Training a sporting dog is like building a house. First comes the foundation, followed by the first floor, then the second floor, then the roof. I use a progressive training system for two main reasons. The first is that I only give a dog more work when it’s ready. And second, I have a fallback position when a dog makes mistakes. The stronger the foundation, the better the dog. It’s just like with a house.
Progressive foundations are really important for puppies and young dogs so that they learn effectively. The regularity of a formal training program enables inexperienced dogs to learn what is expected of them. It helps them gain confidence, and from that confidence comes a desire to hunt. Confident dogs are bold. They have cracking tails and plenty of drive. Training programs that bounce around won’t build a dog ready for the next steps. Having a mentally strong dog is the key for outstanding field performance.
I use five steps in my foundational approach. Puppies like to have fun, so I make that initial training time a treat. I make everything a game, and my goal is to bond with the puppy. Most of my communication with them is nonverbal because I want them to feel the enjoyment of being with me. It sets them up for the sequence of additional steps.
I start working dogs with a four- to five-foot rope. I let them pull it around to get used to what eventually becomes a check cord. I focus on moving them to a position where they learn to seek and find. What they’re seeking could be a bumper or other training device. The importance is that they learn there is a task for them to do, which ultimately is to seek and find a gamebird.
Come go with me
Every dog is different, but between four and six months I’ll move to a 10-foot check cord. I’ll use that cord to direct dogs on a zigzag pattern. That is the introduction of teaching them to cast, and the check cord lets me change direction and teach them to move back and forth. I start them in loose patches of short grasses so they become comfortable with the environment. The combination teaches them how I want them to run while exposing them to where I want them to run. Both are skills they’ll need throughout their career. And rather than just let them run on their own, I work them through a particular course. This section really is an extension of the playing we did with the short lead. It builds on the foundation we already laid.
Young dogs get excited. They’re stimulated by the smells, the grass, and learning to change directions. Each of those conditions makes them want to go harder and faster. At this point, I need to add in some correction. I do that by teaching them to heel. Teaching excited dogs to heel reins them back in without having to punish them. From that correction comes mental focus. That mental focus is necessary later on when I introduce them to live birds. Dogs need to know what they can do and what they can’t. Adding in correction teaches a dog to do what I ask them to do.
Change of pace
Speed and pace change during the season. I’ll move quickly through sparse, grassy areas that don’t hold birds, so as to get to areas that do. Once I get to the good areas, I want to slow down the pace. I want dogs to work the areas thoroughly and deliberately. When training young dogs, I change their pace by speeding up and then slowing down. I’ll also shift directions and zigzag my way through a field. Those changes in speed and direction keep the dog focused on me, as well as on the job he’s supposed to do. It’s a balance that we can achieve together.
As dogs grow and mature, distractions should be added to their training. Sometimes I’ll bring along additional people on training runs. At other times I’ll add the pop of a starter pistol. Each of these new experiences is similar to an in-season situation. If my dog loses confidence or focus, they’ll become out of control. The beauty of a progressive foundational approach is that when a dog comes unhinged, I can drop back to the place where the training was going really well. Then I can build back up from there. By eight months of age, my puppies are obedient, handle well, and are steady. The finish work comes later, but the foundation is set. Confident and focused dogs always look for the next step, and when they’re ready, I give it to them.