We left off the second part of this series in the August waterfowl issue when Gauge, a yellow Lab I brought home in early April from Luttrell Kennels in Clark, S.D., was roughly 6 months old. The pup is now a little over 7 months old, and observing his growth — both physically and mentally with how he’s taking to his training — has been interesting.
In the last article, I mentioned that I was going to be much more aggressive with his check cord and chain collar. Since then, whether we were in the backyard training, taking in my daughter’s soccer games or in a field outside of town, the check-cord-and-choke-chain combo has stayed on him a majority of the time we’ve been outside, and I’m happy to report that his retrieving skills have come a long way.
Is he perfect? Absolutely not. However, he is beginning to learn and understand his role in our relationship … for the most part.
Gauge loves to retrieve anything with feathers, so some frozen pigeons I keep in the basement deep freeze have served their purpose well. I’ve always been careful of spoiling him with too much of a good thing, so I’ve relegated the use of the frozen birds to only once or twice a week at the most.
During other training sessions I’ve largely focused on his basic obedience commands — sit, stay, heel, come — and used training bumpers and a heavy-duty rubber Frisbee as a treat to reward him if he deserves it.
Lately, however, Gauge has shown a lack of interest in retrieving anything other than feathers, so when I throw his bumper or anything else that’s feather-free, he’ll take his line and chase after it, but fail to bring to bring the mark back to hand. He may sniff or nose the mark, but after a retrieve or two, he loses all interest.
This recent failure caused a swell of fear to raise in my gut as I wondered if I should have had him force-fetched by a professional trainer. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a novice, at best, when it comes to training dogs, so I brought up my concerns a few weeks ago to Tom Poorker, a dog-training pro who owns and operates Midwest Gundog Kennels in Forreston, Minn.
“What I’d like to see you do is really get his prey drive going again,” Poorker said. “There comes a point where many dog owners fall into a rut, and, as a result, the dog gets bored with the routine. He’s just bored. Having him hunt for and retrieve more things with feathers to get his motor going again isn’t giving in to the dog. It’s just a way to kick things up a notch and take that necessary next step in his training.”
Poorker said right now as we head into the fall hunting seasons is a good time to spoil the puppy with feathers to capitalize on its natural, predatory instincts.
“He’s obviously losing interest in your current methods, so try changing things up a bit by introducing him to more of the real thing,” Poorker continued. “Pheasant wings, live birds, frozen birds or whatever — get him going on something he loves and you’ll see that instinct and drive kick back in.”
Poorker also had some additional advice on giving the dog a little more breathing room on his check cord.
“When he gets to the point where he’s retrieving on demand with you holding the check cord, try dropping it to see how he reacts on retrieves at greater distances with a little more freedom,” he said. “Never let the dog run totally free, though. Leave the cord and collar on him, but let him run and drag the cord around the next time you head out. That way, if he takes off or doesn’t obey a command, you can still grab the cord and get him under control.”
Poorker also said to be wary of pulling the bird or bumper away from the dog too soon. He said with puppies it’s very important to praise the retrieve first before asking the dog to “give” or “drop.”
“We’ve all seen that dog that’ll bring back a bird and drop it 5 feet away from our feet,” he said. “Now, why in the world can’t it bring it that last 5 feet? Quite often, it’s because we’ve pulled it away too quickly during training, which doesn’t let the dog enjoy its retrieve as much as it should. Keep giving your dog encouragement, praising his retrieves before pulling the bird and letting him know he will get loved up if he brings it all the way back.”
During our conversation, Poorker also asked how gun-breaking the pup was going. I told him about Gauge’s progress and how I was pleased so far by the fact that Gauge was not flinching or losing sight of the mark while shooting a .410-bore shotgun at varying distances.
“How is he around other guns?” Poorker asked.
Other guns? Crap.
Surprisingly, the thought had never occurred to me. I had been so intent on only orchestrating a controlled scenario where I could watch the dog’s reaction to a single shotgun blast that I hadn’t even considered what his reaction to multiple shots from other hunters would be.
“Most dogs make the connection in training that a single gunshot on a bird they can see means they get to go get that bird,” Poorker said. “When the pup is solid on a single gun with a single retrieve, it’s time to figure out how he reacts when other shots are fired on birds he doesn’t see.”
Again, Poorker said the upcoming hunting seasons would work in my favor.
“When you first take him hunting, I’d watch very closely to see if he has a negative reaction to random gunfire,” he said. “I wouldn’t even bring a gun along so you can concentrate on working with your dog and observe how he reacts when the shooting starts.”
