Category Archives: Hunting Retriever Training


Jun 17, 2016

Mental Games- Part 3


As we’ve heard so much, life is about balance. Not too much work, not too much play, not too much ice cream, not too much exercise. Keep things in perspective and don’t throw things too out of whack. The same principle goes for dog training.Billy's Training-28 Two of the most important things to balance in your dog training program are control and momentum.
When we talk about control we are talking about the ability to handle and live with your dog in such a way that you are the boss, not him.
You need to address your control issues BEFORE you buy your dog, not after. 
If you are looking for a dog that will sit peacefully beside you in the duck blind, you better consider the horsepower that comes with your new pup or started dog. What may be appealing to a competitive field trailer or hunt test trainer may not be nearly as appealing to you as your dog sits restlessly next to you in the blind, whining, jumping about, and leaping into the decoys every time you blow the call. Getting control of an animal like this may take more effort than you are willing to do or pay for.

We like to think of control as a dog that sits nicely to the whistle, and waits patiently at the blind to be sent after a fallen bird. We think of being able to call the dog back in a pheasant field because he is ranging out too far, even as he gets a snoot full of rooster.Billy's Training-13

When referring to momentum, we are basically talking about the energy and self-governance that a dog has. A dog that takes off like a rocket after a duck that sailed two hundred yards into the tules and refuses to quit until the job is done, or you go out and get him, has a lot of momentum. He may not be worried about someone blowing a whistle to stop him. He may be so determined that he won’t return, even as his owner hollers for him. He’s got little on his mind other than shagging a bird. Ultimately, we would like a dog that has the desire to get the job done in tough circumstances, yet won’t drive us crazy the rest of the time. This requires having a relatively balanced dog to start with and then having a training program that will bring about the best of both worlds.

So first off, lets address our puppy, or the started dog we bought. Of course, you should always buy from someone reputable. That goes without saying. It is important to make sure that the breeder’s goals and your goals are similar. A super high-powered field trial dog may be great for the professional or seasoned amateur, but may likely leave the unsuspecting weekend hunter exasperated.

Picture owning a drag-racing car to fill your work and carpooling needs. Maintaining that beast all year may be more of a burden than it is worth to you. An SUV, a pickup, or dare I say, yes I will, a minivan would serve your needs better. The same goes with buying a young started dog or field trial wash out. Some of these can leave the average Joe wondering what hit them. I am not disparaging these young hot dogs in any way. For the right person and circumstance they can be great. Again, match your dog for your needs.

When considering training, it is essential to note that all dogs will require different amounts of discipline and freedom. A very soft dog may need you to cut him some slack in order for his drive and confidence to be maximized. On the other hand, a fire breathing 90 lb. male Labrador may take a lot more reigning in. Billy's Training-18Think of it like soup. You taste it and you think, “Hmm, needs some salt”, so you add some salt. Look at where you are with your dog, and then determine what you need to add to your training to get the flavor you want. If you think he “needs just a few more manners”, or “ We need a whole bunch more ZING!” Add it to your soup. Just remember, sometimes when you take something away, you may not get it back. Make life too miserable on them and you can permanently remove spark from many dogs. On the other hand a spoiled brat may resist new training standards.
A good level of balance in training goes a long way towards a great hunting companion. So there it is. No drills for you to do, no commands to teach. Just some dog training philosophy to get you started on a dog you can enjoy for a long time!

If you enjoyed this article make sure you check out What They Don’t Teach You About Retriever Training and Now Pay Attention! for more great retriever training content!

Now Pay Attention!

Jun 1, 2016

Mental Games- Part 2

Now Pay Attention!

As a professional retriever trainer who provided training grounds for many different amateur trainers and groups, I would frequently get asked what length of training sessions I would recommend for their dog.

            For the sake of this article, we are going to be talking about retrieving dogs and their specific tasks. Those of you running pointers, hounds or obedience dogs may wish to modify these concepts for their benefit. As always, what I say may not be gospel or apply to every dog, but it is an opinion formed over years of dog observation.

12.5.15_Duck.Hunt (4 of 37)

            The amount of time that I think usually recommend for training is somewhere right around 15 minutes. That may seem short, and a person who has driven an hour or two to their training grounds may not feel like it is a good use of their time. When I say 15 minutes, I do not mean that after a 15 minute session their day is done, it just means 15 consecutive minutes at any one time. A dog’s, especially a young dog’s, window of peak learning is fairly short. It is important to keep training manageable for your retriever.

