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.

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