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How to Avoid Common Puppy Training Problems

Set your bird dog on the right course.

How to Avoid Common Puppy Training Problems

If the pedigree lines up with the hunting you’re asking a dog to do, it’s nearly a certainty that it’ll come in due time if you just do your part. (Photo By: Mike Clingan)

What dogs tell us, without saying a thing, could fill volumes. As the 2020 pheasant season in my home state of Minnesota came to a close, my old Lab, Luna, showed real signs of slowing down both in the field, and during the post-hunt recovery process. Past her peak at eight years old, I knew my half-hearted attempts to find a new recruit needed more effort.

This led to a spring puppy, and when Sadie came into our lives last spring, she represented a lot of things. She is the first puppy that my twin 10-year-olds will have a real hand in training, and hopefully, hunting over in a few years. Sadie also represented a blank slate, a fresh start. The chance to do things a little better, a little different, than we had with our last dog.

Like it is with all of us, this was tough for me to acknowledge. After all, every one of us owns the best, most irreplaceable dogs to ever hit the dirt. But, if you’re honest about dog performance, both in the field and throughout everyday life, it’s likely you’re not sitting on perfection. Peeking through the veil of our own biases toward our dogs, it’s obvious that there’s always something to improve on with puppies, which inevitably improves our bird dogs as they mature.

This is a reality for amateur handlers, like yours truly, as well as the professionals who might get their hands on dozens of dogs every single year. In fact, the folks in the latter category are the best resource from which to divine quality, actionable advice.


Too Young to Learn?  

You don’t have to look too hard to find husband and wife teams operating successful training and breeding businesses in the sporting dog space. One of the best examples of this type of partnership can be found at Best Retrievers, which is located just east of Austin, Texas. Rody Best, who is no stranger to training competition dogs to the point where they win blue ribbons with a frequency almost unmatched by other trainers, operates the kennel with his wife, Kristin.

Kristin, who I’ve had the pleasure to interview several times, is one of the most knowledgeable people on earth when it comes to giving puppies the best possible start. Honestly, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone more dedicated to being a student in the puppy game. Even so, she explained during a recent conversation that she still finds herself learning new things that help her understand how to mold puppy behavior. “I never treat trained really young puppies until a couple of years ago,” Best said. “I honestly didn’t think it would work on puppies as young as four weeks old, but I was wrong. Even though you have to understand how to use it in moderation, I quickly learned that I could get puppies motivated to offer me sits, downs, and all kinds of behavior.”

Taking puppies that have only been alive for a month and getting them to comply with commands and look you in the eyes is pretty incredible, but absolutely doable. It sets them up to not only work for rewards, but to look to you as a source of them as well. That’s no small thing, and it’s a great reminder that there probably is no such thing as “too early” when it comes to dog training.

how to avoid common puppy training problems
A well-bred pup's genetic potential will eventually show—be patient. (Photo By: Tony J. Peterson)

There is a flip side to this, of course. Best cautions against overuse of treat training and allowing the positives to blind you to the negatives. “This is no secret, but what we tolerate with little puppies will come back to haunt us. Barking, jumping, biting, and any other disrespectful behavior allows puppies to get our attention (that’s the point), so we often unintentionally reward this bad behavior by giving then exactly what they are looking for.”

The key to Best’s style is to understand and acknowledge that puppies, even really young puppies, are learning every day. What we ask of them and what we turn a blind eye to, all condition puppies to engage in specific kinds of behavior later in their lives. Some of which we want, and some of which we do not. Remember this, because every day you spend with your puppy, and every day your breeder spent with it before you ever picked it up, is a chance to mold behavior so it falls into the “win” column.


Two-Faced Handlers  

If you were to watch my daughters handle our pup, especially when I’m not around, you’d see a set of rules that are pretty loose. You’d also see a pup that knows full well that the rules are pretty loose, and she’d react accordingly. With me, you’d see more consistency and a higher standard, or to put it bluntly, a different set of rules.

