A rookie learns the basics of gun dog training from pro Rick Smith of HuntSmith dog training.
"There's good news and bad news about these dogs," Rick Smith said. "The good news is, these dogs are really smart. The bad news is, these dogs are really smart."
I was attending my first bird dog training seminar along with my 14-week-old golden retriever, Ronan. With this comment, Rick began his Bird Dog Foundations Seminar. Over the course of the next two weekends, for five full days, I would learn many important bird dog training lessons. Ronan and I would attend both the Foundations and the Intermediate Seminars.
Rick is the son of legendary dog trainer Delmar Smith and owns HuntSmith Kennels with his cousin Ronnie. My experience at this seminar was eye-opening, to say the least. I have not hunted or had a gun dog for some time and wanted to do it right with Ronan. Over the years I had hunted with enough people who had unintentionally named their dogs "No," as in "No, Corky, No!" or "No, Hunter, NO!"
I wanted no part of that chaos in the field. I wanted a dog that was under control yet eager for the hunt. I wanted a proper gun dog and companion. This is a story about the first important steps toward achieving that goal.
The seminar was held at R & J's Rooster Ranch, south of Minnesota's Twin Cities. The owners, Randy Herman and Julie Orr, operate the hunting preserve and dog training facility. They also breed and raise Llewellin setters (www.houdinillewellins.com) , and Randy is a successful field trial handler as well.
Even though my pup was only four months old, I couldn't miss the opportunity to attend the seminar and meet Rick. Besides, all the brochures took pains to point out that the seminar was for the trainer, not the dog. Anyone who has ever watched a professional gun dog trainer work knows there is more to training a dog than meets the eye. My eyes were about to be opened.
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There was a meet-and-greet at a local tavern the night before that I missed, so I wanted to get to R & J's Ranch early. I arrived at about 7 a.m. and, even though the seminar didn't start until 8, the place was already alive with people and dogs.
I parked in a field, and Ronan and I walked through a light sprinkling of rain to the chain gang. There were already five dogs clipped on the chain. I picked a spot under a small grove of trees that offered some protection from the rain and clipped a small lead chain to Ronan's collar.
The chain gang is not just a holding place for the dogs. This is where the training begins, and it can provide a great lesson for a new dog owner. The chain connects to two posts and runs along the ground. Along this chain, at intervals of six feet, are 18-inch "leads." These leads hold the dogs in place, allowing them to lie down, stand up and move around, but not quite reach another dog on the chain.
This chain gang becomes the first means to teach your dog a "point of contact." It doesn't take long to see which dogs have been on the chain gang before. They are controlled and quiet; they are "chilled out," as Rick likes to say.
Dogs experiencing the chain gang for the first time struggle against the lead. Many yelp and holler; they are complaining and jumping up and down. These dogs are anything but chilled out. But as the trainers are quick to point out, they are fighting the chain, not the owner--they are against the chain on the ground as opposed to a leash attached to their owner's hand. Ronan had some experience on the chain gang at an earlier puppy seminar, so even though the dogs around him yelped and hollered, Ronan remained calm.
I spot Rob Enedy. Rob is the event organizer, and he is a big, gruff-looking guy with an engaging disposition. He volunteers his time and organizes the dog training seminars and activities at R & J's. He is a skilled amateur trainer and puts his heart and soul into bringing out the best in his dogs.
He doesn't run them in trials; he just wants them to be the best hunting dogs they can be. He is always nearby during the seminar and always willing to offer help or answer a question. So I ask Rob where we are going to set up. "Right here," he answers. I hold out hope that the rain will stay light. It doesn't.
About this time, Rick arrives and walks along the chain gang, saying hi to the dogs. Rick looks the part of an outdoorsman and dog trainer. He has a south Texas drawl and, as he freely admits, a vocabulary peppered with a few terms and words that are strange to our Minnesota ears. Rick has an easy manner about him. He is friendly, outgoing and approachable. It is obvious from the first moment you meet him that he loves what he does.
Ronan, the author's golden retriever puppy, learns to "chill out" on the chain gang.
As other dog owners bring their dogs and gear to the set-up area, I introduce myself to Rick. As if on cue, Ronan, now a little bored on the chain gang, starts digging. Not just simple digging, but sending the woodchip bed flying in all directions. "Rick, if he doesn't stop that digging, my wife is going to kill him before his first hunting season," I say.
"Have you got your 'figur
e eight'?" Rick asks. "My what?" I think. I must look as puzzled. "You know, the one I gave you last night," Rick says. Unfortunately, as I mentioned earlier, I missed the meet-and-greet.
Rick notices my puzzled look and asks, "Does anyone have a figure eight?" Justin, the owner of a good-looking yellow Lab, offers his. The figure eight is an 18-inch length of 1„8-inch nylon rope. The rope is configured so there is a loop large enough for a dog's muzzle and, about three inches below that, another loop.
