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Professional Gun Dog Trainers' Many Offerings

Professional Gun Dog Trainers' Many Offerings

Utilizing a pro's services can greatly enhance your training efforts.

The primary function, and the major source of income, for most professional retriever trainers is, of course, full-time training. Some specialize in field trial training; some in hunt test training; some in training retrievers for hunting; some do all three. Many pros offer several additional "lesser" services that can benefit amateur retriever owners.

Individual lessons allow the owner to benefit from professional one-on-one training and handling instructions.

Trouble is, many amateurs do not realize that these services are readily available, and probably very near home. But with the current popularity of retrievers, we now have a nationwide abundance of retriever pros, so anyone should be able to find several nearby pros who offer a variety of the following "lesser" services.

Group Training
Perhaps the most widely useful offering of many pros is group training classes. In these, a group of amateurs with their retrievers attend weekly training sessions at the pro's facilities.

These sessions may be half-day or full-day, depending on the number of students. In each session, the pro explains some aspect of training, demonstrates it with his own dogs, answers questions, and then guides the owners in training their own dogs. He also assigns "homework" to be completed before the next session.

If he has a large number of students, he may divide the class into multiple training levels, with separate class times for each level. This allows each class to concentrate on the work expected at their specific level.

If he has fewer students, he may have all levels in a single class. This "one-room schoolhouse" technique lets each student learn more about the overall training program because he gets to observe dogs at all levels working in each session. Either approach works quite well.

The principal benefits of these classes are: Each student receives instruction and guidance from the pro; each student learns from watching the other students work their dogs; either format offers a great variety of distractions to tempt each dog to disobey, which gives each owner opportunities to "persuade" his dog that disobedience is a very bad idea.

A not-to-be-overlooked side benefit is that the students get to use the pro's grounds and equipment, at least during class time, and perhaps at designated other times. Training grounds are getting harder and harder to find, and some equipment items, such as remote launchers, are quite expensive.

Private Lessons
Many pros offer private one-on-one lessons to help individuals solve specific problems or to get through particularly challenging training phases. Normally, these sessions last an hour or two and can be daily, weekly, or whatever the client wishes.

Although more expensive than group classes, private lessons give the individual client the pro's full attention during each session. He also has the use of the pro's grounds and equipment, at least during lessons and perhaps at designated other times.

Annual Tune-ups
For trained dogs, many pros offer one- to two-month "refresher courses" immediately before hunting season. This is especially valuable for anyone who doesn't train his retriever regularly during the long off-season.

The pro takes the dog in for full-time training, but only for the time needed for a tune-up. During the last week or so the pro will probably insist that the owner attend these sessions so the pro can tune up his handling techniques as well. Great fringe benefit!

Problem Solving
Many pros will accept a dog for a short period to correct a training problem that baffles the dog's owner. This too is full-time training, but only for as long as the specific problem requires. Here, too, the pro will teach the owner how to deal with the problem in the future and, more importantly, how to avoid recurrences.

Puppy Acquisition
Many pros offer guidance in the puppy selection process. Without such expert assistance, an amateur (especially a beginner) can make any of several serious mistakes that can lead to an intolerable mismatch, analogous to a "marriage made in hell."

A pro can also help a buyer select the most suitable breed for the hunter's needs.

The buyer and his new puppy may have a personality conflict that makes the training process miserable for both. This can happen because the owner has selected the wrong breed for his personality. Or it can happen because he has selected the wrong breeding within the right breed. Or because he has selected the wrong puppy from the right breeding in the right breed.

He may even have selected a puppy from unsuitable (non-working) stock, a puppy that lacks the talent to become a good worker. Even worse, he could have selected an excellent prospect from stock with hereditary health problems that will terminate the dog's working career early in its life.

In short, a beginner without expert guidance can err seriously in many ways. However, the beginner who seeks the assistance of a competent pro will avoid most of them. Granted, every puppy remains a gamble, but professional guidance will improve the probability of success substantially.

A good pro is networked with other pros, so that he knows what is being bred where. After becoming acquainted with the prospective buyer, he can help the buyer select the most simpatico puppy from the most suitable breeding in the most compatible breed.

Trained Dog Acquisition
For the unguided beginner, buying a "trained retriever" can be a nightmare. He may have only a vague notion of the many levels of meaning the term "trained retriever" has. He probably has no idea what price range is appropriate for each level. Even if a dog he likes is exactly as advertised, it may not be ideal, or even suitable, for his personality, home situation, and purposes.

Then, too, he probably has no concept of how easily a dog's owner can cover up various faults during a brief and staged demo of the animal's working abilities. Unfortunately, for a sharp operator wanting to unload an unsatisfactory but partially trained beast, the typical beginner is a pigeon waiting to be plucked.

A pro can also help a buyer select the most suitable puppy from a chosen litter.

However, if he asks a pro to help him find a suitable trained retriever, that pro will use his network to find several candidates, and then will help evaluate each one thoroughly, thereby assuring the buyer that he's getting exactly what he needs, and at an appropriate price.

Miscellaneous Other Services
Some pros offer formal "training you to train your dog" obedience classes, designed primarily for those who compete in formal obedience trials, but also useful for working retrievers and their owners.

Some pros offer "puppy socialization" classes, designed for all dogs under six months of age. A few years ago I took a retriever puppy through one of these classes and was delighted with the results. They prepare a puppy for life in the modern world and are a great preparation for any other training program.

Many pros also board dogs in their kennels. Many breed retrievers.

Costs vary so widely that I simply cannot offer a meaningful estimate, or even a reasonable range of probable costs. Like all self-employed entrepreneurs, retriever pros charge on the basis of supply and demand. The greater a pro's reputation, the higher his fees.

On the high end, a few prominent pros, who charge eye-popping fees, always have full kennels and long waiting lists. On the low end, pros just starting out charge only a fraction as much, have plenty of room in their kennels, and perhaps work side-jobs to make ends meet, or at least get near one another. Most pros fall somewhere between those two extremes.

Finding a Pro
To find a suitable pro in your area, attend nearby hunting tests, where you will probably meet several. Or check the ads in this magazine and other publications. Or ask your veterinarian. Or check the website of the Professional Retrievers Trainers Association (PRTA), which is

After you have located a few nearby retriever pros who offer the specific service you seek, you should be most careful in selecting the one best suited to your needs. First, ask each pro for a few references, and then check them out. If a pro won't give you references, don't consider him any further.

The next step is to visit the kennel of each pro still on your list of "possibles." Are his facilities well-built and clean? Are his dogs healthy and well-fed? How do they react when he approaches them? Happily or fearfully? And so on.

Finally, attend a few of his training sessions. Are his dogs stylish and happy-working or slow, slinking, and plodding?

After all that, you should be reasonably well-acquainted with each pro on your list, so simply choose the one who seems most simpatico with you.

Jim Spencer's books can be ordered from the Gun Dog Bookshelf: Training Retrievers for Marshes & Meadows; Retriever Training Tests; Retriever Training Drills for Marking; Retriever Training Drills for Blind Retrieves; Retriever Hunt Tests; HUP! Training Flushing Spaniels the American Way; and POINT! Training the All-Seasons Bird Dog.

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