Some dogs are specialists, like the Chesie that only hunts big water ducks, or the English pointer that spends an entire fall pointing woodcock and grouse. Other dogs might be asked to retrieve everything from mallards to pheasants to shed antlers. While all these dogs share the common bond of hunting, they also share something else—the need to be comfortable in new and dynamic environments.
Even the single-pursuit specialists will find the location of their jobs changing from time to time, and they’ll most likely experience a new cast of human and canine hunters in the blind from weekend to weekend. For the versatile, multi-purpose retriever or pointer, this is almost a certainty, which is why you want a dog that’s comfortable and confident in a new situation.
All of this starts the day you bring your puppy home, long before it ever sets foot in the CRP or duck blind. Socialization, while not as sexy as double, blind retrieves, is one of the cornerstones of a good hunting dog and all-around dog. It ties into basic obedience, distraction training, and a lifetime of performing in the field and on the water.
According to Purina’s Karl Gunzer, you can’t skip this step or delay it. “Think about raising a puppy and what he’ll be exposed to. If you don’t have kids, get him around kids early on. And take your puppy everywhere that he’s allowed, from the pet store to youth soccer games to whatever. Controlled exposure to dynamic environments is key.”
Gunzer’s use of the word “controlled” should not be overlooked. No matter where you take your puppy, you should demonstrate control and read your dog’s body language. You don’t want overwhelm your pup or put it in a situation that’s frightening.
Still, obedience needs to be stressed in any new environment, whether it’s a trip to the hardware store or outside to train. One of the keys to socialization, besides the obvious, is to instill in your dog an understanding that work (and play) will happen in a variety of different worlds. This, not coincidentally, is exactly how hunting plays out for us and our dogs.
Socialization is key to creating new training environments, too. While you can wring a lot of progress out of small training drills in the backyard, you don’t want to constantly work in the same spots. Think about going into the gym and running on the same treadmill for weeks and weeks on end. Sure, you’re doing yourself some good with cardio, but eventually you’ll grow bored of the task and want to quit.
Your dog is no different, and even if you have a retriever whose sole purpose in life seems to be running down a dummy and bringing it back, you’ll see boredom creep in. When that happens, you have performance attrition. To avoid this, perform new drills in new environments. If your dog has been properly socialized, this makes it easier to go from the neighborhood baseball field or wooded park and avoid unnecessary stress.
It should, if you socialize your dog correctly, cause excitement and a heightened desire to work. This is one of those long-game lessons we can impart that will change how they function in training, and of course, when we take them hunting.
Feature image via John Hafner.