You've done everything right. You did your homework. Started with a well-bred pup. Made sure it was properly socialized. Insisted on primary obedience.
Either you or a pro of your choice put it through basic training the first year. Then you followed that up with enough advanced training during the second year that you have a technically finished, handling retriever. The net result is you and your buddy have nothing but good things to look forward to.
Then life happens.
Family, career, and other interests take priority. And without realizing it, time for Buddy comes only at a premium. The good news isâ€¦thanks to youâ€¦Buddy has become a solid citizen. Happy in the house, in the kennel or in the field, he or she is a big part of your everyday life.
That said, the question that gnaws at you is, "Are weâ€¦ Buddy and Iâ€¦ getting all we can out of our time together?" The honest answer is, "Probably not."
So how, exactly, can you rectify that situation? More hunting is the obvious answer, but maybe not the most practical given time constraints. But more trainingâ€¦maybe more training occurs to youâ€¦is the answer.
If so, why and how? Well, let's consider the reasons and count the ways.
A Matter Of Perspective
As for the whys, there are two perspectives, yours and Buddy's. Since he can't speak for himself let's start by taking a look at training through the dog's eyes. As much as Buddy seems happy to simply be fed, experience your occasional loving touch and look into your eyes for unspoken approval; it's the work the dog was born and bred to do that he lives for.
To deny your buddy the opportunity for regular workâ€¦no matter how unintentionalâ€¦is to do him or her a great disservice. Because it's only when doing what he so dearly loves to do, as much as he can, that the critter is at his happiest, healthiest best.
Remember too, that just as with us, learning is a lifelong process for Buddy. Each handle, each find, each retrieve, each bird contact builds toward the ultimate goal of helping your gun dog be all he can be.
Then finally, since regular exercise is critical to the animal's overall well-being, it only makes sense in our ever-busier world to provide it in combination with effective training sessions.
From the owner's perspective nothing cements the bond between a man and his dog more than working with him. Whether it's hunting, playing the doggy games or "just" training — team-building activities all — it takes both of you to get the job done. The more you and Buddy work together, the better teammates you'll become.
Then there are the economics to consider. Owning and maintaining a gun dog is not inexpensive. And we're not talking just dollars and cents. All other soul-soothing benefits of ownership aside, it's only when working with Buddy and seeing his or her absolutely joyful, single-minded drive and purpose, something we all can surely learn from when it comes to valuing what's really important in life, that we can maximize our unquantifiable return on investment.
So when it's all said and done it's really a matter of time. A dog's life span being what it is (too short), you really have too little time together at best. If lifelong training is what it takes to make the most of it, why the heck not?
The Right Answer
That's the question I posed to Jim and Judy Powers, the two most experienced retriever enthusiasts I know. With a lifetime of field trialing that's produced eight FC/AFC's, 37 national event qualifications, and one two-time national amateur champion for them, they've long been my go-to guys when I have questions about training.
It's like Jim said, "Sure, a nine-year-old dog can't 'go' like a two-year-old. But because he's been continually and effectively trained, he can go BETTER."
"A lot of competitive dogs," Judy was quick to add, "actually peak at eight to 10 years of age, ability-wise. And it should be no different with a gun dog." Point made. Point taken.
Gettin' It Done
So the next question is, how to get it done? How can you give Buddy the training that'll let him be all he can be? Well, there are a number of options.
First off, you can do the training yourself. But going solo is a tough road to hoe. Being pretty much limited to running blind retrievers and conditioning sessions unless you enlist a helper or employ a remote winger to throw marks, training alone can be so time-consuming that it becomes a real drag, even to the point where you won't do it as much as you should.
Often the most fun way to go about your dog's training is to hook up with a group of like-minded individuals. Whether it's just getting together with a couple of buddies now and then, or joining a local retriever club and participating in its slightly more regimented sessions, be prepared to pull your weight, do your part in helping set up training scenarios, throwing birds and supplying some of the equipment, (blinds, bumpers, radios, etc.). And most importantly, be prepared to learn.
In every group there are those who are more experienced, more knowledgeable than others. Tune into these folks. Listen to what they have to say. Watch what they do. Your dog will be much the better for it.
Signing up for organized, structured, pro trainer-sponsored training sessions is another option. The cost is nominal. And the benefit of these professionally-supervised workouts can make it a bargain, especially in terms of the allocation of our precious personal time. The only drawback is the sometimes classroom-like formality, which makes it something that's simply not for everyone.
Working for a pro, trading your labor — usually throwing or shooting birds — in exchange for his handling/training of your dog on a day-by-day basis, is always good work if you can get it. Not only does your dog get quality instruction. But what you learn, what you so unconsciously absorb by observing a pro work through his string (usually 20 dogs or so) in a day's time is invaluable.
Sending Buddy "to camp" — sending him to a trusted pro for an annual tuneup — is always a viable option. Though not cheap, it's arguably the best way short of extensive hunting to insure the quality of the dog's continuing education. Just bear in mind that for the trainer to be effective, and the dog to most fully benefit, he'll likely need the critter for a month, minimum.
Do What Works For You
Finally, when it comes to training options it's ultimately a matter of to each his own. In that regard, what works for me is a customized blend of all of the above. First off, I try to work/play with my dog to some extent every day. That doesn't always happen, of course. But I do try.
When we're alone, I might set out a few long blinds for Justa, the little yellow Lab who currently owns me. If I can get some help, we'll add a few marks. But likely as not we'll just do some conditioning. If it's cool enough I'll run her alongside the four-wheeler. If it's warm, it'll be a 20- to 30-minute session with hand-thrown bumpers down at the pond or over at a local lake.
During summer I'll hook her up with Mike, a local trainer/friend of mine, to run hunt test scenarios a time or two every week. Keeping her on those birds she so desperately loves always being key, I rarely miss an ever-important flier day.
While wintering in South Texas, I've been fortunate to do much the same. Though trainer Tim's emphasis is on field trialing, ours — Justa's and mine — sure hasn't been. So we sometimes struggle with, and are even a little intimidated by, the extra-long marks and challenging terrain that is part of that gameâ€¦especially when compared to the fine-running, trained-every-day dogs on Tim's truck.
But we continue to learn, much to the benefit of our hunting, from the experience. And that, after all, is the point. Because hunting, which we're so lucky to do far more than our share of, is what we're all about. It's the on-the-job-training, while out in the field or marsh, experiencing all we can like nowhere or no way else, that furthers our lifelong education quite like no other.
A WIN/ WIN
When all is said and done it's like a wise man once said, "You get out of a dog what you put into it." And what even wiser men have come to know is, "It's working with our dogs that keeps US going."
Hard to argue. Buddy's lifelong training is nothing but a WIN/WIN for both of you.