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Common Puppy Myths & Misconceptions

Why it pays to remember that gun dogs are individuals and excel at their own speeds.

Common Puppy Myths & Misconceptions

The reality is that dogs, and especially puppies, are as unique as fingerprints and in some ways, need to be trained and treated as such—especially when you move beyond the first few months of foundation work. (Photo By: Jerry Imprevento)

It’s human nature to lean into absolutes. This allows us to save our mental bandwidth from the exhausting reality that most staunchly held positions and beliefs should probably be more fluid than we’re comfortable with given the nuances of life. But it’s simply easier to avoid the gray areas and latch on to “always” and “never” to guide us through our decision and opinion making processes.

As you’ve undoubtedly noticed at some point, this has bled into the world of dogs. This is why it’s so compelling to listen to a training expert who offers a clear message about how to take any pointer or retriever from clueless puppy to perfect bird dog. They’ll craft a one-size-fits-all plan to achieve this, and that is marketing genius. And not, I might add, without merit.

After all, despite what we want to believe, the format for training dogs generally hasn’t changed much in the last 30 years, let alone probably the last 10,000. But generalizations only take us so far when we are dealing with individuals, and blanket statements (and training plans) are best suited for the obedience work, command compliance and to some extent, the process of introduction when it comes to the biggies like gunfire or live birds. Where the trouble comes in with this stuff are all the little myths and misconceptions about timing and the details, which are not part of a one-size-fits-all training plan. This is where an awful lot of the amateur handler anxiety comes from, because it’s too easy to compare puppy progress to a world that sounds, or through social media, looks perfect.

labrador retriever puppy
Puppy development is highly individualized. Learn to read your dog to provide them with the best chances to succeed in their development. (Photo By: Jerry Imprevento)

Someone Else’s Standards

If you want to experience the worst in humanity, buy a new puppy and then post on social media what your training plan is. For bonus points, toss in a set-in-stone timeline of approximately when you think your youngster will be able to accomplish your goals. Make sure to let everyone know if you’ll be using live pigeons for training, how you feel about e-collars, and just exactly why your chosen dog breed will be a little rock star in no time.

If, after that, you don’t toss your phone into the nearest river and seriously consider moving to a remote cabin in northern Alaska, you’ll realize something: everyone has their own idea of how puppies develop and when they’re ready for certain types of training or hunting.

Well-known German shorthaired trainer and breeder, Chad Hines, knows this better than most and he says when it comes to pointers, there are many things that amateur handlers often preach but don’t really understand like, “never teaching a pointer to sit is a big one. The ‘whoa’ command is more important, and should be taught first. But with versatile breeds like GSPs that might do a lot of water work, we do teach sit.”

Hines, who owns Willow Creek Kennels in Minnesota, says two other mistakes people often make with pointer puppies is not tossing a bumper for them and relying too heavily on the wing on a string. When it comes to the former, he says, “Lab owners toss bumpers all day long, but some pointer owners will get a puppy and not work on developing retrieving desire at all. But plenty of pointers retrieve wonderfully with the right development and encouraging natural instinct from a young age that is paired with a strong recall can help achieve a reliable retrieve.”

black lab puppy with training bumper
You can start building up your puppy's natural instinct for retrieving at an early age, but keep these sessions short. (Photo By: Mark Atwater)

Puppy Health Myths   

When it comes to developing a puppy into a lifelong athlete, lead Veterinarian with Merrick Pet Care, RuthAnn Lobos, says that one of the big misconceptions that needs to end quickly is the acceptance, excitement, and encouragement of owning a roly poly, brute of a youngster.

“In the short term, a little chubbiness could be advantageous, but long-term added weight could limit their entire hunting career and decrease their quality of life. Being mindful of the quantity of calories going in, as well as allowing the pup to get the wiggles out and build a fitness foundation, is one of the best ways to avoid serious health conditions in the future.” In other words, just like with human children, ignoring a puppy’s proper dietary and exercise needs, even at a very young age, can have negative impacts later in life.

Pup Readiness  

It’s common for puppy owners to buy into the advice that readiness for certain tasks and intro work is all about reaching a specific age, savvy trainers often look to the dog to tell them when it’s time. Talmage Smedley, who owns and operates Smedley Kennels in Farr West, Utah offers a great example of this on how he treats puppies in regards to live birds.

