We’ve occasionally discussed the idea of seeking the help of a professional trainer. Maybe you have a great young dog but don’t have access to good training areas, birds, boats or other expensive equipment needed to do the job. Maybe your work schedule doesn’t allow the time for daily training sessions and repetitive drills.
A professional trainer can be a great option, but you need to do your research. Choosing the correct trainer for the type and level of training you are after is critical. A fancy sign out front does not ensure expertise—accomplishments and reputation do.
Where do you start to look for help? One good place would be the folks you bought your pup from, as they very likely know good trainers or may even take in dogs for training themselves.
Another great way to find good dog people is at dog clubs and events where dogs like yours are tested for their hunting skills. You not only see which dogs/trainers excel; you get a better fix on the standards of performance expected of them. Many hunters are amazed when they see the level a good dog can reach when it is well trained.
When you identify a trainer who interests you, see if you can set up a time to call or visit with them. Find out your options, talk about what they expect of you and what you can expect of them. This is the only way to find someone you like and have confidence in.
If any are short with you or cause you to feel foolish, thank them for their time and move on. Good trainers not only know dogs; they understand and appreciate their clients and are happy to help you with your decision.
Most trainers are also happy to demonstrate other dogs they have in training, give you a quick evaluation of your dog and talk you through how their program works, including costs. For gun dog training and board nowadays, expect $600 a month and up, and remember most kennels add on for birds, vet fees, etc. So be sure all costs are discussed in detail before signing on.
The next questions are, what age are we talking about? What’s the best time to turn your dog over to a trainer?
When you’re considering help with foundation training—heel, sit, kennel, come when called—most gun dog trainers like dogs coming in to be at least 5-6 months old, and many like them to be a little older.
Nowadays, the trained retrieve is often started as soon as the pup has its adult teeth, around the fifth month.
Granted, we all know “training” starts as early as two months, but mostly in the form of socialization and exposure to the hunting environment. So we might think getting our pup to a trainer early is an advantage, but what about value?
With younger pups, you can’t expect to see measurable progress from week to week. Granted, there is valuable progress, but it’s not as evident.
Assuming a good quality dog, correctly socialized and comfortable with his work environment, you’re safer using six months as an age when you actually begin pro training. At this point progress is more evident, and you’ll have a better sense of value.
When talking with trainers, discuss options. Maybe you start the pup, turn it over to them for the “hard core stuff,” then maintain and finish the work yourself. Most trainers would be glad to work with you on a program like this. It makes their job easier and gives you a better working relationship. Next to completely training the dog yourself, this might be your best choice.
At any rate, the best age depends on your ability and desire to train, how far you want the dog to go, and your wallet.
If you have an older dog with a specific problem, call your trainer right away to explain your problem. Most trainers will need time to fit you in.
Don’t expect to send old Fido down for a couple of days or a week for a “patch job.” Many problems arise from shortcuts in early training; the safest way to correct issues is going back to basics and working through the concepts.
When you do this the problem often disappears but if it does not, the tools are in place to make corrections the dog understands. Don’t expect a quick fix; a seemingly simple problem can take months to correct.
Look for a person who is familiar with your breed and the birds you typically hunt. Another possibility is someone in your area who is not a professional but is skilled and might agree to help you with your dog. They may even spend more time with you and your dog than a pro who is working several dogs.
In either case, visit their kennel, see some dogs worked and if you’re satisfied, talk business.
GETTING YOUR PUP READY
The more you do with a young dog, the better prepared it will be. Above all, spend time in the field or on walks;, don’t let him go sour in the kennel. Often a “kennel shy” dog has developed problems you can never totally overcome.
Other areas of help are in exposing the dog to birds, water, and gunfire. (We have covered these topics in past issues of GUN DOG and will do so again.) When you bring a dog to a trainer with this level of exposure, he is ready to go to work with a minimum of preparation. This saves you money.
Being honest with the trainer when discussing problem areas is a big help. We all know the perfect dog doesn’t exist. Trainers continually wonder why people bring them “wonder dogs” with nothing wrong. “For brush up,” they say, or “Needs work on his retrieving.”
This makes the trainer’s job more difficult, trying to find out where the big “hole” is in the dog’s training. It’s better to tell all you know up front—and save the trainer some valuable time—as he will eventually find out anyway.
A good part of the first month involves the trainer and dog getting to know each other. During this time the dog is being evaluated, and most trainers reserve the right to return dogs who are overly aggressive or lack potential.
Before leaving your dog, be sure you and your trainer understand what you expect. Talk about where you hunt, what you hunt, and how you hunt. They need to know what you expect of them and what you think the dog should be doing on completion of his stay at the training kennel. Explain that you would like some instructions in handling, especially near the end of formal training so there’s a smooth transition from the trainer to you.
During the first month of training you’re not likely to gain much by coming to see your dog, but into the second month you should expect some progress. When you visit, your dog may not seem to recognize you and might be very attentive to the trainer, but don’t let this bother you; it only shows the trainer is doing their job.
While your dog is in training, remember a good trainer is a busy person so don’t make a nuisance of yourself. Never simply drop in, but call first to make an appointment. There are other clients to consider as well as the trainer’s schedule for the day.
On the other hand, when it comes time to pick up your dog, plan your schedule to spend an afternoon working through drills and scenarios with your trainer at your side. As mentioned earlier, make sure you have a good working knowledge of all commands, cues, etc.
I suggest you ask questions, even make notes and sketches, as there is a bunch to remember. But don’t worry, your dog will help you through it all.
Make a commitment to maintain the level of training your dog has reached, and even plan to move it along. You must continue reinforcing what he’s learned or all can be lost.
Most trainers encourage you to call and are happy to help with suggestions if you have problems.
I’m sure you’ll find not only a well-trained dog to be proud of but a lasting friendship with your trainer, as they pride themselves in your success.
Remember, the best hunting teams possess a deep understanding and respect for each other, gained in part during time spent training. So try it yourself first, but don’t overlook the professional trainer as a very sound option.