Although we have lofty goals and expectations for Bella, I know that in order to achieve and exceed them, we will need to master a few simple skills first. After bringing her home, we wasted no time in getting started. There are many ideas and philosophies when it comes to raising dogs, and I am not here to tell you how not to go about it. Instead, I want to share with you some of the most effective things we do in order to ultimately achieve our end goals. Keeping this as simple as possible, lets break it down into the “Big 4” as far as necessity.HeelSitStay (steadiness)Here (recall)
Understanding just how important these relatively four simple core skills are puts things into perspective. It’s not complicated, but it is involved. Having a plan in place as to how you will achieve each is necessary, and because of the nature of this project with Bella, I’ve had the luxury to go back and review both videos and text that I’ve used to document the entire training process. “Bella...Be Good” has essentially forced me to create a living journal of her training. I know a few trainers who keep detailed journals and refer back to them as a resource or tool, and I understand why. Knowing where you have been helps you get to where you want to go.
Hungry to Learn
What I’ve learned of Bella in a relatively short period of time is that her IQ is high, and her instincts are strong. Strangely enough, I’ve heard many dog owners tell me their dog is “too smart” for its own good. I get it, but personally, I’ll take as much intelligence from a pup as I can get. It’s pups with a high level of intelligence that make training a lot of fun, when handled correctly. Mishandled, they can be a pain. Keep in mind that for us to train Bella, we are doing little more than forming habits. Repetition and consistency forms those habits. One of the most repetitious and consistent things we do with our young pups will be feeding them. By feeding two or three times a day, at about the same time and in the same place, we are giving ourselves the best chance at successfully housebreaking her without fail. And that is typically my number-one priority when I bring home a new pup. But doubling down on the value of feeding times not only allows us to effectively housebreak the dog (controlling when, where, and what goes in directly dictates what and when it comes out), but it also gives me the opportunity to start building in some very important additional skills like steadiness, patience, and lining.
Bella proved to be a quick study when it came to me asking her to be quiet, steady, and patient while waiting to be released to her food bowl. She didn’t fuss or whine, and she sat quietly and waited politely while I floated her food in water. In fact, she proved to be “too steady,” if you can believe that? Typically, I reward a pup’s desirable behavior with the high-value reward of allowing her to eat at the release of her name, just a short distance away from the bowl. This exercise is one way I like to establish the dog’s understanding of being lined and sent on its name, after being patient and steady. The food acts as their reward. At this age, the best thing in the world to a young pup is often a bowl of food. But down the road, it can be replaced by an even more appealing motivator and reward—the retrieve. But that just wasn’t the case with Bella. She wouldn’t go. It was the simple “lining” skill we look to build during feeding times that proved to be the challenge.
I talk a lot about the importance of balance with our dogs. At times, we have to create the balance rather than search or wait for it. When something is too tight, I loosen it up. If things are going too quickly, I slow them down. In Bella’s case, she was too steady. It’s actually hard for me to even type those words, as steadiness is something I treasure in a dog. But it’s true; her behavior was too steady. However, that behavior was not a habit we had formed. Instead, it was more of a symptom. She was not confident enough to make the next move, and I couldn’t get her to come off of the sitting position with any kind of rhythm or flow. So, I made some adjustments in my setup, and we started to “loosen” her up by simply not asking her to sit calmly. Instead, I encouraged her to move forward (under minimal control) with a tone of excitement in my voice, and an influx of encouragement and praise when she sped up toward the bowl of food. By her hearing me get excited and pleased by her action of lining out toward the bowl, she began to do it willingly. She gave me all the signs that it was starting to make sense. Her tail began to wag, and her enthusiasm grew, all because she was beginning to understand what I wanted from her. By working on and figuring out our lining issues during feeding times, we later transferred that behavior with little issue to lining out and making successful early retrieves.
As we move along with Bella’s training, my list of “things to do” evolves and grows, as does our list of “things to fix.” Is it really possible for a retriever to have too much retrieve? With Bella, the answer is “yes,” and a picture of her with a mouthful of our baby’s toys is proof of that. The fix must be handled delicately, and far too often I see trainers put young, natural retrievers in a bad position only to later “fix” a problem that should have been completely avoided from the start. In my next column, I will dig into a common struggle I see with well-bred retrievers that simply have too much retrieve for their handlers’ own good.
If you’re interested in more of Bella’s journey to “be good,” check out the complete “Bella…Be Good” series on YouTube, as well as the@dogbonehunter and @gundogmag Instagram and Facebook pages.