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Training at a Distance: The 10-Foot Principle

When it comes to training gun dogs, sometimes your best approach is to start small and dream big.

Training at a Distance: The 10-Foot Principle

Take short steps when following the 10-foot principle to end up with long-range handling. (Jake Terry/Arterra Media photo)

It’s a thing of beauty to watch a retriever take a handle while it’s so far out it appears to be a mere speck on the horizon, or to see a spaniel hunting frantically out to the front of its owner. Teamwork at a distance with our hunting companion is what we all want, and it’s a great goal to have. But, when we only have distance and no teamwork with our dog, it's a recipe for disaster.

Many trainers make the mistake of increasing range prior to achieving proper compliance in close proximity, and this is where things start to fall apart. The knee-jerk reaction to correcting an out-of-control dog is to address the symptoms. For example, if we ask our dog to sit when he’s 50 yards away and he doesn’t listen, the tendency is to try to fix the problem at 50 yards. 

I like to take a different approach to preventing the distance problem by using what I call “the 10-foot principle.”

Close-Work First

While I reference using an imaginary 10-foot circle for this concept, this principle is based upon first establishing cooperation with your dog in close quarters before moving out. Essentially, if you can’t get your dog to do something when it’s within 10 feet of you, you should never expect your dog to magically listen better when it’s farther away. Distance almost always erodes control, but to what extent that erosion happens is largely dependent on how good of a job you did within that 10-foot circle.

Working on eye contact
There are many fundamental training goals that can be accomplished in close proximity, including developing strong eye contact. (Jake Terry/Arterra Media photo)

Training should always follow a calculated progression that starts in close, and then slowly extends to greater distances. This holds true for puppies as well as adult dogs. Only when we're seeing the behaviors that we want up close should we take the risk of asking for the same behavior at a longer stretch. The reason that distance has inherent risk is because every time we ask our dog to perform a command and are unable to follow through with making sure the behavior happens, we are making future cooperation less and less predictable. We are much better off to get a consistent series of “wins” up close and then continue that winning streak as we allow our dog to venture farther out.

It’s also important to remember our dogs are always learning. Hopefully they're learning the right behaviors, but sometimes they're learning what they can get away with. As trainers, we need to make sure that we're creating as many positive opportunities as possible to encourage the correct behavior. 

Working on steadiness
Establish steadiness and impulse control at close range before asking your dog to comply at longer distances. (Jake Terry/Arterra Media photo)

Correctly Reading the Close Work

The 10-foot circle is all fine and dandy, but if you don't know what to look for, it's not going to do you much good. Think about the main behaviors you'd like to get out of your dog. Typically, the behaviors at the top of that list include a reliable recall, a crisp sit (for me that includes sitting to the verbal command as well as sitting to a toot on the whistle), proper eye contact, delivery to hand on retrieves, and the ability to take directional commands (over, back, etc). Your list may be different, but that’s okay as long as you have a set of goals to work on. 

Once you’ve made your list, start to focus on the desired behaviors in small spaces and in close ranges while you slowly work up to increasing the distance. This reverse engineering process can't be overstated in training—if you haven’t identified the desired outcome of your training efforts, it's highly unlikely that you'll end up with a quality finished product.

As the responses to your commands become automatic, it's time to expand the circle beyond the imaginary 10-foot line. But remember, dog training isn't a sprint, it's a marathon. There are no rules that say you have to progress at a certain speed, and frequently the dogs that are pushed too quickly and too early in the process are the dogs that end up fizzling out later on. Your dog will let you know when it's time to start expanding the circle, but be careful to not get in a hurry.

It's also important to remember throughout this process that there's no shame in taking a pause or backstep in your training to fix any issues that pop up. Dog training is rarely a linear process and commonly the fastest way to get to our goals is to take a step backwards. When you get the little things right you can move forward again. A dog that ignores responses to commands, albeit sometimes small, will almost always lead to more egregious problems later on. You'll progress much further with your training if you're willing to swallow your pride and jump back into the 10-foot circle when it's necessary.

Bird hunter with English cocker spaniel
The 10-foot principle allows you and your dog to gradually build upon success.(Jake Terry/Arterra Media photo)

Going the Distance

I use the 10-foot principle with every single dog I train. With certain dogs, I spend more time inside of that circle, and with others, I move beyond the circle relatively quickly, As dog owners, it’s our responsibility to properly assess our dog’s progress and make sure we are giving them what they need to succeed. For dogs that naturally want to stay very close to us, the best approach may be to spend less time working in close proximity. For those dogs, gaining confidence at a distance is important once basic commands are established. For others, the opposite is true. 

I'm currently working with a seven-month-old English cocker spaniel. Whenever I take him out, he likes to run, and he absolutely oozes confidence. With a pup like that, I'm going to spend some extra time in the 10-foot circle making sure that we're fully on the same page and working together. As my trust in him grows, he'll have no problem covering ground and putting in some distance, so my current priority is getting him dialed-in, inside of the circle.

Crisp responses at a distance are something we should all train for, but not where we should start out. If you make a conscious decision to spend time training inside of the 10-foot circle, in the end you'll be much further ahead in your training and you'll ultimately end up with a hunting companion that you can trust to work with you, even at long ranges

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