During one of the hundreds of conversations I’ve had with a long-time friend of mine named Jack, he talked about a common problem he’s seen in the house-building trade he has devoted his life to. He called it the “completion factor,” and it goes like this: The job isn’t finished until the last 10 percent is completed. In Jack’s opinion, too many people would pursue a project, and then quit when they were within spitting distance of completion.
There is no better analogy than that for what I’ve seen in my years spent training dogs. I’ve watched inexperienced trainers spend months training their dogs in a focused, effective manner, only to then abandon their efforts when just a few more days of training would have set the dog up for a lifetime of success. In a few cases, these trainers got lazy. But more often than not, they quit too soon, simply because they just didn’t know any better.
If I were to outline the entire training process for any dog—retriever, pointer, spaniel—a capsule description would read something like this: From Point A to Point B, the dog is shown a command, then encouraged to respond to the command you’ve given. That’s 90 percent of the training process. But the last 10 percent—the part that will get you to Point C, when the dog’s training is complete—involves reinforcing what the dog has been trained to do.
To prepare for that last 10 percent, you need to begin laying the groundwork much earlier. There’s a name for this phase of training and it is called “generalizing.”
Let’s say you’re teaching your dog to whoa. I start my whoa training on a bench, giving the dog commands that are very easy for him to accomplish. When I think the dog has fully grasped what it is I’m trying to teach him, the benchwork is done and I then move the dog to the floor of my porch. Then, on a lead, I walk him back and forth on the porch, giving him periodic whoa commands and correcting him as necessary. When he’s reliably obeying my whoa command on the porch, I repeat the exercise in my yard.
Those of you who have been through this step-by-step process have probably noticed that I’m omitting one crucial detail: refusals. Every time a dog is moved from one location to the next, he will almost invariably refuse the command he was executing perfectly just the day before, in a different location. George Hickox explained this to me. Dogs look at commands as being place-specific, he told me. If they obey a command in one location, they feel no particular compulsion to obey it in a different location.
In the decades I’ve been around bird dogs since George explained this to me, I’ve found what he told me to almost always be true. What that means as trainers, is that we have to train the same command in different locations in order for the dog to understand that the command he’s being asked to perform stands alone, and is not dependent upon the location in which he’s being asked to perform it.
Let’s return to whoa training. Once I’ve moved the dog from the bench to the porch to my yard, making sure he’s executing his commands correctly before each subsequent move, it’s time to ramp things up. Now I put him on a 20-foot lead and let him cast about in front of me as I walk. When, as he’s casting before me, he’s reliably stopping on my command, I let go of the lead and let him make bigger casts. Soon, he will learn that he has to obey my command to whoa, even if he’s not physically connected to me.
When I’ve made it this far, my pup is well on the way to being reliably “whoa broke.” But he’s not there yet—not by a long shot. Since I train my dogs to be either steady to flush or steady to wing, shot and fall, birds are now introduced. And the generalizing process begins anew: Steadying the dog on a flushing bird, steadying the dog on a flushing bird with gunfire, and ultimately, steadying the dog on a flushing bird with gunfire followed by a thrown dead bird.
This is the point at which most trainers quit. The dog has been generalized, conditioned to live birds, and conditioned to finding or retrieving dead birds after the sound of gunfire. Many trainers would consider the dog good to go. But is he? Nope!
The Completion Factor
Now comes the critical part: The last 10 percent, or the “completion factor.” If you want your dog to reliably perform the commands you’ve taught him in the training yard, you have to reliably reinforce those commands on a hunt.
The problem with this approach, of course, is that most people would rather hunt than train. I’m sympathetic. But think of it this way: A few well-placed corrections in the field could very well set your dog up to reliably obey your whoa command for the remainder of its life. Surely, a little bit of extra time devoted to training at this critical juncture is worth it.
So, here’s what I’ve done with every one of the dogs I’ve owned, and what I’ve strongly recommended the owners of dogs I’ve trained do as well. For the first few hunts, leave your gun at home. Let one of your buddies shoot, or if you’re hunting by yourself, let any birds your dog points fly away.
Once you’ve given your dog the command to whoa, have your buddy flush the bird and (hopefully) kill it. Reinforce either steadiness to shot or steadiness to flush, whichever you’ve trained. If the dog breaks anyway, drag him back, set him up again, and tell him whoa. Make him hold for a minute or two, and then release him. Some dogs get the idea quickly. Some don’t. But they all get it sooner or later, so long as you’re consistent.
Those last few days of reinforcing your training on an actual hunt were the completion factor; the 10 percent you needed to get the dog where you want him.