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Three Simple Rules to Becoming a Better Bird Dog Trainer

In the end, successful dog training comes down to building a plan and a process.

Three Simple Rules to Becoming a Better Bird Dog Trainer

Training a sporting dog isn't just all about the dog—owners have to be trained at times as well. (Photo By: Venee Gardner)

If you hang around professional dog trainers long enough, you will find that they share a common sentiment: The greatest potential for failure in a gun dog’s training program lies in the training, or un-training, that the dog receives when it returns to the owner’s home. To put it in simpler terms, professional trainers tend to agree that an untrained owner can undo good work in short order.

In my summer training alongside my friend, Dan Lussen, I find that most of my time in the field is focused on training the trainer, or more accurately, on training the owner/trainer. Dan and I agree that after a period working with a dog, the owner really must join us in the field for a handful of sessions so that we can watch that owner handle the dog in real time. We assess the corrections made and the reinforcements given, and we spend a good deal of time focused on the body language that the owner uses in the presence of the dog. Honestly, when we run through these sessions, we are usually quite certain about the level of performance that we will see from the dog. The wild card, and the element we focus on correcting most, is the performance of the owner/trainer.

In this column, I would like to talk about training the trainer, and the common mistakes I see owners making as they take responsibility for the ongoing training and handling of their flushing dogs. Ideally, this bit of reflection will help owners recognize potential pitfalls and common mistakes and will initiate a degree of self-assessment that is a critical part of being a successful trainer. What follows are generalizations—basic practices that I find myself communicating to new trainers and owners time and again in the hope that they can see better success with their dogs, or at the very least maintain the good work that has already been done.

Rule #1 - Consistency

The first, and perhaps the most common lesson I find myself teaching to owner/trainer revolves around consistency. When Danny and I, or any professional trainer for that matter, teach a dog a fundamental skill—lets use recall as an example—we create a simple equation that a dog can easily repeat, and that we can reinforce. We teach a dog that on a given verbal or whistle command, that dog should come on a straight line directly to us, and present itself with eyes focused on ours. The behavior, when executed correctly, is rewarded, either with verbal affirmation or a treat. When I watch owners attempt the same skill, I often see exaggerated physical movement (bending over and slapping knees or clapping), complicated or confusing verbal commands (“here boy, come here boy, atta boy, here boy…”), and frustration (often communicated to the dog) if the dog does not immediately respond to the command. All these common mistakes make the dog less likely to perform the intended behavior correctly, and therefore rob the owner/trainer of a teaching opportunity.


The issue illustrated here, and the biggest lesson I can give an owner/trainer, is to maintain consistency. It is quite simple: in the case of recall, the desired behavior should be constructed to include a single recall command delivered once, and a reward for the dog when the intended behavior is exhibited. Any other action will prove detrimental to the reinforcement process. Perhaps most importantly, if a professional trainer has built a behavior into the dog, or taught the dog a verbal or whistle command, that behavior/command has to be replicated by the owner/trainer moving forward. Obviously, behaviors can be modified, but by and large, training is about maintaining consistency throughout the dog’s life stages, and this practice seems oddly hard for many owner/trainers to grasp. If basic training has been completed by a pro, the owner must spend enough time with that pro to understand exactly the commands used, the cues given, and foundational behaviors that are expected.

three simple rules to becoming a better bird dog trainer
Being consistent is one of the pillars of any successful bird dog training program. (Photo By: Venee Gardner)

Rule #2 - Timing

The second most critical lesson I try to communicate revolves around timing. These lessons are hard to generalize, as effective training requires that the trainer deliver commands, corrections, and reinforcement at critical intersections with a dog’s displayed behavior. Timing is often incorrectly leveraged with cues given on the training collar, or with positive reinforcement before the behavior has been completed, or when an owner/trainer starts moving toward the dog rather than away. Let me illustrate: In the case of retrieve training, I try to encourage a natural retrieve in my dogs, making sure that shot birds are exciting and fun to pick up. Generally, if a sound recall is in place, the dog will bring the dead bird all the way back to the trainer without much effort. What I see time and again, however, is an owner who begins to praise vocally once the dog has picked up the bird. As the dog begins the retrieve and hears plenty of praise, he may assume the task is complete, and will therefore drop the bird. Almost without fail the owner will go towards the dog, occasionally using negative commands, hoping that the corrective motion will make the dog pick the bird back up. All of these behaviors are detrimental to the desired outcome.


In the case of the retrieve, I make sure that praise is only given when the dog has established a clear intent to come all the way in to the trainer with a bird. If the dog falters at all, the key is to turn and walk a few steps away, ideally before the dog has dropped the bird entirely. This reaction, done in a timely manner, will almost invariably cause the dog to hold or re-pick the bird up and come all the way in. Once the retrieve is complete, treats and affirmation are then fine. It all comes down to the cadence, however, and the timing of the trainer’s reactions to the dog’s behaviors, both desired and not. This acuity around timing requires hours of observation, and plenty of time mirroring experienced trainers.

three simple rules to becoming a better bird dog trainer
When working on retrieves, it's important to praise your dog after they've made the full intention to complete the task. (Photo By: Venee Gardner)

Rule #3 - Clarity

Finally, there is clarity. This is a critical lesson for owner/trainers to understand. I teach that a dog should never be corrected when he doesn’t know why he’s being corrected. This again is a terribly simplistic lesson, but one that is violated time and again. The greatest single example of this mistake comes once again when a dog is learning recall. Occasionally, by virtue of youth, poor foundation training, or an overworked prey drive, a dog will not recall when commanded to do so. Nothing feels as awful as a dog that won’t come when called, but far too often I see owner trainers responding to poor recall by shouting a recall command multiple times and with increasing energy, and potentially correcting a dog that cannot be seen with the e-collar. The problem here is that the dog does not necessarily hear the command, and on occasion said unseen dog will be responding to the recall only to be delivered numerous e-collar corrections. All of these factors serve to confuse the dog, and undo good training. Moreover, often the owner/trainer will scold the dog once he/she returns, which of course is the inappropriate time to do so. Owner/trainers require constant reminders that a dog can only be corrected or reinforced around behaviors it has been clearly taught. All other corrections are fruitless, and likely harmful.

In the end, successful training comes down to building a plan and a process, adhering to it firmly, and rewarding/reinforcing the correct behaviors that are learned. Unfortunately, too few owners/trainers see the simplicity and effectiveness of such a process, and simply overcomplicate things, for themselves and their dogs. When training a trainer, I try to encourage a focus on the basics, absolute consistency, and an awareness of the potency of good timing. In the end, I suppose that these skills are best learned when owners/trainers watch the pros carefully and often, and then hold themselves accountable to the same high standard of performance.  

three simple rules to becoming a better bird dog trainer
Focus on the basics and remember to remain consistent, be aware of timing, and be clear and concise with your commands. (Photo By: GUN DOG)
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