Q&A with a professional dog trainer

Editor's note: Mike Stewart has nearly 30 years of experience breeding and training sporting dogs and is currently training Drake, the official Labrador retriever of Ducks Unlimited. To learn more about Wildrose Kennels and the training methodology used by Mike, visit www.uklabs.com. If you have a training question, email Mike and he may answer your question in an upcoming column.



I just purchased a nine-week-old yellow Lab. We have started crate training.

What other basic training can we expect the pup to respond to at this age? How long should we let the puppy be a puppy?

I am new to this and do not want to train in a bad habit that will need correction later.

Chris Elton

You are off to a good start. Crate training and house breaking are always first on the puppy training agenda. Simple rule: Whatever is imprinted in the pup at this young age will never be forgotten so let's make every effort to imprint desirable behaviors.

Two age brackets for learning are 6 weeks to 3.5 months and 3.5 months to 6 months. Your pup is in the former age group and early training is focused on simple skills and conditioning. Keep all sessions short (2-3 minutes). Hold pups' attention. Training should include:

  • Respond to come whistle

  • Teach name and meaning of "no"

  • Tie out

  • Lead (not heel)

  • Sit in response to lead pressure

  • A few simple, short retrieves in a confined area

  • No gunfire or cold water at this age.

  • Bad habits that are often instilled in the early stages are:

  • Tug-of-war

  • Chase

  • Scratching belly or back

  • Just remember, don't "program" something in your pup that you will not want to see later or a problem that must be suppressed through training later.

    Good luck with your pup.

    Part-time hunter, pet

    Dear Mr. Stewart,
    I am a very casual duck hunter. I may go a couple of times a year. This week, I am picking up a Labrador puppy, primarily as a family pet. I would like to train this puppy to be a satisfactory gun dog as well, in-line with the new book by Mr. Milner.

    My wife is very concerned that I would be training the puppy to be a gundog (i.e., getting her excited about hunting) but will not be taking her out hunting often enough to provide the reward for the hard work (i.e., not delivering).

    We are both sold on the importance of obedience, but my opinion is that gundog training will be useful for the dog even if I only take her hunting a couple of times a year because it will continue to provide her with a "job" to learn and keep her occupied and out of trouble. And, the times I do go hunting will be that much more enjoyable for everyone if I have a well-trained gundog.

    What are your thoughts on gundog training for a dog that will only go hunting a few times per year?

    Thank you,
    Jake Parker

    You are absolutely correct. If you bought your pup from stock of good hunting genetics, the pup will likely develop into a dog that loves to work, that is retrieve.

    Robert's book is an excellent resource. As you may well know, he is the founder of Wildrose and our training methods are based on principles of developing natural ability. If your new pup has those natural gifts/desires, they will love to train and enjoy the field even if you don't hunt your dog that often.

    Training, especially obedience work, can establish a position pack hierarchical relationship between the handler and the dog. The outcome is a more enjoyable experience. Training provides opportunities for exercise as well. So, training time will not be wasted.

    Good luck and train on!

    Hardmouth, controllability

    Mr. Stewart,
    We rescued a three-year-old Brittany and want to train him for upland birds.

    Unfortunately the previous owners played tug-of-war with him, creating a hard mouth, and he tends to get so excited about going after the birds that he becomes uncontrollable.

    Is there anything that can be done about these two problems?


    Starting with an older dog in training is an uphill struggle in most instances. Unlike a pup, first you must train out undesirable behaviors, like tug-of-war, before new skills can be developed. It can be done but the work and time commitment will be more of an investment with much slower and inconsistent outcomes.

    Pups learn much faster, as do kids, than adult dogs, or humans for that matter. Negative behaviors entrenched as a pup are difficult to remove through training. They may be minimized, but whatever is conditioned into a pup at a young age will not be forgotten. That's nature.

    In the wild, dogs, wolves and coyotes get early indoctrination by Mom into the rules of life. They learn or perish. Dogs are programmed to have similar relationships. What is entrenched at an early age is difficult to minimize later. There will be your main struggle. Controllability and hard mouth will be among the few of the problems you may face.

    However, it can be done.

    As for controllability, start completely over with obedience training. Make sure all the basics are thoroughly entrenched: recall, stop to the whistle, steadiness.

    A hard mouth can be a challenging dysfunction that may require force fetch training.

    First, let's go through the "Wildrose Condition to Hold" training (Part I, Part II, Part III) and determine the outcomes.

    When using birds, only use partially thawed, frozen birds. They are much more difficult to damage. Stay away from hard, plastic bumpers using only fire hose-type bumpers. Hard plastic is not conducive to developing a good mouth.

    Best of luck all,
    Mike Stewart