Anyone who knows me well will agree that I do not lack confidence in my ability to train a flushing dog to do the job it was intended to do, both in the hunting field and in competition. Although I know I have the chops to get the most out of the dogs that I work with, or in some cases to fix the problems that arise in a dog as it develops, a trainer’s effectiveness is generally bound by a few key factors that are out of his or her control. What I mean is that in large part, unless a trainer is selecting, developing, and eventually finishing his or her own dogs, there is a pivotal portion of the young flusher’s life over which the trainer has very little control.
In my experience, it is an eventual owner who seeks out a breeder, chooses the breeding, and therefore makes the fundamental decision about the raw genetic material that comprises a dog’s ability to learn and perform as an adult. It is also typically the owner, and the home environment the owner creates, that imparts the general mindset and learning habits that steer a dog through its training. It is those first weeks in the owner’s home that a pup gets clarity about rules and boundaries, and learns to approach the world with either a calm, confident outlook, or alternatively an anxious, uncertain one. The implication in all of this is that although I have some tricks and experience training dogs as they mature, I rarely get much say in a dog’s puppy-hood, and for better or worse, that is where much of a dog’s future success is determined.
Assuming you are planning to train your own dog, take these considerations to heart, as they will certainly make your experience with your dog easier and more successful.
Picking a Pup
Several years back, I had the good fortune of working dogs on shooting estates in the UK. What struck me in the UK was the overall consistency in the quality of the dogs. Across the board, dogs were biddable, physically well formed, and driven to work. As I got to know more trainers and handlers over there, I began to see that the great bloodlines of the UK, both among spaniels and retrievers, had been refined with a clear outcome in mind: Sporting dogs in the UK are working dogs first, and those traits that serve the work are selected for. Yes, the dogs may be mannerly and personable in the pub and at home, but they are bred with a job in mind, and selected without the emotional attachments that we often see in American breedings. When this sort of integrity enters the breeding process, the genetics that get passed along weed out the dogs that are less likely to perform.
My goal in this column is not to compare American and UK philosophies on puppies, or flushing dogs for that matter. Rather, I would like to provide tips that might help to ensure your puppy is set up for maximum success. A look at the UK model, though, highlights a no-nonsense approach to gun dogs that has resulted in some spectacular individual flushers over the years, and I believe that this long track record of success deserves our attention.
When I meet folks who are interested in buying a flushing dog, I can’t stress enough that they remove as much emotion as possible from the equation. It is vital for the success of the dog, the trainer, and the future happiness of the owner, that the pedigree be considered first. Choosing a sound pedigree is absolutely the closest thing to a guarantee that you will ever get in a dog. It is vital that an FC, or other field-champion designation, be apparent on every branch of the bloodline, as this qualification implies that every dog contributing genetics to the pup will add viability. If the pedigree is hard for you to decipher, reach out to some trainers or trialers who can walk you through the designations, or do some online research about the dogs or kennel names that appear in the pedigree. The circles of accomplished flushing dogs are pretty small. If the pedigree is hard to research, or if little information surfaces about dogs in the bloodline, be cautious.
The bottom line is to pick a pup with a proven pedigree. A calculated approach to picking the raw material that is a puppy will pay big dividends throughout the life of the dog.
After the pup has been selected and brought into the home, the training has already begun. Remember that a new pup in your home has just left the family unit of dam and littermates, and it is your job to replicate that structure in its new environment. The social order of a dam and litter can be a fairly tough environment; a good dam cares for her pups but does not coddle them. She doesn’t worry about hurting their feelings, and she does not deliberate about her corrections when a pup needs to be steered back into line. When you take your pup home at eight weeks of age or so, you must work to keep this structure intact, first and foremost for the psychological health of the pup.
In the early stages of puppy rearing, you will again benefit from taking a cue from the UK. In Britain, gun dog owners and trainers are quite firm-handed with their pups. They generally house the young pup outside the home in a kennel that is warm, dry, and clean, but not fancy. They do not give the pup run of the house, and they do not readily tolerate typical puppy indiscretions such as chewing or jumping up. Corrections are firm and clear; not harsh, but free of emotion. Although this firm-handed, cool approach can seem sterile, it actually replicates the puppy’s natural relationship with the dam far better than a coddled experience.
As pack animals, dogs seek defined boundaries. They need these boundaries to eliminate stress and to fall into proper step within a pack structure. When clear boundaries are removed, the rules become ambiguous, and the pup is forced to make decisions he is not psychologically wired to make. A puppy does not thrive on ambiguity. A dam did not establish loose boundaries in the earliest days, and the owner cannot afford to do so either. In fact, leaving boundaries and rules blurry will put undue stress on a dog and damage that learning mindset.
What does this look like in practice? It is fairly simple: Create rules and hold the pup accountable to them. Be clear and firm in your house-training process, in what furniture can be sat on, in what toys can be played with. There are thousands of ways to correct unwanted behavior, but the key in creating boundaries for a pup is to make those corrections quickly and consistently. Leave nothing to question.
Creating a Learning Mindset
It is vital that a young pup be provided with a mindset that lets him learn. A pup cannot habitually take on a mindset that is stressed or confused; he must early on establish the habit of a clear, receptive, and confident mind. Establish this mindset early, and training will go smoothly. But how to accomplish that task?
Basically, boundaries and mindset go hand in hand. When the boundaries are made clear, the young pup does not have a lot of questions to answer. His decisions are largely made for him, which allows him to relax and focus, and to be confident in what is expected of him. If he tests a boundary and is corrected, the desired behavior becomes that much clearer. Therefore, when he looks at a future situation in which the desired outcome is new to him, he has confidence that the owner or trainer will steer him straight. Basically, we want the pup to move into a world where he looks to the owner or trainer for guidance, confident that the rules and boundaries will be clearly defined. This practice will set a pup up for a lifetime of learning.
Granted, this column did not provide the space for detailed instruction about specific tools to train your young pup. There are, after all, many ways to skin a cat. With that in mind, the three concepts delineated here are key in understanding how to get the best pup, and how to set that pup up for a lifetime of success. And my trainer friends will agree that if you pay attention to these fundamentals, you will make their lives infinitely easier as well.