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Stop Teaching Your Gun Dog These Bad Habits

It's all fun and games until your dog is learning hard-to-break-habits.

Stop Teaching Your Gun Dog These Bad Habits
Emily Tucker Photo

A dog (or anybody) acquires a new learned behavior, because whatever pays off is the thing that will be repeated. Knowing that will work well for training the dog to do the good things you want, but seemingly, it works even better for teaching the things you don’t want.

Jumping Conundrum

Chronologically, the first annoying thing your dog does is jump up on you. Then we resort to harsh methods of correction like a knee in his chest or stepping on the hind toes. Wouldn’t it be better if the pup had not been actually trained to jump up on people? The scenario goes like this: We visit the litter when they are five weeks old. Because the pups are getting mobile, they are enclosed in a portable corral. A pup approaches the fence and we lean over, enticing the pup to stand on its hind legs so we can pet it. Others, seeing the attention Pup One is getting, join in, and soon all of the pups are climbing over each other to get their share of rewarding attention. The whole litter just learned that if you want attention, jump up and you will be rewarded. They are not yet weaned, and they have already learned their first bad habit.

It’s All Fun and Games Until...

At 10 weeks or so, pups arrive at their new home and soon learn how to be obsessively possessive of retrieve objects. We buy toys for the pup, among which is a colorful knotted rope for tug-of-war games. Why not, these games tire the kids out and give the dog exercise. We then toss the rope, and the pup runs and gets it and returns for you to grab the dangling end and tug some more. It’s ok if it is a rope, but it soon will be the pheasant getting longer and thinner—the one you wanted to eat. Your dog was nicely trained to do that.

If tug-of-war isn’t fun enough, a game of keep-away ensues. The pup runs around the dining room table with a toy in its mouth while you laugh and chase him. Keeping the object away from you is great rewarding fun, so it happens more frequently. Six months later, the toy is a mallard you just shot. The fun of the chase and the excitement of you yelling and sloshing after him is still just as much rewarding fun. In one fell swoop, your dog has learned to be possessive with game as well as a toy. All you can do is to start retrieve training all over again from the beginning and mask the possessive stuff. That is not easy.


Had you anticipated what tug-of-war would lead to, you would have carefully taught the dog to give up his treasure immediately and instantly on command to prevent the dog from learning possessiveness in the first place.


Training Mistakes

To speed things along, you use a treat reward each time the dog brings the retrieve object to you. What does that teach your dog? After a few retrieves with the food reward coming at the delivery, the dog anticipates the food as he approaches you, bumper in mouth. He is thinking food, so he starts to drool and move the bumper around in his mouth, or maybe even chew on it. Translate to a real shot bird, and you see a monster appearing in a dog that rolls birds around in his mouth, or even chews them. Nice relaxing retrieve of a palatable bird? Not likely. You are back to square one on retrieve training.

We have all seen demonstrations of a dog “pointing” a wing being twitched in the grass by the attached string. There is even at least one whole book written on it. What does that teach a highly impressionable, sponge-brained pup? “I see it and I pose like this and everyone says ooh and aww and wow.” If the wing is still, the pup loses interest and starts to move in or quit until it is twitched again and recaptures his attention. Real pointing is stopping on scent of a bird, not sight of it, and locating a bird by sense of smell, not vision. So, instead of pointing on scent, he stops and creeps in, trying to see the bird and looking for the twitch of the string. To stop the creeping, because the trainer created it and rewarded it and so created the problem, he goes out and buys a $300 e-collar to shock the dog every time it creeps in. It doesn’t take much, and the sensitive dog is now blinking birds because he gets shocked when he smells a bird and wants to see it. Harder dogs might not suffer the same fate but have other problems all their own. Doing the wing-pointing thing one time is not at all smart. Doing it repeatedly is inordinately stupid.

Be aware and anticipate what the fun-and-games thing can lead to, unless you take steps up front to neutralize the damage that certainly will come if you don’t.

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