One of the biggest questions I ask myself as a professional dog trainer is: What is the skill-retention level on dogs that we send home after we’ve trained them? The answer, of course, varies a lot. Skillsets aren’t homogenous across a group of sporting dogs any more than training skills equally transcend individual dog owners.
While that’s pretty obvious, it doesn’t really answer the question of how much the dogs we’ve handled retain the lessons we’ve instilled in them. This is a tricky one, because retention isn’t simply what a dog knows, but what a dog does with what he knows. That might sound complicated, but in reality, we’ve all witnessed this with our dogs, where we know for sure they understand a command but for one reason or another, they don’t obey it.
This can be a minor thing in a dog’s life, or it can be a major issue. A great way to experience the latter is to pay a professional trainer to work with your dog for a few months, and then bring the dog home without following through on the commands, handling style, and corrections. You’ll see an erosion in those recently acquired skills, which brings us full circle to the point of this piece: What is the best way to uphold your end of the bargain when it comes to working with a professional trainer?
This isn’t as difficult of a question to answer as it sounds, but it does take a commitment to the process. Just like it does for us when we are getting our hands on a dog for the first time.
Even with a limited time window to work on our clients’ dogs, it’s important for myself and my team of trainers to help each dog through a series of simple steps that involves obedience fundamentals, then off-leash work, and lastly, drills in the field. Throughout this step-by-step process, we set an example that once the dog demonstrates a clear understanding of a command, a specific behavior has to be shown each time we give it. This eliminates any mixed signals we might send to the dog.
Throughout our time with our clients’ dogs, we are working on establishing a set of behaviors that will not only aid them in the upland fields and in the duck blinds, but at home and throughout their lives as house pets. At the end of the training program, each dog we handle will have acquired these skills, which can become permanent, but you’ll have to do your part to make sure they are absolutely set in stone for the duration of the dog’s life.
While it’s important for pro trainers to change or mold a dog’s behavior, it’s also important for us to help our clients understand how their behavior affects the dog. One of the times this is most evident is when the client comes to see their dog after it has been with us for training. The first question we’ll be asked is, “When can I pet my dog?”
This is understandable, because they haven’t seen their four-legged buddy in a while, and they miss him. Instead of giving them the green light to love up on their dog right away, I tell them to take the leash and act more distant than they normally would. This might sound a little harsh, but what it does is send the signal to the dog that you’re the leader and that it’s not playtime. Dogs are incredibly intuitive, and it doesn’t take long for them to understand that the old rules may no longer apply, which is important.
This sets the stage for us to hand the reins off to the owner, which is something we do with every single person who hires us to train for them. Because we’ve trained the dog in a specific way and the dog knows how to respond to not only our verbal commands, but also the inflection in our voices and our body language. It’s a necessity that we teach that to the owners, so they can follow-through once the dog is back home and in the environment from which he came.
After all of this, you’ve got about 30 days to make sure the lessons stick.
Do Your Homework
When you pull up into your driveway after picking up your dog, resist the urge to let the family throw him a welcome party. In fact, the best way to treat a dog once you arrive home is to get him on leash and go through all of the new commands. This sets the tone that even though the environment has changed, the expectations haven’t.
Further, you’ll want everyone in your family who is old enough to handle the dog to understand that. Your bird dog is going to be looking hard at this new situation to see when he can get away with taking the leadership role back, or when he can slip on his duties, and if everyone who handles him isn’t on the same page, he’ll find the opportunity to slip.
This doesn’t mean you’ll experience a seamless transition and won’t have to correct your dog, because you probably will. What level of correction to issue is important here, and should have been laid out by the pro trainer while you were at their kennel. Again, this only works if everyone knows what to do when a correction is needed.
And remember, your professional trainer will be there for you after you take your dog home. If you have questions or don’t understand how to proceed, please reach out to the trainer for some advice. No one is going to be able to get you on track quicker than the person who has just spent several months with your dog.
Word of mouth is the number-one sales tool for professional dog trainers, and that means we want to see your dog succeed not only while it’s in our hands, but after it goes home. A well-behaved dog in the neighborhood park or in the duck boat is the best way for us to keep our business going strong, and it has the welcome benefit of keeping our clients happy with the services they paid for.
This doesn’t happen with the wave of a magic dog-training wand. It happens through teamwork between us and our clients, and a commitment on both of our parts to do what is necessary for the dog’s development.