There are an infinite number of ways you can screw up a puppy. Common mistakes tend to result in dogs that are just situationally annoying throughout their lives. Examples include the Lab that jumps up on every person it meets or the German shorthair that decides you aren’t being serious when you tell him he’s not allowed on your favorite recliner.
These little behavioral issues are avoidable, but also not the end of the world if they become imbedded in your pup. When it comes to hunting-specific problems, things get a little stickier. We’ve all heard about (or maybe even owned) gun-shy and water-shy dogs. Either condition can turn a promising recruit into an expensive couch potato.
Although the following issues may pale in comparison to those big two, they can be nearly as deleterious as firing a shotgun next to a puppy that isn’t expecting it.
No Bird Balance
George Hickox has trained some of the best field trial and hunt test dogs the world has ever seen. He’s also a dedicated upland hunter who believes all trainers need to find the right live bird balance with their young dogs.
“There is a line between giving a dog too many birds and not enough birds. The goal is to read the individual and decide how many birds are necessary to develop a true passion, but not so many that it invites creeping or other bad manners,” Hickox said.
The issue, whether you’re using live pigeons, chukars, or whatever, is that it’s almost too much fun for a young dog to go nuts over live birds. It signals prey drive and portends a great hunting future, but overexposure to live birds can also lead to poor, moment-of-truth behaviors. If this happens, you’ll have to correct or train them out later. This is not ideal because you’ll have to dial up the pressure to get control of your dog’s bird-contact manners.
Avoid this by using just enough live birds to build confidence and truly light the fire, but not so many that the dog starts to lose all self control. Value live bird contacts with young dogs as a special treat that should be doled out in proper amounts in order to build prey drive and confidence. When it’s clear that has happened, switch gears to training drills designed to address expected behavior during bird contacts with your flusher or retriever.
Good trainers know that you can force a dog to do anything, but they won’t. Instead, they’ll ask the dog to work for them and share the rewards equally. According to Hickox, this is one of the great intangibles of developing a young dog into a solid, in-field performer.
“If a kid is mugged every day at school, it will be difficult for him to concentrate on the lesson and not worry about getting beat up,” Hickox says. “Intense pressure training for obedience tends to produce dogs that don’t laugh at the punchline, so to speak. Remember that repetitions are always better than an ongoing day of pressure.”
There’s a line in a Tool song that simply states, “there’s no love in fear.” I think about it all of the time when it comes to dogs, because while they’ll respond to fear with desired behaviors, they won’t be working with you—they’ll be working for you.
In a long-term training strategy focused on skill-building, baby steps are always preferable to avoid extra pressure or corrections. It takes time, but when it comes to proper dog development, there are no shortcuts.
Anyone who has young kids knows that they constantly test parental rules to see which ones they have to follow. A toddler can, and will, figure out whether mom or dad is the pushover. Dogs do this as well, especially young puppies.
They constantly test all family members to see who the authority figure actually is. They also look to see whether you really mean what you ask of them. Inconsistencies will be noted and acted upon. Count on it. Wavering conviction can lead to multiple sets of rules and a whole lot of bad behavior.
To understand this, imagine you work with your retriever for months on sitting steady on the retrieve until you give him the release command. Now put him in a duck blind and shoot an early season teal. If the dog breaks (it will break) and you don’t address that, he’s going to learn that he’s only expected to be steady at home during backyard drills. In the blind, he’ll reason, anything goes.
Or consider a 10-month-old pointer that has developed a rock-solid tripod point while working pheasant wings in familiar knee-high grass. Take him to where the wild roosters live and let him get away with creeping and flushing the birds he’s supposed to hold on. After about seven seconds, he’s going to realize there are new rules in the exciting place, and he’s going to lose his title as pointer.
Consistency matters during all training and especially those initial hunts. This is why it’s better to handle your dog than be the active hunter during those initial forays. It’s difficult when you could be whacking green-wings or doves, but ditching a divided focus to fully set your dog on the right path is huge and will pay off in the long term.
Feature image via John Hafner.