April 24, 2021
Puppies represent the raw material after all, and it’s the lessons you teach and the decisions you make that chart a puppy’s course through its formative first year. At Ronnie Smith Kennels, we firmly believe that a puppy’s first year is critical, and in that first year, we as trainers must help shape a dog’s response to new experiences, to stimuli, and to the stresses inherent in learning new behaviors. For that reason, let’s dig deeper into some do’s and don’ts, remembering that the journey of developing your bird dog begins the moment your new pup comes home.
Picking a puppy is essentially an academic exercise. It requires research and objectivity, and a hard look at what you hope to get from your bird dog down the line. The genetic potential should be in place, and now the more subtle work falls on your shoulders: it is time to start teasing out that potential and shaping behavior. Each step in that puppy’s development moves it closer to becoming the bird dog of your dreams.
Developing Desirable Traits
We are of the mind that formal training should not really begin until a dog is around a year of age. This does not mean, however, that the first year does not require intentional planning. Think of the first year as the time during which you can set your puppy up for both a successful training experience and a successful career in the field. Think about the first year as the period during which you both bring out the desirable natural tendencies that the breeding produced, and during which you identify and re-shape less desirable natural tendencies that might make training a challenge. Ideally, at the end of the puppy stage you will have a well-rounded, confident, and healthy-minded individual that is ready to become an adult.
So, what does this actually look like in real life? There are some basic practices that you can incorporate into your life with your pup that will help develop the traits that you desire. Consider the following:
Teach your puppy to be receptive to instruction. This begins as soon as the pup comes home. Remember, a new puppy is a baby and requires steering. It needs to know that it cannot chew certain items, cannot poop or pee in the home, cannot leave the crate until invited to do so. You can build in a basic reward system through the use of treats early on by ensuring that your dog is treated and praised when the desirable behavior has been displayed. You can also set up situations that will help your pup develop cognitive reasoning skills. For example, if your pup tries to leave the crate without being told to do so, simply close the crate door as he tries to exit. This creates a gentle tap on the nose and physical barrier against his leaving. Eventually, he will wait with the door open, acknowledging that the desired behavior is to wait until told to exit. Be creative but isolate each behavior you teach your dog. Be sure to ask yourself “If I see this behavior in the field or during bird work in a year’s time, am I going to like it?” Remember that anything your dog does outside of the hunting field, he will likely do while hunting as well.
Building on the previous lessons, teach your puppy how to be calm when appropriate. Basically, you need to help your dog develop that good ol’ on/off switch. This requires clear and consistent expectations, and patient reminders of what is expected. In our experience, the best way to establish these expectations is by crate training, using place training in the house, teaching him to wait at a door/gate, wait calmly for food, etc. These teaching tools make it possible for your puppy to pause and be calm. Remember, in teaching this skill you as the trainer must maintain a calm disposition as well. Your own energy can telegraph easily to your puppy.
Boundaries & Manners
Set your puppy up to grow into a dog that people will enjoy being around as an adult by teaching it boundaries and manners. These lessons are quite straightforward: don’t ever allow biting, jumping, eating human food, begging, etc. All that is required to teach these lessons is clarity, consistency, and vigilance. Every time you let something slide, you undermine the structure that your puppy depends upon.
Aspire to develop a mindset that is calm, confident, and rational in any environment. This is accomplished by safely exposing young dogs to new environments regularly. Expect your pup to maintain his manners in new environments. If you want your bird dog to be successful in a variety of hunt settings, he needs to be able to eat in unfamiliar settings surrounded by unfamiliar stimuli. He needs to be comfortable traveling in any vehicle, to handle the stress of change, and to assess a new situation/environment and react calmly and rationally. A bird dog that can perform in any situation is typically an individual that has the ability to “bounce back” in new situations (i.e.: recognize a new situation, apply his previous experiences to deal with that stress and then react in a predictable, positive way). This ability is developed by exposure to a variety of experiences and settings.
It is important that your pup becomes comfortable in the environments in which you expect him to perform in. Take your pup out to fields, brushy areas, dense grouse woods—whatever type of terrain that you want him to excel in. A manicured backyard is not the optimal place to develop a dog that uses his nose to navigate and is willing to move through dense cover in pursuit of game.
Develop your pup’s natural retrieve at an early age. Dogs that do not retrieve or even carry things in their mouths as pups are much less likely to want to retrieve as adults. You can use soft toys thrown in a hallway to get some reps in the house. Be sure to praise and encourage the retrieve and hold instinct, and NEVER chase or play tug-o-war.
Develop a good recall. There are several ways to accomplish this, but make sure the recall is established and as reliable as possible before the work of formal training begins. A dog with a good recall can be safely managed in the field and enables the trainer/owner the confidence to let the dog stretch out a bit.
Give your pup good bird exposure without expectations or human interference. This can be delivered with pen-raised birds or with natural wild-bird encounters. Remember that the goal here is to let your pup react to birds in an instinctual way. There is no right or wrong, though it is important that the bird encounters not be traumatic. A tiny puppy and a squawking rooster may not be the best combination for a first encounter. Allow puppies to chase and/or mouth birds; don’t try to choreograph the encounter and let the natural prey instinct catch fire.
When thinking about puppies, it is valuable to think less about the specific lessons that you teach, and more about the process of creating a positive learning environment and a durable, balanced mind. A puppy is really just clay in your hands, and with gentle and thoughtful handling it will eventually take the shape of a fully formed bird dog.