Rick takes the figure eight from Justin, approaches Ronan and, with the dog between his legs, attaches the figure eight--first around the muzzle, then under the jaw, then around the neck--and ties it to the back of Ronan's neck with a quick-release knot. Rick says, "Take away the mouth and you have the dog."
Naturally, Ronan fights the knot around the muzzle and throws a minor fit. However, within minutes, he settles down. He chills out right before my eyes.
Rick tells us, "Never leave the dog alone when he is in a figure eight, and as soon as the dog settles down, take it off." Once Ronan has calmed down, I take off the figure eight. He has also stopped digging. Rick mentions that this isn't going to end digging forever, but it is a great start.
A couple of hours later, Ronan decides to dig again. On goes the figure eight. The digging stops.
The rest of the day, Ronan stayed pretty well chilled out and never did resume digging. On day two, there was a little digging, so the figure eight went back on his snout--and the digging quit. Ronan didn't need the figure eight for the rest of the seminar. What a great tool.
On with the show
The rain was steady, but after a few more owners and dogs learned the value of the figure eight, the seminar began.
"Listen up, folks," Rick started out. "We're fixin' to do a lot of work with the dogs, so unless there is a real downpour or we see lots of lightning, we are going to work outside. Y'all OK with that?"
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Of course we were. Well, some more than others. And since I was the guy sitting there in a bright blue Helly Hansen sailing jacket and a pair of brand-new rubber boots who looked very much out of place among a group of guys and gals dressed in well-worn hunting and training clothes, I wasn't going to say a thing.
The seminar started with a few introductions and an overview of what we were going to do over the weekend. Plans were to work with dogs on birds, the "whoa post," the Delmar Smith Wonder Lead and on a check cord.
In spite of the rain and cold wind, and an occasional barking dog, the seminar moved along at the speed of light. Every instance of undesirable behavior became a teaching moment. Rick worked with dogs on the chain and had owners bring the dogs in front of the group for different demonstrations. There were examples of good behavior and bad behavior.
"This is where most of the training happens. If we can't get it right here [pointing to the chain gang and dogs on it], and here [pointing to a dog at heel by his owner], it isn't going to work out there [pointing to the field behind him]. Everyone would love to start out there, but you have to have it right here, first.
"And you can't love this stuff into them. These dogs are pack animals, and it is about respect," he said, alluding to the training practice of giving the dog overwhelming praise when it performs the slightest task.
"You can't bribe them, either. Treats are great, but a dog works because it loves to work, and they will work out of respect for the leader of the pack for a lot longer period of time than they will for snacks.
"This is an employee-employer relationship," Rick said as he set the stage for what was to come. This seminar was about teaching dog owners to be in charge, to respect the dog, but to earn the dog's respect, too. "It isn't about physical domination, but it isn't about love, either. It is about expectations," Rick continued.
"When the dog's head is in the game and the dog is calm, that is when the dog performs at its highest level. That is when you see his full potential. All these dogs have potential, I can see it, and your job is to help them realize their potential.
"This isn't about forcing your will onto the dog, either," Rick continued. Almost all the emotional scars (and physical ones, too) come from an owner who, when frustrated, acts in anger and physically or mentally abuses the dogs, Rick explained. When the dog surrenders, the dog is learning to accept us as a leader.
In his opening remarks, Rick talked about getting the job done even if you don't have all the right equipment. For example, when one of the participants asked about building a training table to help with the "trained retrieve" and other training, she was lamenting that she didn't have room for one.
Rick replied, "Do what you can, when you can, with what you have." Good advice, as there are always ways to improvise. This was also an important lesson: The dog can learn in lots of different environments, and he needs a wide variety of them before the lesson can stick.
Seminar leader Rick Smith loosens up a dog prior to the "whoa post" demonstration.
Taking your time
Rick also cautioned us not to do too much too soon, especially if we were only training one dog. "It's easier to train a lot of dogs than it is to train one dog. With one dog, you may get too intense and try to force the dog to do something. You can't force this stuff; the dog has to accept it.
"With more than one dog, a professional trainer will rarely work to failure; they quit with a success and move on to another dog. Amateur trainers with only one dog often do just the opposite. They don't have a lot of time to train, so they force lots of lessons into a short period of time and work the dog to boredom or failure."
Rick continued by explaining, "If you only have an hour to train in a day, you are better off training in six 10-minute sessions than one 60-minute session. Dogs, especially young dogs, need regular, shorter training sessions." Additionally, Rick warned, we are more likely to get frustrated during a longer session and try to force the dog's acceptance.
