Skip to main content Skip to main content

The Problem with Overtraining Your Dog

All work and no play makes most retrievers shut down.

The Problem with Overtraining Your Dog

Breaks are necessary for both young and seasoned dogs so they associate training with fun. (Photo By: GUN DOG)

Overtraining is a unique issue. We often think about it as if someone has worked and worked their retriever to the point where its skills erode, or the dog physically can’t function, but that’s not what happens in most cases.

In reality, overtraining happens when any one of us goes beyond our dog’s attention threshold in any given training session. This is almost never tied to hours upon hours of training but can instead happen in a matter of a few minutes if you’re working a young-enough dog.

Knowing this, I always take a few things into account while planning a session with any dog. For starters, the length and difficulty of every training session is tied directly to the age and attention span of the dog with which I’m working. Overtraining an eight-week-old puppy will look different from a two-year old dog, but the effects will be similar (and they are never good).

It’s also imperative to monitor the dog throughout each session, to keep a close eye on body language (more on this later), and always build in plenty of fun breaks. This last one is the key to never overdriving your headlights when it comes to what a dog is good for on any given day.

Break Time

Dogs are individuals, but they all need training breaks. This goes for low-drive dogs, absolute burners, and everything in-between. When you’re setting up a training session, in addition to factoring in your dog’s age and drive level, you’ve got to factor in how often it’ll need to cut loose a little bit.

This is a tactic taken straight from the best elementary school teachers who have learned to break up a mundane math lesson with something silly and fun. For dogs, this mostly looks like just a little free time.

I build a lot of breaks into every training session and mark that time with an “okay” command. When I say it, the dog knows that it’s time to have some fun. This can be as simple as a little walk off-lead to run and sniff, or it could be that I’ll toss a few fun dummies for the dog. You can really think of this as a small reset moment to allow the dog to get its head right.

dog training taking a break with a yellow labrador retriever
Give your dog a command or a cue so they know it’s time for a break. (Photo By: GUN DOG)

Now, this is not a license for your dog to break a bunch of rules you’ve worked hard to establish in your training. For example, let’s say you’ve got a one-year-old retriever that is really coming along in steadiness training, delivers to hand very nicely, and generally shows you what a good retrieve should look like.

In that case, you don’t want to toss a fun bumper while letting the dog break, and then not demand that he deliver directly to your hand. A fun break should not contain a different set of rules when it comes to the tasks you’re training for, because if it does, the dog is going to default to the more relaxed set. This is also why it’s a good idea to plan the fun around something that isn’t always directly related to the training you’re currently working on.

The goal with a break is to let the dog reset and provide a platform for him to come back to work with a good attitude. If he doesn’t, you know something is wrong.


Finding Balance Through Body Language

One thing that professional trainers have that amateurs simply do not, is the ability to read dogs’ body language very well. This simply comes from experience, and it’s invaluable when you’re trying to get the most out of a wide variety of dogs.

For the amateur handler, it’s impossible to work with dozens and dozens of dogs every week for years. But that doesn’t mean you can’t become a real student of your dog. These training sessions with built-in breaks allow you to do just that, because you’ll be constantly monitoring your retriever’s behavior.

For example, let’s say you have a six-month old Lab and you decide to do a 10-minute session on obedience. You might break that up with three or four different breaks depending on the dog’s attention span. If you see after the second break that the dog is somewhat shut down, not looking you in the eyes, and just not crisp, you know that there’s something wrong. He should show up to work and appear excited and ready to learn. If he doesn’t, all evidence points to the reality that the training session was too much or the break was not enough, and it’s time to call it, or change up the plan.

This is where a lot of folks get into trouble. Instead of reacting to what the dog is telling them, they think it’s time for more discipline to make the dog do what they want. There is a time for discipline, but that is when a dog knows exactly what to do, and then chooses to do something else. In this case, the dog is simply telling you that, for whatever reason, it has mentally checked out.

dog training taking a break with a yellow labrador retriever
Providing enough rest periods will ensure your dog doesn’t hit the wall with burnout. (Photo By: GUN DOG)

The more you work these types of sessions with built-in breaks, the more you learn to read exactly when your dog has hit that point. And more importantly, will be able to predict when that moment could show up, and get ahead of it to keep your dog engaged and working toward your mutual goals. That’s the sweet spot, and it’s achievable for everyone.

Of course, it’s also necessary to ensure that every training session is set up to help the dog succeed. There’s a difference between a retriever working in a comfortable environment and suddenly hitting the wall with its attitude, versus taking a dog to a distraction-filled park and expecting him to perform for the first time. In the latter case, it won’t be the need for a few breaks that will keep him in the game, because you won’t be able to overcome the environment until he has worked his way into that ability and mindset.


All work and no play is not good. A lot of people would be surprised at how many breaks I allow the dogs I train to take, but they need it. They need to associate fun with each training session, and I need them to want to work. In fact, each session I do, regardless of the dog, starts and ends with fun. I bookend those sessions with something the dog loves to do, so that when they show up they are excited, and when we wrap things up, they are happy. In-between they will do plenty of work for me, but they’ll also get multiple opportunities to set the math book down and head out for a mini-recess.

It’s a really good idea to look at your own dog, and your own summertime training plan this way. You’ll be surprised at how well your dog advances through off-season obedience work and training drills if you just give him enough breaks throughout each working session.

To Continue Reading

Go Premium Today.

Get everything Gun Dog has to offer. What's Included

  • Receive (6) 120-page magazines filled with the best dog training advice from expert trainers

  • Exclusive bird dog training videos presented by Gun Dog experts.

  • Complete access to a library of digital back issues spanning years of Gun Dog magazine.

  • Unique editorial written exclusively for premium members.

  • Ad-free experience at GunDogMag.com.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Sign In or start your online account

Get the Newletter Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Gun Dog articles delivered right to your inbox.

Phone Icon

Get Digital Access.

All Gun Dog subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit mymagnow.com and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now
Dog jumping out of phone with Gun Dog website in the background
Make the Jump to Gun Dog Premium

Gun Dog Premium is the go-to choice for sporting dog owners and upland hunting enthusiasts. Go Premium to recieve the follwing benefits:

The Magazine

Recieve (6) 120-page magazines filled with the best dog training advice from expert trainers.

Training Videos

Exclusive bird dog training videos presented by Gun Dog experts.

Digital Back Issues

Complete access to a library of digital back issues spanning years of Gun Dog magazine.

Exclusive Online Editorial

Unique editorial written exclusively for premium members.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Sign In or Start your online account

Go Premium

and get everything Gun Dog has to offer.

The Magazine

Recieve (6) 120-page magazines filled with the best dog training advice from expert trainers.

Training Videos

Exclusive bird dog training videos presented by Gun Dog experts.

Digital Back Issues

Complete access to a library of digital back issues spanning years of Gun Dog magazine.

Exclusive Online Editorial

Unique editorial written exclusively for premium members.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Sign In or Start your online account