 Billy's Training-14When clients book an hour long private lesson, I tell them we will work on a concept for about 15 minutes, talk about it for a few minutes, analyze what’s happening, then hit it again after the dog has had time to de-compress. Although this is not ideal, when someone drives a couple hours to see you for training, you want to try to cram in as much as you can without overwhelming the dog. I have had break through sessions where, after 10 minutes or less, I was finally successful getting through a concept the dog was struggling with, and told the client we were done for the day (usually I felt bad about doing this and gave them credit for the next session). 

            Fifteen minutes is normally about right and it seems like the 2nd to the 12th minute are the best. I have found that those ten minute periods are where we have good momentum, rhythm, dogs were feeling fresh and the learning curve was steepest.

            When I was starting out as an amateur, with only one dog to train, I would leave my truck, do some sort of drill, that I would invent on the spot, as we walked to my main drill, do my main drill, and then walk back to my truck doing some other drill. Often this extra drilling would ruin the gains I had made, sour the dogs attitude, make me angry, and get us nowhere. As I gained more experience, and more dogs to train, I was more than happy to get my point across and then move on to the next dog.

            Now like I said before, these rules do not apply to all dogs, nor even all retrievers. As dogs get more advanced, their attention span increases and their tests may take longer. I am mostly referring to drills, like forcing, baseball, wagon wheels, water handling drills. Things of a more mentally taxing nature. Billy's Training-11All dogs are different and you may find you may be able to push longer with one dog than another, so again, these times are very approximate. It all depends on your beast and it’s drill for the day.

            Next time you take Rex or Lady to the field, think about where you were on your last drill, where you want to be, and how to get there. Be creative, make your point and be done. Several short sessions a day will prove far more productive than one big long grinder.


Mental Games: What they don’t teach you about Retriever Training

May 18, 2016

Mental Games- Part 1

What they don’t teach you about retriever training


There are many articles regarding specific drills and concepts that are used for retriever training, so I’d like to talk a little about the mental aspects of getting your dog to his highest potential. Specifically, I’d like to touch on the theory behind designing drills and progressing your training.

Billy Jumping
Billy, the retriever in training, jumps into the water to pursue the bumper.

When designing a program, the first thing you need to do is form a clear idea of what your dog’s major tasks are going to be. Will he sit next to you in a rice check? Will he be in the bottom of a stand up blind in a tule marsh? Will he be sitting on a platform in the Arkansas timber? Knowing and understanding your dog’s unique requirements will dictate which direction you take your training. If you hunt in heavy timber or thick tule marsh, teaching your dog to do blind retrieves out to 300 yards might be a waste of time. Those same skills, however, may come in handy in a large rice field when you’ve sailed a buck sprig into the next check. Each situation has it’s own specific demands.

Once you’ve clearly determined what you ultimately want Fido to do, you now have to teach him these skills. To make learning easy and fun, your drills and sessions need to be designed to bring him along as smoothly as possible. Your drills need to start out as basic as possible, then advance from there. The goal is to move forward seamlessly enough where there are no giant leaps of learning that will leave you and him frustrated.
Challenging your team is ok, even beneficial, as it can build a stronger foundation for learning. Confusing yourselves only brings on, well, confusion.

Billy Retrieving
Billy coming back to shore with the bumper.

One of the reasons I think force fetching is so important is that, outside of basic obedience, teaching them to pick up the bumper on command is really the first and most basic part of any drill. If your dog can say, “No, I’m not picking that up”, you have nothing to fall back on. At the very least if you can say fetch and they will bend down and pick up the dummy, you can have some sort of success and victory. Although retrieving should be a joy and passion for them, defining who’s the boss and having a good delivery to hand are paramount.

Billy sits at the side of Mark while training.
Billy sits at the side of Mark while training.

As a professional dog trainer, people would often complain that their dog couldn’t do a new drill. Of course he couldn’t, otherwise I wouldn’t have them do it. When confronted by stumbling blocks in a new drill, simplify it by breaking it down into its basic parts. You don’t just teach a dog to
handle by laying out a baseball style drill. Separate and shorten your backs and overs so he can do them well right in front of you, where you have better control and he will get less tired. As he improves, lengthen your distances. Work in your right and left backs with your right and left overs. Remember, there are no laws on how you have to do these drills. You can stand wherever you want, put him at what ever angle you need or use any body language you can to help get your point across.

We apply the same principles of progression to more hunt specific training. If your dog has to sit on a platform in the timber, it’s a lot easier teaching him to do it on land and low to the ground at first. Once he is comfortable move to shallow water and finally into hunting conditions. Trying to have him lunge out of two feet of water in the dark with strange people and dogs thrashing around on his first time out can lead to an ugly first experience.
The first step to a successful training program is planning. Whatever skills your dog needs to learn for your hunting conditions, remember to break them down and simplify them to create less confusion, more enjoyment, and a better learning attitude.