Rick said there are three stages in a training session. The first is resistance, the second defiance and the third acceptance. Some training tasks take longer than others do, so as amateurs, we should make sure there is enough time to finish the task. As Rick said many times, as if recognizing we needed repetition, too, "It takes as long as it takes."
Acceptance shows itself in many ways: The dog may lick its lips, it may yawn or it may simply relax, lift and wag its tail. We watched dogs go through all three stages of acceptance with Rick making comments like, "There is a lot of thinking going on right now."
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In one demonstration a German shorthair stood stubbornly on the "whoa post" and stared at Rick. "I can't repeat what that dog is thinking; this is a family seminar," Rick joked. The dog was definitely in defiance mode.
Each step of the seminar built on the last step as the day went along. This is how dog training goes, with each training session building on the last training session. Change and progress is incremental, and there are times in the training of every dog when it feels like you are taking two steps back for every one step forward.
The rain continued and eventually forced us inside. We moved to an old barn on the property that served as a training room, dining room and gathering place. There, Rick kept building on the basics.
There was a training table in the barn, and Rick started working with young dogs. Most of these dogs had never been on a training table, so to calm them down on the training table and show us how to "sack them off" (a horse trainer's term for rubbing them down and petting them), Rick showed us how to get the dogs to stand or sit quietly.
It was amazing to watch nervous, skittish dogs relax. Eventually, they would reach acceptance and freely let us lift a leg or--in the case of the pointers, the whole dog--off the table. We also watched as Rick and others demonstrated the beginning steps of the trained retrieve. Ronan was ready for the table, but not the trained retrieve, so this was a lesson I would file away for later.
On Sunday, we were back outdoors. The rain stopped, but the cloud cover remained. It was about 48 degrees with a slight southwesterly wind, so it was a perfect day to do outside bird work.
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The bird work was designed to introduce the pointing dogs to point and, more importantly, to honor or back a point. Ronan was the only flushing dog, so we worked on having him sit when the bird flushed. He did a pretty good job, but I'm not sure if he was sitting to honor the point or sitting because he was amazed at all the activity and wanted to take everything in.
Rick and the other trainers reminded me that, at his age, I should just get him out in the field and let him chase pigeons and quail. There should be no pressure; this should be fun and encouraging.
Next, we moved to the "whoa post." The whoa post is designed to help a dog learn to stand for the pointing breeds, or sit for the flushing breeds, on command from a distance and again on a silent cue.
One lead, the stimulation lead, was tied around the dog's belly, with the stimulation point on the belly for a pointer and the back for a flusher (causing a stand or a sit), and then attached to a post in the ground (the whoa post).
The other lead was a check cord (about 20 feet) and was attached to the dog's collar. The trainer gently pulled the check cord so the dog moved forward until the line attached to the whoa post was stretched tight, and the stimulation kicked in.
Most dogs immediately and intuitively resist. Some accept rather quickly, and others get defiant. Once there is any sign of acceptance, the trainer's lead is relaxed and the stimulation ends. This is the first step to teaching a dog to obey a command to sit or stand from a distance.
Later, an e-collar will replace the whoa post and the second lead, and a handler will be able to control a dog at a great distance.
Ronan, being the only flushing dog, got a small and light-handed taste of the whoa post. He actually figured it out and quickly sat, but his "sit" was more of an accidental landing when he was jumping up and down and fighting the stimulation. The second time there was only mild resistance.
Remarkably, Rick and the other trainers accomplished all these training exercises with light physical cues, and not a lot of talking to the dogs. There weren't the usual verbal commands such as "sit," "stay," "heel" and "come" that you hear in an obedience class. Rick kept reminding us, "You can always name it, but first you have to get them to do it."
"Do what?" he was asked. "Do it, whatever it is," he responded.
During both days of the seminar, two local professional trainers ably assisted Rick. They would ask questions and make or emphasize points. The additional expertise was helpful to the attendees.
Greg Fryar of High Fly'n Kennels in Elko, Minnesota, was one of the trainers. Greg and his wife, Carla, are partners with Randy and Julie in the Llewellin setter operation.
The other professional trainer was Sonny Piekarz of Hay Creek Kennels. Sonny runs a training facility in Gilman, Wisconsin, and is becoming a certified HuntSmith Trainer. He had his daughter Brianna along, and she made sure none of the puppies lacked attention.
There were others there, too, dog lovers and owners who just wanted to help where they could. All had attended the previous seminar sessions.
HuntSmith allows any attendee to repeat a seminar as many times as you like after you have paid the first time. This is a great deal and encourages people to return to both learn and help others.
The two days provided me with a marvelous glimpse at the world of professional dog training and made me realize that there were challenges ahead for Ronan and me. But the reward of having a well-trained hunting dog will be worth the effort.
One thing is certain: I don't want to rename Ronan, "No, Ronan, No!"