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Avoiding New Puppy Burnout

How to keep your enthusiasm up after the novelty of having a young gun dog wears off.

Avoiding New Puppy Burnout

Your best bet for avoiding puppy burnout is to develop a long-term training plan and stick to it. (Tony J. Peterson photo)

There’s a curious thing that happens when most of us buy a gun dog pup. In the days leading to pick up and then in the first few weeks after the youngster enters our home, the enthusiasm usually red lines. But when the novelty of a new puppy wears off just a little bit and the reality of daily training and caring for a new dog settles in, it’s harder to keep your foot on the gas. This is one of the reasons I encourage all of our clients to set up a game plan before they ever bring their puppy home. Committing to structure, not only for the primary trainer in the family, but for everyone who will interact with the puppy, is a big deal. It puts everyone on the same page and develops a workable timeline to start the youngster off on the right path. A lot of people are surprised to hear this, but that strategy, from my perspective, should look at what can absolutely be accomplished in the first 10 days. By the end of that time period a retriever pup should demonstrate an understanding of several commands including sit, stay, come, lay down, place, and kennel up. 

Now, pups are individuals so the timing might vary just a little bit, but if you’re working on treat training these commands into place, the dog will quickly learn what behaviors produce the caloric reward. This is the foundation that all good dogs are built on and is the first step in gun dog ownership that will allow you to see gains and understand what to do when things get a little tougher, which they undoubtedly will.

Training Progression

For many puppy owners, one of the more difficult time periods is what happens after the first 10 days, but these simple, treat-based exercises should be continued to about 12 weeks, which is the point when you’ll begin mixing in leash work along with your treat training. Eventually, as your pup approaches the five-month mark, you’ll wean the pup totally off of treats and rely on leash work and praise. 

Giving a young Labrador puppy a treat
Using treats to reward your young puppy for wanted behaviors and compliance needs to be a mainstay of your early training. (Tony J. Peterson photo)

This is when many of us enter a new reality with our dogs that can seem frustrating. All pups are going to test you, and a prime opportunity for them to do that is when you show them that the behavior you expect out of them won’t necessarily result in some kibble, which is what they want most at this age. Add in the fact that this is also the time when they are learning that it’s expected of them to go to the bathroom outside versus wherever the mood strikes, and it’s easy to understand why puppies often get labeled stubborn when they most likely are just confused. When a dog is confused or simply doesn’t view the request as worthy of its attention, then we as trainers get to witness behavior that can be frustrating or can be viewed as a failure. But it’s important to understand that compliance at this age is a moving target. No one has a perfect three- or four-month old Lab, trust me. 

The key to powering through this stage and reaping the proper rewards is to stick to the plan and not give up. While it may seem more difficult to train pups when they hit this time period, that’s really just a sign that you’ve got to keep going with your plan of reducing the treats, working with the dog on the leash, and making sure your baby-step drills are showing that the puppy knows what you’re asking. Even if he doesn’t exhibit 100-percent compliance with every command, knowing that he knows the commands is crucial, especially because at some point, at some age, he’s going to test you and you’ve got to know what you’re dealing with to ensure a proper correction. 

Testing & Timing 

One of the goals of the early leash work is to show the pup that you are in charge, and if necessary, you can give a little tug on the leash to ensure that understanding. The level of correction here is entirely up to the dog, and it is best to always start soft. What this does, just like with the earlier treat training, is give the dog a choice. He can ignore you when you ask him to come and then get a correction, or he can make the right choice and avoid the correction (and get some praise). This stage can be fun, but it is also the time when most pups will test you and what’s fascinating is that you can watch them actually think about doing just that. 

Young girl with black Labrador puppy on a leash
Use a short leash to begin controlling your puppy and enforcing commands at a short distance before progressing to a check cord and e-collar. (Tony J. Peterson photo)

This disobedience is almost guaranteed to show with the “come” command at some point. It happens with all of them but is most obvious if you’ve been too light with the corrections, or not heavy enough with the praise. You’ll ask the dog to come and it’ll pause for a second or two, and then go right back to whatever behavior it most prefers. This is a dog that knows it was supposed to engage in a certain behavior, thought about it, and realized that the risk wasn’t worth compliance. 

At that point, a stiffer correction is necessary until you find the level that the dog finally realizes that it’s just better to comply. This is one of the things that makes this stage hard for people who don’t train dogs for a living. The worry is that the correction will be too severe, or the dog doesn’t understand what’s going on, so there will be confusion. But dogs are simple in many ways and puppies that have clearly demonstrated an understanding of a command and then choose not to do it, need some convincing that they don’t really have a choice. It doesn’t usually take much of a correction, but it’s up to you as the owner and handler to find that level to keep the dog working in the right direction, because if you don’t, the whole plan starts to falter. 

This is a problem, because just like the treat-training stage set up the transition to leash work and praise as a reward, eventually the pup will be ready to move on to more check-cord training and as a last stop, e-collar work. In my 40-plus years of training retrievers, this stepped-up training strategy has become the key to maximizing the development in pups before they reach a year in age. And it honestly builds the foundation for both dog and handler that will create a positive, lifelong association with one-another in the home and in the field. 

Training a puppy to be obedient is a challenge. It just is, and when that challenge and the enormity of the task sinks in, it’s usually a couple of weeks after the pup’s arrival when things become more routine and the roadmap for the next eight or 10 months is set. This is a make-or-break timeframe for the pup’s development and is much easier to handle when you’ve got a plan in place and an understanding of some of the challenges you’ll face. But the long-term goal is worth it, and if you want to achieve it (you do), then there is a process by which you’ll get there. It’s not easy, but it sure is rewarding—and you’ll never regret it when your dog is a well-behaved four-year old that flushes grouse or roosters like it’s his job and comes every time you call him.

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