“Rather than looking at age, I am going to do things to prepare the puppy and let it tell me when it is ready for live birds. I know most trainers will shy against the wing on a string because they think dogs learn to sight point. But I want my dogs to point birds whether that's from sight, noise, or smell. So, around seven weeks, I show my puppies a wing and dangle it over their heads because I think the movement prepares them for flapping wings. When they show interest, I move on to a live pigeon connected to a pole. I start with the pigeon high above their heads so the bird doesn't scare them. Some puppies are ready for live birds at seven weeks, others not until 12 to 14 weeks.”

puppy with pigeon
Your puppy is probably ready for bird introduction when they start showing signs of boldness and confidence. (Photo By: Mark Atwater)

This strategy is all about pup readiness and drive development, and it all involves watching the pups’ behavior for the signs they are ready to move into one of the most crucial aspects of developing bird dogs. In other words, young dogs will tell us when it’s time to level up in training.

When it comes to the wing-on-a-string strategy, Hines says that the reality of this is you just don’t want to overdo it. It’s fun to do with puppies, but you’re developing a behavior to sight-point. If this looks like it might be happening with your pup, Hines says the best thing to do is make the “bird” flush if he gets too close, and work to get the pup to point from farther away.

Each of these aspects of pointer puppy development, just like when you’re dealing with a flusher, involves considering what you want to get out of your dog and how you’ll hunt with it. There are hundreds of examples of rules to follow with specific breeds, and every one has proponents and opponents. This is because everyone has a different goal with their pups and hunts a different way. Just as we all have vastly different standards for dog behavior in the home.

Your dog’s development is on you. No one knows your puppy better, and no one knows as well as you what you want out of the relationship. This means that it’s best to keep an open mind throughout the development process and take all advice with a grain of salt.

Puppy People Problems

When I asked Jennifer Broome, who owns QK Kennels in Connecticut and who has over 25 years of dog training experience under her belt, what the biggest misconceptions are with puppies she didn’t hold back.

“Some things are funny, like the people who only use orange bumpers so their dogs can see them better despite the fact that dogs don’t really see color. Other things aren’t as funny. Like when someone says that puppies always work better off leash than on, which is just evidence that their dog doesn’t respect their leadership. Or I’ll often hear people say that their puppy is stubborn and is just choosing not to listen!”

The danger with these lines of thinking and many others, is that we are filling in the blanks to explain puppy behavior. If a dog doesn’t demonstrate a clear understanding of a command, then it must be stubborn and just a harder dog to train. That might be true, or it might be that the dog doesn’t understand what’s being asked of it. It might not be mentally ready for the task, which is often the case because it’s very easy to skip crucial steps in the process, or the very least, move through them too quickly.

If you think about this from a retrieving standpoint, there are several steps of behavior involved that make up the individual parts of a retrieve. A dog that doesn’t sit or stay very well isn’t going to show you perfect retrieves because not all of the parts are locked in place. It’s common in this situation to look for an answer, and it’s easier to say the dog has problems than it is to say our training strategy was faulty.

golden retriever
Don't rush through the fundamentals, you may only make things harder for yourself and your dog later on. (Photo By: Mark Atwater)

But the beauty here with puppies is that they tolerate a lot of mistakes on our end. This is what you often don’t see when you scroll through your Instagram feed or watch a YouTube tutorial on dog training. The content is usually designed to show perfect execution, but what’s missing is the number of mistakes leading up to the production.

This is also where it’s good to acknowledge that everyone screws up while training puppies, just as they make mistakes when we are training them. Dog training might appear to be an exact science, but it’s not. Good, desirable behavior on their part and ours is a moving target, and this is no more evident than when you’re dealing with a youngster who is loaded with potential but has a long runway left to achieve it.

At this point, the best thing you can do for yourself and your dog is to adopt a hybrid training process that involves the tried-and-true obedience methods, while keeping a steady schedule and really trying to learn from your pup so that you know when he’s confused, or confident, or ready for the next challenge. This, despite all of the folks on Facebook who might weigh in on when your dog is ready for wild birds or maybe his first hunt, is the best way to actually know it.

This goes for all bird dogs and if you embrace the reality that you’ll make forgivable mistakes, you’ll see a lot of the puppy myths and misconceptions out there just don’t apply to you and your dog. They live in a world of absolutes, but you don’t. And neither does your pup.

hunter with lab
No one knows your puppy better than you. You should be confident in your timing as far as some of the decisions around when a first hunt should happen. (Photo By: Tony J. Peterson)
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