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Family Training: How to Get Everyone on the Same Dog Training Page

Raising a gun dog that doubles as a family pet means getting the entire household in agreement.

Family Training: How to Get Everyone on the Same Dog Training Page

The best way to encourage your family to take more ownership of the dog training responsibilities is to fully explain the goals of each lesson and make sure everyone is bought into the process (Tony J. Peterson photo)

I recently had a conversation with a well-known retriever trainer about our new Lab puppy, Sadie, that is running rampant through our household. He told me that she should not have access to toys, or anything that it can pick up and carry around that it’s not supposed to.

In response, I mentioned that I’ve got two 9-year-old girls at home and that trying to keep everything that Sadie isn’t supposed to have access to away from her would be about like trying to teach her to fly. It’s not gonna happen. The best I can do is try to minimize the damage and remind my girls, roughly 3,000 times each day, how to set our little pupster up for success.

A Family Affair

It’s also a reminder to curate dog training advice that best fits your personal situation. I think we’ve missed this to some extent in the bird dog industry because our focus usually centers on the hunting skill side of things. But our dogs have other roles, arguably bigger roles, if you factor in days in the field versus at home. This might mean that the advice you get from someone, while valuable to the retiree with unlimited free time and the ability to head to South Dakota for three weeks of pheasant hunting, isn’t applicable to you. You might be juggling full-time work while trying to get your busy family on the same dog-work page as you are to reap the biggest benefits possible out of highly limited training time.

young girl with two Labrador retrievers
Everyone wants their family involved in the proper development of a dog, but when it comes to kids, it’s always best to gauge their interest in training to proceed with the right plan. (Tony J. Peterson photo)

This isn’t always so simple. According to Wisconsin dog trainer and father of four young children, Jordan Horak, this often involves gauging a child’s interest to see if they want to be involved in shaping a puppy into becoming a good dog in the first place. “When my daughter was little, she showed interest in dogs,” Horak said. “So, I gave her a dog, and allowed her to start working with it. I also helped, of course, but it was partially her responsibility.”

Just a few years later, that little lady is handling her English cockers really well, and Horak’s sons are now starting to get into the game, too. “My boys really weren’t interested in the dogs at first, but now my 10-year-old is. We’ve made a deal where if he can show me he can handle a pup, the dog will be his—and he’s all about it.”

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

You might be thinking that it’s fine for a professional trainer with Horak’s skills to involve the family, but what if your paycheck doesn’t depend on churning out well-behaved dogs? The truth is, if you’ve got a family and a pup, everyone is responsible for that dog. Each member of your crew is a trainer at some level, and that means it’s worth trying to get everyone working toward the same goals.

This might involve a daily floor check to puppy-proof the house and make sure all of the Chapstick tubes, hairbrushes, and yogurt wrappers are cleaned up. Or it might be, if your kids are old enough, an effort to explain the training process and why you do things a certain way.

For example, my little girls love working with Sadie on the “place” command, mostly because it’s more fun than “sit” or “lay down.” It’s also the foundation of a good duck dog because it involves steadiness, which my girls are learning about. They are also learning why we use a check cord in certain situations and why we don’t just rile the puppy up and then walk away.

young girl with Labrador puppy and a wing on a string
Dog training should be fun for the trainer, no matter the age or experience level. This is the key to keeping everyone interested, as long as it works for the dog as well. (Tony J. Peterson photo)

This is not meant to imply that Sadie won’t learn there are different rules for different family members, because she will. This is one of the things you’re supposed to avoid but is also damn near impossible. It’s also, as Horak points out, often not a big deal. “Dogs adapt to different people, and that’s actually a good thing. They know who they are working for, and they don’t just default to the worst common handler like it’s so common to assume.”

Horak also says that it’s really up to us as individuals to ask specific behaviors out of our dogs, and work with them until we get it. A common example of this would be a dog that walks at heel nicely on a leash for dad but pulls like crazy when one of the kids is trying to walk it. This is the kid’s issue and needs to be addressed just the same way dad worked on it. It might be something that is easily remedied through proper training, or maybe the child isn’t ready to walk the dog yet. In this case, it’s unfair to both the child and the dog to ask them to pair up for a walk.

young girl with Lab puppy on dock
Water work is a great outlet for kids to play a part in training the family gun dog. (Tony J. Peterson photo)

A Time to Play and a Time to Train

It’s also important to differentiate between training and playing. One of the joys of having a puppy is getting on the floor with it and just messing around, but that’s not training. When training happens, whether it’s a 20-second lesson or something a little more dedicated like the start of water introduction, that’s when the playing stops for dogs and humans alike.

Kids have a hard time with this, because just like the puppy, their focus stinks. It’s not their fault, but it is our responsibility as primary handlers to address this. With my daughters, for example, they’ll help me work the old dog and the pup for maybe 10 minutes before it’s time for them to run off and play. Then, I’ll take a little more time to devote to the dogs, either together or separately, to run through some obedience work or other skills.

This allows all two- and four-legged participants to be invested in the process without getting overwhelmed, which is something Horak advises. “The key to really training as a family and getting the most out of a dog is to make sure everyone is bought into the long-game process, which should be fun and educational.”

young girl with Labrador puppy
Raising a puppy is supposed to be fun as well, so be sure to make time to share the sheer joy a puppy brings. (Tony J. Peterson photo)

Horak’s right, of course. The process of training a dog never really ends, although it changes drastically from when they are three months to three years and older. It’s also one of the best parts of life to watch a young pup develop into a well-mannered dog, especially if you’ve got the help of a couple of your own pups throughout the process.

young girl with Lab puppy in field
The process of developing a puppy into a well-mannered dog that loves to hunt is a long one, but so rewarding. This only gets better when everyone in your family is invested in the process and takes an active role in it. (Tony J. Peterson photo)
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