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Tune-Up Time vs Teaching New Skills

Time is of the essence now—be cautious about taking on new tasks with your bird dog in the pre-season.

Tune-Up Time vs Teaching New Skills

Dog training never ends, but you’ve got to be careful about what you ask your dog to learn if you’ve got a limited time-frame. (Tony J. Peterson photo)

The excitement of the impending season does a couple of things to us retriever owners. The first is that it tends to cause us to ramp up the training with our dogs as the opening bell looms ever close. The second is that it often prompts us to outdrive our headlights when it comes to the skills our dogs are working on and the ones they have actually mastered.

What this does is confuse us as to how to proceed with the immediate pre-season training. When you see only green lights, you tend to hit the gas so to speak. But this time of year isn’t about taking things as far as possible with your dog. It’s about evaluation and honesty about not only the level your retriever is currently at, but if there is a possibility to add in a new skill or two before the hunting season is open. In other words, this is when you should decide if it’s just tune-up time, or if there is the opportunity to introduce something new.

Pre-Season Tune-Ups

The age of your dog will tell you an awful lot about what you can accomplish in the last weeks before it’s time to throw on the orange vest. If you’re running a middle-aged or older dog, then this is pretty simple. The retrievers with plenty of experience usually just need a refresher course on the basics and the advanced skills they’ve worked on for years. This is a time to make sure nothing has regressed too much in the off-season, or that none of their skills are in danger of slipping big time when the hunt is on. This might necessitate stepping back to some basic control stuff, like leash or whistle work, but it’s something you’ve done many times, so it usually isn’t a big ask for you or your dog.

You might just need to work on recall with your upland dog. This is an issue, like steadiness in waterfowl dogs, that can be fine-tuned all year long with the emphasis being in the weeks leading up to the season. This isn’t introducing anything new, but really putting a fine point on one of the necessary skills.

Younger retrievers are a bit of a different story. When it comes to pups in the first year or two, it’s best to realize that your dog probably isn’t finished. That’s okay, it takes a special dog and a special trainer to tie a bow around a single year of training and call it good. In reality, retrievers are never really finished, but they are really not finished when they are young.

Take a look at where your dog is at with basic obedience. Is your pup in control at home and in different training environments? If not, then it’s time to get to work. If your dog seems pretty solid, you might be able to convince yourself that there is time to add in something new. This is where things get shaky.

Not Enough Time 

The thing about hunting dogs is that there is nothing they love more than hunting. This is a blessing and a curse. Naturally, you want your dog to love hunting as much as you. But you also want your dog to have some manners and behave the way you want him to, while you’re hunting.

That’s the end goal, even though perfection is a unicorn. You might bump up on perfection in training if you really have something good going on, but in the field—it’s not going to happen. Even the best dogs slip some, because the situation is always exciting, always dynamic, and almost always full of new experiences.

Black Labrador retriever with handler
Upland retrievers can often benefit from simple yard drills to tighten up before opening day. (Tony J. Peterson photo)

Old, established skills tend to erode by degrees during hunts. This is expected and is fine, because you can work on these. New skills, introduced only weeks earlier, will be a totally different story. Those will create the wheels-falling-off issues that can ruin a hunt, or a trip.

This means that if you really feel like there is time in the pre-season to introduce a new skill, don’t go for the ones I consider long-term like, for example, force-fetch. Shorter term training goals, like honoring another dog in the field, are doable. Better yet, are also totally advisable if you plan to run into the real scenarios while hunting. If you know your two-year old has never hunted with another dog but you’ve got a rooster road trip planned with a buddy who is running an older dog, it’s only fair to train your dog for comfort and confidence in that situation.

Acknowledge not only what types of hunting you’ll do, but the things your dog should encounter. Can you work those into training drills now, to better prepare your dog for the next couple of months? Or are those skills something that could take far more than the few weeks you’ve got left before the season?

Working with multiple dogs in training
Focus on smaller, complementary skills before the season—like the ability to work with another dog or perform around increased distractions.(Tony J. Peterson photo)

Training Never Stops

At this point, you might think I’m advocating for potentially letting your dog coast from now until the season. That’s not the case I’m making—even if you are convinced that there is not enough time to level your retriever up to a new skill.

The thing is, training never stops. Whether you’re at home messing with your dog in the evening while lying on the living room floor, or you’ve driven 20 minutes to a field with a bucket full of dummies and a laundry list of drills. Dog training is an ongoing process, with the goal of helping your four-legged hunting partner learn to behave more desirably.

When it’s March and you’ve got the whole spring and summer to work, then you might be able to introduce double- or triple-blind retrieves if your dog is ready for that. When it’s late summer, it’s better to focus on the basics, and if possible, the little complementary considerations that add to what a dog already knows.

Dog working on force-fetch
Be sure to allow yourself and your dog ample time to work on a new skill set such as force-fetch. (Tony J. Peterson photo)

Instead of a brand-new skill, work in some distractions to a skill he’s already good at. Maybe it’s nothing more than training in a park while a youth soccer game is being played a few hundred yards away. Or maybe it involves easy water retrieves but with the added distraction of a couple of honkers on the far shore.

This stuff isn’t as fun to think about as adding a serious tool to the kit, but it’s the foundation of good dogs. Oftentimes, it’s also the best you can do with the time you have, and it’s a heck of a lot more responsible than adding something in that just won’t have time to stick. Or worse, could partially stick and then cause harm to other skills that your dog had locked in earlier.

The pre-season can be exciting, but it can also be trouble if you approach it wrong. Make sure, whether you’re tuning up or tacking on, that you’ve got a dog that is ready and the time to make it happen.

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