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Bringing in a Fresh Set of Eyes

Identify and address sticking points and holes in your gun dog training by enlisting outside help.

Bringing in a Fresh Set of Eyes

Sometimes, pinpointing issues involves seeking out a second set of eyes. (Tony J. Peterson photo)

If you were struggling with your golf game, the worst source of advice you could get would be from a non-golfer. The second-worse source would be your golfing buddy, because he’s not likely to tell you the truth, and quite possibly, is totally unqualified to offer up anything worthwhile. In reality, to bring your swing in line or address issues with your short game, you’d want the help of an actual pro.

When it comes to dogs and their behavior—the same rules apply. The best sources for dog training advice are the people who submit dog food and check cord receipts to their accountants each year for tax write-offs. The second-best source of info is the trusted individual who has successfully trained personal dogs to a high level, regardless of their employment. Either will be able to offer up real solutions to real problems, but before enlisting their help, you’ve got to acknowledge what issues actually exist. This isn’t as easy as it sounds.


Do We Really Have A Problem? 

We are all biased in a direction with our dogs that allows us to overlook some of their shortcomings. These might be little issues, or they might be big flaws that affect our quality of lives and, often, the quality of our hunts. The latter category often starts out as little things, but over time blossoms into real problems. At this point, your task is not an easy one. Bad behaviors need to be reverse-engineered and addressed from scratch, which takes time, dedication, and a plan. If you don’t have all three, it’s pretty tough to remedy the biggies.

These problems might crop up around simple obedience commands that seemed solid in the backyard. But it is more likely they’ll rear their ugly heads when another dog is in the mix or when the hunt excitement is ramping up. Either way, diagnosing issues involves looking beyond the calm, comfortable training environment to recognize all of the situations where your dog might backslide. If these exist, you know that there’s something that was missing in the process, or something that is currently missing in the issuance of correction.

Gun dog handler with pro trainer and Labs
While hunting may be the best venue to evaluate your dog's skills, a dynamic training environment with distractions and excitement is the next best place. (Tony J. Peterson photo)

This is where things get tricky, and a fresh set of eyes can tell you what’s really going on. When it comes to changing environments and a variable set of behaviors, this is almost a given with sporting dogs. They, like kids, love new and exciting places. Also, like kids, when they enter these new stimuli-heavy environments they often lose their ability to focus or their desire to follow all of the rules.

With regard to dogs, if they know that a correction isn’t likely to be issued (or one is issued incorrectly), then there’s no reason to stop. Anyone who is truly seasoned with dogs will be able to watch a bit of handler/dog work and see the moments when a correction should come via a check cord or e-collar. In both, timing is everything and it’s part art and part science, that can really only develop through lots of experience.          

Under-Handling vs. Over-Handling 

After more than four decades of training client dogs I can safely say that most people are not over-handling their dogs. It does happen and is often evident with the handler who won’t let his dog experiment with hunting range and the development of confidence in the field. In this case, a dog ranges out just a bit and gets an e-collar reminder. When this happens enough, the dog is likely to give up and decide it’s easier and more comfortable just to stay by his handler’s side. That’s not what you want in a hunting dog and is something a pro will diagnose quickly.


The other side of this, the far more common occurrence, is under-handling. This is a tricky one because every dog is an individual, some requiring a soft touch, and others are able to handle much firmer training. Knowing where your dog stands on this scale is tremendously important, because it tells you what level of correction to issue. It’s also something that takes a skilled eye to recognize. We often come to dog breeds with preconceived notions of what they can handle as a whole. This might be the generalization that calls for a heavy hand with Chessies and a light touch with golden retrievers. But generalizing with dogs is a bad idea and doesn’t take into account individual temperament and personality. Knowing what you’re dealing with on these fronts is a huge asset when it comes to diagnosing not only problems, but the cause of the problems. This, naturally, brings me to a point of accountability that is often hard for us as dog owners to stomach.

Self-Reflection

I’m convinced that there are very few retrievers alive that don’t want to please their owners. They aren’t out there scheming constantly for ways to pull one over on us and are usually pretty content to respond the way we’d like them to no matter what we are asking, as long as we are direct and fair. Oftentimes, dogs that are viewed as misbehaving simply don’t know what we are asking of them or have learned to not care about our requests. In other words, the problem is often us.

No matter how you ask a dog to do something, if it doesn’t understand, you won’t see the best results. If you watch a professional interact with a dog, you’ll notice right away that we don’t raise our voices. We issue commands in an even tone, allowing our training equipment to do much of the talking for us.

Gun dog handler with pro trainer and Labs
A fresh set of skilled eyes can not only reveal problems in your training, but also provide solutions to overcome any shortcomings. (Tony J. Peterson photo)

I’ve seen a lot of clients over the years who insist their dogs listen best when they yell at them, but this is merely a conditioned response due to the fact that even-keel commands didn’t work. When that happens, it’s easy to lose your cool and then issue a correction, which means the dog learns that when—and only when—the yelling starts, then they need to behave. A well-skilled observer will be able to quickly spot these lapses in handler/dog communication and develop a strategy for fixing them whether it involves proper check-cord or e-collar use, or attention to vocal tone and body language. Or all of the above.

The most logical time to really evaluate a dog’s progress is during a hunt. The second-best time is in a structured, dynamic training environment. If you’re not confident of your ability to truly recognize the shortfalls in the program—either yours or the dogs—then consider enlisting a fresh set of eyes. Or, if you know the problem but are stuck on how to address it, seek some outside help.

A lot of handlers look at this like a moment of weakness, but it’s not. It’s a smart move to further develop your relationship with your dog by seeking a little skilled help. This might just be the best way to improve your handling skills and successfully encourage your retriever to level up a notch or two.

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