him/her for the cripple first so that the cripple doesn’t swim off.
A steady dog will wait to be sent for the bird, so you can make sure that all the shooting is done prior to sending the dog. This keeps the dog safer.
When should I start teaching my dog to be steady.
Some trainers will say that you should start steadying your dog while it is still a puppy. I don’t agree with that philosophy. We often get dogs brought for training that have been steadied at a very young age. Some of these dogs have lost their excitement and drive for retrieving due to the very strict standards their owners have put on them in regards to steady.
The danger of starting steady too early
When to start steadying should be determined more by the dog’s temperament. Dogs with a very strong drive and desire, will need steady work earlier than a dog with a mediocre drive and desire, or a low desire.
Is my dog ready to be taught to be steady?
If your dog is crazy about retrieving and cannot get enough of it, but is wild and uncontrolled at the line, then it is time to start steady work. It doesn’t matter if the dog is 4 months old or a year old.
If your dog barely runs out for the bumper, slowly picks it up and eventually brings it back to you, steady is not the thing you need to work on. Instead, you should focus on building your dog’s desire and drive.
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Tools needed to teach steady
What tools do you need to teach your dog to be steady?
- A lead with a chain collar.
I start with a simple six-foot lead with no loop on the end you hold. I attach a chain collar.
- A heeling stick.
This is optional but makes the lesson faster. The heeling stick is used to remind your dog to SIT when the mark is being thrown. It is easier to tap your dog on the behind with a heeling stick than to reach down and tap him/her with your hand.
- Several white bumpers.
As with any retriever training drill, you need a supply of white plastic bumpers. These must be white because we want the mark easy to see. Teaching steady is not a marking drill, we want the dog to be able to find the bumper fairly easily, the focus is on sitting at the line and waiting to be sent.
- A person to throw marks.
You can start teaching steady without a thrower, but you will need a thrower eventually so that you can do longer marks. In addition, a thrower can help in the training process if they are ready to run out and pick up the bumper if your dog is not responding to your calls or corrections.
- A tab lead.
This is also optional and is often used once the dog is 80% steady. It simply gives you an easy way to grab your dog or hold him/her gently to remind him/her of being steady.
How to teach your retriever to be steady to shot
I start teaching a dog to be steady with hand throws. After doing a few minutes of obedience with a 6-foot lead and chain collar, I will stop to do some steady drills.
Be very careful doing these drills if your lead or leash has a hand loop on the end. All of our leashes are straight pieces of rope with no loops. You need your dog to drag the leash while doing the first few drills and loops can be dangerous if your dog were to get caught on something while dragging the leash.
Here is the process I follow:
Step on lead
The first drill involves dropping the lead (which is connected to the dog with a chain collar) at my feet and positioning my foot so that I am stepping on the lead. I will repeat the SIT command then toss out the bumper. I am prepared for the dog to dash after the bumper, so I am ready to command NO HERE and I have the rope lead trapped under my foot to keep the dog from going on his own.
If the dog moves as I make the throw, I command NO, HEEL, and make the dog re-heel before sending him/her for the bumper.
After a few of these hand throws with corrections, the dog usually starts to understand that he/she is not supposed to run out for the bumper until sent on his/her name.
Walking out and picking it up yourself
At this point I will often add a new element. I will throw a mark, make the dog SIT and I will walk out and pick up the bumper myself.
This training is often very effective, because many dogs think that they get to retrieve every mark. But this drill teaches them that I can retrieve too.
If you have a dog that is very possessive or is having a hard time understanding that he/she has to SIT until you call his/her name, do this drill often. You will be surprised how big of an impact this can make on some dogs.
Start with low excitement and ramp up as dog learns concept of steady
When you move to a field and longer marks thrown by a thrower, remember to start slowly. Do not incorporate a whole bunch of elements all at once. For instance: don’t have your thrower yell, use a duck call, and shoot a pistol all on the first steady mark.
This kind of excitement will be too much for a young dog still learning the steady concept.
Rather, start by having your thrower say a simple HEY-HEY and throw. If the HEY-HEY proves to be too much for your dog, then just have the thrower throw the mark with no noise first.
As your dog starts to understand the concept of sitting steady and waiting to be released for the mark, you can add in more and more elements to strengthen the steady of the dog.
No reward for breaking
When teaching your dog to be steady, it is vital that your dog NEVER gets rewarded for breaking.
This can be difficult to enforce. You must be ready to make a correction the second your dog starts to break. Also, make sure your thrower is prepared to run out and beat the dog to the mark if your dog breaks and is not responding to your call or correction.
The retrieve is your dog’s paycheck. If they can get the paycheck through disobedience, they will learn that they don’t have to listen to you. This can start a very long and painful road of problems with your retriever, so do your best to ensure that your dog never gets a paycheck when he/she is disobedient and runs for the mark before being sent.
Teach calmness in all marking drills
The overall goal is to teach your dog to behave in a calm manner while hunting, training or competing. He/she needs to learn that behaving in a calm manner will lead to great rewards.
You can teach this through marking drills and steady work. You can also teach through denials (not letting the dog get the retrieve) and using delays. Delays are when you make the dog wait longer and longer periods of time before they get the mark.
Delaying your dog’s send on the retrieve can go a long ways toward teaching your dog that sitting calmly is the fastest way to get to go get the mark.
Other ways to teach calmness
There are some other drills and experiences you can work on in order to teach your dog to be more calm in hunting and/or competition situations.
Tie outs can be a very effective way to teach your dog to be more calm. Put your dog on a tie out while your friend or buddy is running their dog. By making your dog watch other dogs get their paycheck, they learn that not every mark is for them. Of course, do not let your dog jump around and bark and carry on while on the tie out. Stand nearby and make corrections when your dog exhibits non-calm behavior. When they are sitting quietly, be sure and praise them at that time.
Honoring work is similar to a tie out, except you stand with your dog on lead around 6-10 feet from the dog that is running the marks. Your dog will likely think that he/she is getting the mark, but you calmly say NO BIRD before the mark is thrown and give a correction if your dog moves or tries to take off after the mark.
With repeated exposure they will learn to horror the other dog and learn calmness.
Steady in training may not equal steady in real hunting situation
It is important to understand that even if your dog is rock steady during training situations, that may not equal a steady dog the first few times you take your dog in a real hunting situation. Often real hunting situations are much more amped up than training and your dog will sense that.
That is why we always recommend staking your dog out or tying him/her down for those first few hunts. After the birds go down, command SIT and when your dog is sitting calmly, send him/her for the downed bird(s).
We also recommend, especially on the first hunt or two, that one person take on the role of running the dog and not shooting. This will give you the ability to pay complete attention to your dog and teach him/her how to act, react and respond during actual hunts. This will go a long way toward making your dog a lifelong hunting partner that you can be proud of.
Final thoughts on how to train your retrieve to be steady to shot
Teaching your dog to be steady is a process. You must start simply and add complexity as the dog learns the steady concept. It may take a lot of work, but a steady dog is such a joy to hunt with. And you will never regret the time you took in teaching your dog to act calmly in a hunting or competition situation.
Remember, if you really want your retriever to grow and progress in his/her hunting 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.