When you pick up a little Lab or a German shorthair, you know a couple of things are going to happen. You’re going to fall in love to the point where you’ll develop such a bias toward the dog that you’ll eventually want to fist fight anyone who says anything that could be remotely construed as negative about your perfect little pupster.
You’ll also embrace the daydreaming that comes with a new four-legged hunting partner because, after all, the potential with your dog is both obvious and endless to anyone with the common sense God gave a toad.
But you’ll also screw up. A lot. Mistakes with gun dog puppies take on many forms, most of which are recoverable from, but not all. Some are one-off events that can ruin a dog; others are creeping issues that eventually take over training time and allow your dog to drift further off the rails.
All Play, No Work
It’s so easy to do with an eight-week-old puppy. You get it home, everyone in the family loves it up, and a few weeks slip by. You’ll get to the real training when the dog is ready, you tell yourself. Suddenly your little fluff ball is a teenager, and while still cute, it’s not as much fun when he jumps up on strangers or chases after other dogs in the park while ignoring your commands.
Pups are ready to start learning the moment they go home with you, and if anyone tells you otherwise, walk away because you don’t need that kind of negativity in your life. The basic obedience commands can all start to happen with two-month-old dogs. And they should. Just like with little humans (kids), learning new tasks is easiest at a young age. Rewiring the brain and changing the behaviors that have been allowed to develop for weeks or months is not.
Start with simple treat training at first and remember how short your pup’s attention span is. Keep training consistent from day to day but very short in duration – and always designed for success. When it comes to young puppies, a little goes a long way and there is no better method to set yourself up for an awesome dog that will be ready for advanced training than one that gets the basics set in stone from the get-go.
Let’s say you’ve got yourself a Labrador retriever puppy so that you can mess with upland birds as well as ducks and geese for the next 12 years or so. Since it’s a Lab, you already know it’ll love water so you focus on obedience training and the beginnings of field-friendly drills. Along the way, you bring the pup to your cabin at the lake to open up for the summer. The pup, being long on energy and short on mental bandwidth, sprints down your dock and falls into the drink, which might be 45 degrees. Not only does he get hit with the shock of the cold, his head goes under and he panics.
This is bad. A traumatic, formative first experience with water doesn’t bode well for a duck dog, and some never really recover. Pay attention to your puppy when you’re around water and wait for a warm summer day where you can safely encourage him into very shallow water that also features a hard sand or rock bottom. If you can get him running and heated up beforehand, that’s even better. You want the first exposure to be as free of potential fear as possible, and if it goes well, you’ll be able to repeat the process in slightly deeper water until the dog has to swim. If you see any real hesitancy in his body language, abort. Water introduction is easy if done right but can be a real issue if it’s forced or not well planned out.
Water introduction, just like an intro to gunfire and live birds, has to be planned out and executed well because you may only get one chance.
Just A Little Patience…
We all know your new puppy is more loaded with potential than any dog that’s ever existed before it, but that doesn’t mean you put a kindergartner into a university-level physics course and expect 100s on every test. Dog training is all about baby steps that involve just enough challenge so there is something to work for reward-wise.
In other words, daily dog training is kind of boring. But adult ADHD doesn’t excuse us from following the pace that our pup sets for us (and for himself). Pay attention to your dog’s progress and learn to recognize when you’re asking too much. This most often stems from either trying to cram a week’s worth of training into a Saturday afternoon or from skipping a few steps to get to training drills that are more fun for us.
A good example of this with a puppy would be to start some dummy work in the yard thinking if you’ve got a retriever, it had better retrieve. If you haven’t nailed down “come” so the dog obeys every time, you’re probably going to see your young dog decide the dummy is a cool toy he’d rather have for himself. Sure, working the “come” command on a check cord for a month isn’t as fun as tossing a dummy and watching your young dog bound out to it, but you’ll soon realize something all good dog trainers know about traveling the route from pup to well-mannered bird hunting machine: there are no shortcuts.