When I first picked up the puppy, it was with the understanding that I may not carry a gun or get to shoot the first few times I went afield this year, and Poorker’s thoughts only confirmed that Gauge’s first retrieve would probably be on a bird shot by another hunter. Still, it’s a short-term loss for a long-term gain as far as I’m concerned, because my expectations for this fall remain largely to get Gauge as much as experience as I can. If that means not pulling the trigger very much in the process, then so be it.
In the past month I haven’t had an opportunity to ask friends to help out with this part of the gun-breaking process, so I decided to try it on my own. Dove season opened Sept. 1 in South Dakota, so I recently took Gauge out in hopes of maybe scratching out a dove or two. More than that, however, it was a mission to see how he’d react to not only a 12-gauge shotgun blast, which definitely barks louder than a .410, but also to see how’d he respond to a random gunshot when he’s not already keyed in on a pigeon in my hand.
While it’s not replicating the chorus of gunshots that ring out when a flock of mallards decoy or a dozen roosters bust out of the end of a cornfield, I figured tossing a pigeon and firing a shot when the dog was nosing the cover as we walked through some knee-high grass to our dove spot would be as good a starting point as any.
To start out, I made sure to toss the pigeon when the dog wasn’t aware while simultaneously firing a shot, keeping my own eyes locked on Gauge to see his response. At the sound of the 12-gauge’s report, the dog spun around and found me before his eyes locked on the falling pigeon.
With a sharp “Back!” command, he charged through the grass on a perfect line and then brought the pigeon back to hand.
Over the next hour or so, I repeated the process four more times in 15-minute intervals. By the second shot, the dog no longer looked for me as his eyes shot skyward trying to find his mark. After the exercise, I called him to heel and headed for the truck. We didn’t even see a dove until we hit city limits, and then, of course, they were everywhere.
Perhaps the largest step we took in training this past month has been introducing Gauge to his remote training collar. Up until this point, I had resisted the temptation to strap the “shock” collar on Gauge until I was certain he was rock solid when it came to his basic obedience commands.
Still, I approached introducing him to the collar with trepidation, largely due to all the horror stories I’d heard from other dog owners who had “collar-shy” dogs. To get some advice on this subject, I called a friend of mine, Jim Schlender, who has much more experience with dog training and who also happens to be in the process of training a Lab puppy that’s a little over a month older than Gauge.
“I’ve had the collar on my dog for a couple months now,” Schlender said. “It’s a simple process. First, put it on the dog whenever you’re going to do something fun. Don’t even turn it on. Just put it on whenever you go for walks or when you head out to train.
“After the dog associates the collar with fun activities and gets excited when you pull it out, you have to find out what the lowest level is where the dog reacts,” he continued. “He shouldn’t jump or flinch, but you should be able to tell when he feels it. Once you’ve found that out, put his check cord and chain collar on him, stand about 6 feet away from his kennel and give him the ‘kennel’ command. Hold the continuous stimulation button down and use the collar to guide him into the kennel. Once he does, stop the stimulation with both the chain collar and the training collar. He’ll learn quickly that once he obeys, the stim goes away.”
Schlender said to repeat the process about 10 times a couple times a day until the dog was comfortable with the program. Then he said it was time for some yard work, using the same process with the “sit” command.
“Don’t hold him at heel, but use the same steps with the training collar and the check cord with the ‘sit’ command and see what he does,” Schlender said. “Once he’s got that down, move to the ‘heel’ command and then to the ‘here’ or ‘come’ command. I don’t start with the ‘come’ command on the collar, because that teaches the dog whenever it feels stimulation to come running toward you. That’s not what you want — you want the dog to do what you’re telling it to do.”
Putting this step-by-step program together was simple, though we’re not completely done with the collar-conditioning process yet. For now, however, it seems the slight stimulation I’ve been using has only helped Gauge’s hearing when it comes to basic commands. Even better, he has shown no fear of the SportHunter collar from SportDOG and still gets excited when I cinch it up around his growing neck.
With pheasant season just around the corner, it will be fun to see how the dog reacts to flushing birds, hearing multiple gunshots and listening to commands amongst all the excitement. Though it’s taken some work, the high ceiling of this dog’s breeding has started to show in full force, and I can’t wait to see him get to work.
Be sure to pick up the November issue of Outdoor Forum for a recap of Gauge’s hunting season to that point and see if he was able to retrieve his first wild rooster.
About the Author: Andrew Johnson is the editor of Outdoor Forum. Follow him on Twitter @OutdoorForumMag.