Last summer, I spent a good deal of time working with a friend named Susan and her young English Cocker. The pup was a nice one, selected from good breeding and showing strong potential and biddability from the start. Susan was diligent in her training, and she came day after day to work through drills and eventually live-bird sessions with me and my training partner Dan Lussen. Susan took instruction well, and picked up quickly on the subtler points of consistency and posture. The pup took to the training.
At the end of the summer, when it came time for me to head south for the winter, the young dog was quite far along. I would say with confidence that the dog was nearly steady, and I say nearly only because I had yet to see both Susan and the dog accomplish the volume of drilling necessary to give me the confidence the dog would assuredly do as trained, even in charged environments. Nonetheless, I knew that Susan intended to hunt test and trial, and assuming the dog maintained the skills it had learned over the summer and that Susan maintained steady and consistent drilling, I was certain the dog would perform quite well.
Just the other day, Susan called to report that she’d been training in anticipation of an upcoming trial. I asked how the dog was doing, and she replied enthusiastically that he was doing great. Having seen neither the dog nor Susan in several months, I felt obliged to ask, “Is he still steady?”
“Oh yes,” Susan said proudly. “He chased a little on the first pigeon we put out today, but after I blew the whistle and hollered ‘hup’ a few times, he sat down and watched the bird fly off.”
“I hate to disappoint you, Susan,” I said, “but your dog is not steady. If the dog moved, no judge worth his salt is going to let a spaniel get away with a mistake like that in the trial field.”
As I spoke with Susan longer, the situation became clearer, and honestly it came to sound remarkably similar to far more training tales than I’d care to admit to hearing. At summer’s end, Susan had continued diligently to work the dog on live birds, and she’d maintained a high level of consistency in repeatable, well-managed training scenarios. By all accounts, in the context of her training the dog was steady, enough so that Susan felt fine getting off her training regimen during the long, cold winter. With the return of spring, both dog and handler were eager to get back after it, and Susan simply picked up where she had left off, assuming that the dog’s abilities had remained suspended where she’d left them back in the fall.
What she found was a twofold problem. First, with a long hiatus from the field, the presence of a pigeon simply overstimulated the pup’s prey drive, making him unable to “remember” the foundational training that had been put in place. Second, Susan realized the hard way that although she’d hung up her whistle and bird bag for the winter only to pick them back up where she’d left them, the dog’s training had migrated back a few steps. Simply put, although skills like riding a bike have a certain indelible quality, most skills, and surely most dog-training lessons, require regular drilling over the entire life of the dog.
Balanced Approach To Training
Scenarios like this one occur time and again. Professional trainers see this in practice all the time. An owner takes a dog home from a residential training session, and the dog is working at full capacity. In short order, due to the business of life, training is not drilled and enforced, and the dog is allowed to get away with sloppy work, effectively moving backwards, and redefining certain skills to become something other than “perfect.”
This regression only compounds itself over the season, and progressively over the years. What so many handlers, particularly noncompetitive handlers who hope to trial or test their flushers, fail to fully embrace is the fact that a “steady,” “finished,” or “fully trained” dog is never in a static state of training. Rather, a dog that is deemed “finished” is a dog that has had enough drilling and reminders of what the expectations are and what it feels like to fulfill them, that proper performance is the only logical behavior, at least at one moment in time.
But how do we teach a dog to achieve that state, and how do we get as close as we can to maintaining that optimal performance regularly over time? This requires a degree of balance in your approach to training and drilling.
When I begin training a young flushing dog, I work on socialization and foundation, and I begin early on to communicate to that dog what “sit/hup” and “come/here” mean. As these skills are drilled, enforced, and corrected, I move slowly into more dynamic skills of heel and retrieve, and more remote skills of hupping on a whistle from a distance, etc.
When birds are introduced, things really get fun, and I am able to employ those stairstep skills that were taught along the way in a much more dynamic environment, eventually with rolled pigeons and guns, and something that resembles a hunting or trailing environment. For certain, it is fun to work a dog through a course with live birds and real shooters, but to do so day in and day out does not let me focus on the finer specific skills. It is vital that for every live bird session, I spend a session working on a basic sit/hup with no distractions, namely in a sterile, yardwork environment. For every mocked-up trial scenario I run my dog through, I need to spend the equivalent amount of time heeling my dog perfectly on a loose lead, establishing contact and communication. In general, for every “real-life” session I create for a dog in training, I spend four equivalent sessions working on basic, clear, fundamental skills in a controlled environment. Therein lies the balance.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Many people look at training a flushing dog as a stairstep progression, in which a dog learns a skill, cements that skill in its mind and body, and then builds on that skill to accomplish a higher, harder skill. Case in point, many people think that once sit/hup is learned, the next skill is to teach sit/hup remotely on a whistle, and then to move beyond that to teach sit/hup remotely on the flush. In a sense, this is true. But, each step on that staircase represents an isolated skill and an isolated lesson that can be practiced and etched deeper into the dog’s behavioral patterns. Breaking those skills down and giving them equal time and energy amounts to creating a balanced training process. This remains true for every dog, at every stage of life.
My champion dogs spent easily as many hours working on controlled, routine recall drills on a mowed lawn as they did retrieving shot birds in the rough cover of the training field. In the end, training becomes the sum of its parts. Neither trainer nor dog can skip steps or jump ahead, nor can they assume that the steps taken need only be taken once, and then never revisited.
The beauty of balance and a balanced philosophy is that it always works. In the case of Susan and her pup, although they were both eager to get after live birds and see the finished, polished product come together, there was basic drilling still to do. Over the next four training sessions, the duo were able to work on repeated sit/hups in the yard, to work on whistle hups, to work on hupping while a gun was fired and a dummy thrown, and to work on sit/hups in the yard again. With this drilling, the intended outcome became increasingly enforced and clearer, and when the added stimuli of a bird in the field was introduced, the desired response was a bit more ingrained.
Leading up to the trial, the two will balance their training, reinforcing each individual skill that has been learned to ensure that all come together as one when called upon. This is the balanced approach, and it has proven its worth time and again.