Physical discipline of canines is controversial and can lead to heated discussions.
There are laws against animal cruelty, many of which are constructive and necessary. Sometimes, however, animal rights folks go overboard and conflicts arise, some legitimate and others not. Conflicts often occur between them and caring animal owners, including dog owners, trainers, trialers and breeders.
I have an extensive library of outdoor books that cover hunting, fishing and related topics. A favorite dog training book is Charles Morgan on Retrievers, first published in 1968. It's honest and informative.
Morgan, a top professional trainer of retrievers for field trials, was asked what a trainer used for disciplining dogs. He first said, "Keep in mind that I hate to punish a dog." He continued by saying professional dog trainers use everything from electric prods to light bird shot fired at a distance from a small-gauge shotgun when "correcting" field-trial dogs. Thankfully, we've come a long way since then — remember, this book was first published in 1968 — and the modern e-collar has supplanted the more inhumane methods he mentioned.
Morgan also notes that since the field-trial judges are retriever owners themselves, it is they who set up trials that are so difficult that trainers must be extremely tough on the dogs to be competitive.
Asked about the most brutal kind of training, Morgan said, "It is to put off the more serious applications (of punishment) and just resort to constant nagging. I think that is the most brutal type of training because it will make a dog more unhappy than any other type."
Morgan spoke strongly against hollering and yelling at dogs, suggesting that often giving the dog a good "lick" is quicker and better. He recommended talking softly to dogs and letting them learn the tone of your voice in different learning situations.
"The secret of all punishment is that it must be sufficient to be effective, applied at the right time and only in the right amount," Morgan finished.
Over the years, I have seen trainers resort to all sorts of physical force when punishing their trainees. None of it was pretty, and more to the point, none of it was necessary. But that was the way it was done, or sometimes done, 30 to 35 years ago.
Nowadays, the e-collar is commonly used, but fortunately most professional and amateur trainers have learned to use e-collars differently from those in the past, and the collars themselves have become increasingly sophisticated instruments with a multitude of stimulation levels. If you're new to "the collar," you should consider paying a good professional trainer to instruct you on the proper way to utilize it.
One of the best ways to lessen the need to punish pup is to buy the right pup — one with the inherited instincts and characteristics to take training in stride and develop into a useful gun dog. Check with field trialers and serious hunters with good dogs and find out who the good breeders are. Check with local breeders, the American Kennel Club and magazines such as GUN DOG.
Generally you do as well by selecting a top breeder than by getting too crazy about picking a specific pup. The best breeders will have the best pups and they will do their best to match you with the right dog.
If you want to hunt, participate in hunt tests or compete in field trials, you should buy a field-bred dog. Buy from a successful breeder of field-bred dogs, and if he/she (or their pups) excel in their field, you will probably have a winner.
Pups from these litters will have hunting instinct, drive, curiosity, intelligence and a desire to please. Do not sell that last characteristic short; it often makes a huge difference and again, will lessen the need for punishment.
Housebreaking is a situation that can lead to frustration for you and pup. But you can avoid much of this frustration by crate training pup to both shorten the housebreaking process and to eliminate much of the physical discipline that is often the result of frustration or anger on the owner's part due to pup's "mistakes." Crate training is relatively simple and a smart pup will speed his learning as long as his owner follows the procedure properly and stays on schedule.
Training dogs is primarily a system of using repetition and consistency. While it is not rocket science, it is difficult because most of us do not want to put in the requisite time. It takes time to properly train a gun dog. Fact is, you will be reinforcing pup's training all throughout his life if you want to keep him sharp.
Yelling and shouting at dogs is unproductive, and only teaches pup to obey when you resort to hollering. We want compliance from pup with our first command. Make pup respond immediately.
"No" is the command that most pups learn first, and honestly, he will hear the word often. But rather than repeating "no, no, no," go to pup and move him away from doing the thing you want him to avoid.
A common punishment for young spaniels that do not respond to commands is to pick them up by the loose skin at the side of their neck, below the ears. It is a good way to show pup his mistake, yet does not hurt him. Even his mom picked pup up similarly and moved him when he disobeyed.
Many years ago a young fellow named Mike Galleli joined the Valley Forge Field Trial Association, a group I was very involved with at the time. Galleli was an absolute newbie but he certainly caught on quickly. Rather than holler at his dog or hit it, he either walked or ran to pup to correct errors.
Galleli repeated and repeated and repeated pup's lessons, both at weekly club gun dog training sessions and daily at home. Over and over he walked or ran to his dog, picked him up and carried pup back to the point of his infraction if necessary. He did not holler and he did not hit pup; he just repeated and repeated the lesson. He made sure to mix things up to keep pup's spirits up.
Galleli showed that a little knowledge applied properly does a lot of good. He also learned quickly and earned a number of ribbons with his first young dog. That was quite an achievement.
Occasionally a dog needs to be swatted, but only if he knows he did something wrong. If pup truly does not know he broke a rule, walk him to his former position but do not swat him.
Never call pup to you and then hit him when he comes; he'll think he is being punished for coming to your command. If pup knows he is wrong, run to pup and give him a swat with a lead across his lower back/hips — but go easy initially.
If pup willfully disobeys you once he's gotten a bit older and knows what you want, make your swat a bit harder, and if pup really ignored you knowingly, make it two swats and use a bit of vigor.
As much as possible try to save those harder, double swats for when you are training alone; don't beat your dog. Rather, add another day or two of training each week, add some repetitions and add some retrieves and other things pup is good at to keep him working cheerfully.
A North Carolina gentleman and top amateur dog trainer once said to me, "John, I punish my dogs the same way I did with my children, only as much as is absolutely necessary."