Choosing A Trainer For Your Gun Dog
It's best to keep expectations realistic.
I have been lucky, therefore, to have remained closely connected to dogs, owner/handlers and trainers in my work as a sporting dog specialist with both Purina and The Orvis Company. I still take great satisfaction from judging and attending trials and hunt tests where possible, and I continue to enjoy working with my longtime friend and fellow trainer Dan Lussen, who maintains a legacy of developing great flushing spaniels out of his kennel, Pond View II.
Oddly enough, in the time since I shuttered my training program I have become increasingly fascinated by the relationship that develops between trainers and dog owners. Far too often, owners seek out a trainer with unreasonable expectations. Granted, it is hard for an owner not to hope that a new pup has all the potential to become a National Champion, particularly when the bloodlines and breeding have commanded both significant research and money. To that point, no gun dog owner ever sets out to buy or train a dog with high hopes of a mediocre field companion.
Conversely, trainers are tasked with identifying and developing a dog's utmost potential within a fairly constrained time period, while navigating the reality that not every dog will be that one-in-a-million superstar, regardless of the owner's wants or expectations. Moreover, and this is where matters get a bit sticky, owners who have spent hard-earned dollars on a dog and hard-earned dollars on a trainer often want a guaranteed end product, which translates to a return on their investment.
For better and worse, however, dogs are imperfect: some are hard-headed, some are soft, some are biddable, some have physical limitations, some even suffer debilitating injuries, illnesses or accidents. Hence, the relationship between trainer and owner is somewhat fraught from the get-go, and requires some consideration, flexibility and clear communication from both parties.
As such, I would like to offer advice to owners who are picking a trainer. My goal is to give concrete suggestions that might help an owner locate and assess a would-be trainer, and communicate needs and wants. In an effort to advocate for the trainers out there, I also hope to shed some light on the training process, in order that an owner's expectations around a training program are kept within reason.
First, I like to remind gun dog owners that a dog is a living, growing, developing creature, with a brain and body that can only absorb and retain so much in a given time period. With that in mind, I rarely suggest that owners send their dogs for gun dog training before the "puppy stage" has passed, which generally means no sooner than 8 or 9 months. This generalization is contingent on the individual dog, but typically by this age the pup has bonded and socialized with the owner/family, and certain boundaries of behavior have been established.
At this point it is time to start looking for a trainer, while taking into account several key considerations. Foremost, it is important to consider the breed/function of the dog to be trained, and to get some clarity about the intended role of the dog. If the hope is for the dog to be a solid utility gun dog for preserve pheasant hunting a few weekends in the fall, it does not make sense for the owner to seek out a celebrated field trial trainer.
Similarly, and not to overstate the obvious, it makes little sense to take a young flushing spaniel to a trainer who has made his/her name in pointing dog circles, despite that trainer's potential aptitude with flushers. It is important to spend some time honestly assessing what is desired from the dog and from the trainer, as only then can an owner put both in a position to succeed. I cannot over-emphasize the importance of honest and in-depth consideration at this stage.
Once parameters and desired outcomes are clear, start exploring the options. A personal reference is a great place to start, especially if you have a friend with a dog whose performance and training you like. Barring a personal reference, consider finding a trial, hunt test, or similar event and networking with both handlers, judges and gallery members. I can guarantee that opinions will surface about preferred trainers.
If you see a dog or handler that performs in a way that is well-suited to your style, ask who helped with the dog's training. These first-hand human encounters are often the most informative and the most successful means for making a direct contact with a trainer. Internet searches or ads in the back of a magazine can prove helpful, but often require a bit more research to discern whether the fit might be a good one.
Once a handful of prospective trainers are compiled, it is time to get a feel for the options. If you make a phone call, remember that trainers are rarely sitting at a desk; often a call will not be returned until the training day is through. That said, if a trainer doesn't respond within 48 hours to a query, or requires several calls over a period of time, assume that communication may not be a strong suit. Though this may have no bearing on the trainer's efficacy with a gun dog, it may well be an indicator of how thoroughly and frequently you will receive feedback about your dog's progress during training.
After you make contact with a prospective trainer, ask first for a general overview of the trainer's philosophy. This question will give you a sense of the trainer's outlook and approach. If the trainer says he/she is looking to develop a gentleman's gun dog for field and home via positive reinforcement methods, they likely have a substantially different approach than the trainer that is trying to produce the hardest going trial dogs on the circuit.
As an owner, communicate with clarity and honesty your desired outcomes for your dog, and ask candidly whether the trainer feels like he/she is a good match. Though an owner cannot assume that the trainer will be a great barometer of his/her own ability, subtleties of the response to these questions will often provide a pretty good impression.
Similarly, I strongly suggest that trainers, even those whose finances require them to maintain a full kennel, be honest about their ability and desire to meet the customer's needs. In the end, the fallout from a negative customer experience based on unmet expectations far outweighs the positive of a few months' training fees.
Customers should always ask a trainer how big the kennel is and how many dogs are in for training at a given time. They should ask how many trainers are on-staff, how many people will be interfacing with your dog, and whether any of the training will be "farmed out" to other trainers off-site.
They should ask how frequently and for how long their dog will be worked/exercised in a day, and how many live birds will be contacted by the dog or shot over the dog in a given week (the more birds shot for a flusher the better, but often live birds are charged additional to the training fee). Finally, and perhaps most critically, an owner should ask for at least three references of folks who have used the trainer's services. If references are not readily given, be wary.
Once you have settled on your prospective trainer, there is likely a bit more conversation to be had. Based on your desires for the dog, it will be important to establish a training schedule. When I was training full-time, I built in a two-week paid assessment period after which I maintained the option to decide that the dog was not going to excel under my training. Again, this was somewhat self-protective; within that timeframe I was able to create a relationship with the dog and get a cleaner look at what the potential success of my training program might be.
This policy can certainly be encouraged by the owner as well. From there, the optimal training period should be discussed. I am of the firm opinion that three months (give or take) is about the longest I'd want to have a dog in for residential training. Beyond that, the dog really needs to get substantive time with the owner to develop a working bond, and to establish the owner/handler relationship.
I am also of the opinion that we buy gun dogs to have them in our lives, not to send them away to surrogate owners for extended periods. A final note on schedule is that although the months just prior to hunting season are often desirable periods for owners to seek training, those months often get quite busy. Consider laying some groundwork at home and remaining flexible on open dates for the ideal trainer.
Finally, when picking a trainer it is critical to remember that you, the owner, must be trained as well. The more time you can schedule to be at the training sessions with your dog, the better. If the trainer is far from your home, discuss a two- or three-day visit at pickup time so that you can see the dog's progress, learn appropriate commands and body language, and get some evaluation from the trainer based on your handling of the dog. In the end, no degree of training has value if you, the handler, cannot make use of it.