Interview enough pro trainers, and you’ll hear a lot of justified complaining about this two-rule reality. Taking a dog that has learned one set of rules and then asking them to learn—and obey—a new set, and then switch between the two whenever required, is a losing proposition. There will be freedom creep from the less-stringent set of rules into the more stringent, and predictably, that creates problems.

how to avoid common puppy training problems
Consistency at home, and in the field, from the moment you pick up your new recruit is key to overall dog development. (Photo By: Tony J. Peterson)

What many of us don’t realize is that beyond the family dynamics, we do this to our hunting dogs as well. Michael DeLoach, who owns Livingston Gun Dogs Atlantic down in Georgia, is intimately familiar with this problem—a problem that almost always starts with puppies. “A lot of people think companionship comes in the house, and the mindless, robot performer comes in the field,” DeLoach said. “But there’s an imbalance there. This is why, with our puppies, they have to earn their freedom. We train—and hunt—with black and white consistency until they are at least two years old. The rules are the rules and it doesn’t matter what location we’re in, or what’s going on around us.”

This is a common issue with a lot of folks who allow young dogs too much freedom while at home, but suddenly demand near-perfection in the field. Dogs don’t know how to reconcile those two worlds, and they often become selfish because of it. This is not ideal and is avoidable if you understand that the rules you set in the house or other non-hunting situations, should mirror the rules you set in the field.

This is also, as DeLoach pointed out, tied to something he admits he learned after years of dog training. “We often focus on pulling hunting skills and a love of the game out too early with our pups. But if the bloodlines are right, that stuff always comes. It’s inherent in dogs, and they all have their own timeline with it.”

This point can’t be emphasized enough. If the pedigree lines up with the hunting you’re asking a dog to do, it’s nearly a certainty that it’ll come in due time if you just do your part. There’s no need to be hyper focused on hunting skills with pups, when there is so much to learn on the manners side of things. Naturally, you can’t ignore fostering prey drive and working toward hunting goals and skills, but stressing about them or pushing them too early is completely unnecessary and can be detrimental to a dog’s development.

Chill Out, Pup  

One of the things I love about our Lab pup is that watching her around the older dog is like watching a speedboat next to an aircraft carrier. The youngster is full of energy and always willing to work. But, one of the things I occasionally hate about her is that she’s full of energy and always willing to work. This is tied to the whole off-switch thing, and while I love having an excited dog in the field, it’s not always all that great in the house. Or while you’re training, depending on the lessons of the day.

It takes effort to get a young dog into the headspace where they are calm and ready to give you their (mostly) undivided attention. This is something that Jennifer Broome, owner of QK Dogs, which is based in Connecticut, has mastered. “One of the things I used to do is take dogs from their runs and try to maximize a training session in a set amount of time,” Broome said. “Then I’d put them back, take out a new one. Lather, rinse, repeat.”

This was Broome’s style until dog training legend, Rick Smith, introduced her to the patience chain. “I use to overwork dogs a lot of times, thinking we had to make the most of the allotted time we had to train,” she said. “Then I’d put it back in its run, and it would be overstimulated, and often, feed off its neighbor’s barking or whining. It wasn’t a relaxed environment.”

Now, Broome employs a patience chain, which is a line of stakes that allow each dog only about 18 inches of freedom. “They have no choice but to relax if they want to be comfortable,” Broome said. “They learn to be outside, to wait their turn, to not stress. It really rewires a dog for calmness instead of anxiety, which is a state they often live in when they are allowed to run amok in the house.”

how to avoid common puppy training problems
Consistency at home, and in the field, from the moment you pick up your new recruit is key to overall dog development. (Photo By: Mike Clingan)

Broome’s methods train dogs from a young age to adopt the kind of mindset everyone wants their hunting dogs to possess. This can be conditioned from a very young age, and sets the dog up to maximize every training opportunity, whether they last two minutes or 40. It also addresses one of the biggest issues that bird dogs face, which is steadiness. Even for the upland dog that will never taste a duck feather, steadiness is crucial to overall manners. So is a willing-to-work mindset, which is what the patience chain really conditions dogs for.

We often get blinded by the cuteness and the misplaced belief that puppies aren’t ready to really learn until they hit a certain age. What we’re learning, largely through the experience of professional trainers, is that this is simply not true. Each pup, from the moment it’s born, is learning by the day. If we acknowledge that and use it properly, we can give our future bird dogs an amazing head start. This naturally results in heavier game bags later in life, but the biggest value might just be that we set our dogs up to learn to work with us, behave the way we want at home and in the field, and come much closer to reaching their true potential as amazing companions.

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