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.

Late swimming lessons

I have been following your column on ESPNOutdoors.com recently. I just
adopted a 1-year-old yellow Lab from a shelter, and have been having a ball
training him.

I recently took him to a small lake and found out that "Hunter" is afraid of water. I guess I expected that he was going to jump right in during a game of fetch, and was disappointed when he put on the brakes at the shoreline. I have a few questions for you, such as …

  • Is this abnormal behavior of a lab?

  • What is the best training method for getting "Hunter" to swim?

  • And typically, how long will it take to train him?

    Any comments or ideas are welcome,

    Thank you,
    Patrick Saeva
    Rochester NY


    Hunter missed a few opportunities to develop foundational skills at an early age such as a proper introduction to water. Although some Labs, which may surprise you, are not fond of water, we should not make this assumption yet about Hunter.

    He needs a chance to grow accustomed to this new unusual environment. Hopefully his reluctance is because of the unknown and not a fear or dislike of water. In almost all cases like Hunter's the reluctance to enter water can be overcome with patient training.

    Use the following tips as single training sessions on hot days with warm water. Use small steps built upon success:

    1. Use no force like throwing in the water off the bank or out of a boat. Use progressive learning and conditioning.

    2. Use shallow water or along the edge of the water next to the bank. Heel Hunter up and down gradually increasing the depth. Over time get deep enough that he will swim a few strokes still at heel.

    3. In shallow water, toss a bumper into the water where Hunter will briefly lose his footing, never along the shore or he'll just go to the bank. Very short tosses.

    4. Put on waders, attach a check cord to Hunter. Leave him on the bank and go out at first only to knee deep water. Call Hunter in. If encouragement is needed, give him a gently nudge with the cord. Over time get to deeper water.

    5. With waders, heel Hunter around in waist-deep water and have him swim at heel and around you. You will need this skill on the hunt as well.

    6. Finally, from water up to Hunter's chest, toss out a bumper to the point Hunter must lose footing to make the retriever. Gradually extend the distance but Hunter begins in the water. Over several sessions, throw from the shallows and finally up the bank. If you have problems, go back to the water.

    If Hunter has potential as a water dog, this should get things going. All it will take is warm weather, patience and taking the time for progressive learning.

    Force fetch

    Thanks for all of your insight on ESPNOutdoors.com. Here is a question of my own:

    I have a 1 1/2 year old golden retriever, Abby. She is a very loving house dog, but I have also trained her steady since she was 9 weeks old. Abby is awesome at marked and blind retrieves and handling. One problem she has always had is that we never force fetched.

    When she retrieves a bumper, instead of returning directly to heel and holding it, she likes to run past me about 8 feet and drop it … then heels. Is there a way to fix this problem without force fetching?

    Kevin Swenson
    Ottertail, MN


    Not a big problem to rectify without force fetch. You simply have an obedience issue.

    First, spend at least 30 days working on obedience only. No retrieves. Make sure your dog is responding to your recall command 100% straight to the front and sit … not to your side at this point. Again, stop and sit in front. If necessary, back up to a fence so she cannot run by. Get this to a 100% proficiency level.

    Step two — No retrieving and follow every step of my Delivery to Hand training program located here: Part I, Part II, Part III. This was the process skipped in Abby's development.

    As a reminder to the other readers, do not progress to hand signals and marking until all the basics are entrenched including delivery to hand or bad habits will be formed. The foundation skills must be entrenched first. They may seem boring to you and you may want to get on with the fun stuff but if you compromise the foundation skills and holes are left in your dog's training, the problems will show up later and once conditioned in as a habit, they will prove more difficult to remove.

    Abby should be no problem to correct. It will take time so get started before season and don't hunt her until you have proper delivery.

    Teaching old dogs new commands

    Dear Mike,

    I've recently adopted what appears to be a stray or otherwise
    Abandoned German Shorthaired Pointer. My veterinarian estimates his age at
    around 6 years … the dog was emaciated and docile when found wandering in a
    campsite, however, hehas acclimated nicely in my home and has gained weight, developed a beautiful coat, and is slowly beginning to play and walk with

    I'm not a hunter, however, I know that these dogs are extremely intelligent hunting dogs … furthermore, I'm vaguely familiar with some basic verbal commands such as "heel," "sit," and "whoa." I've tried the "heel" command with him, and he seems to recognize it, however I can't figure out what commands were used by his former owners to get him to stop pulling, releasing things (such as squeaky toys, which he hangs on to for dear life), and returning to me if he wanders away. Your help in providing some things to try would be most appreciated.

    He's a great companion, extremely affectionate, and quite bright … I'm very interested in trying to train him or figure out what he's been "used to" in the past.

    Thanks again,
    Dr. Trina Seitz
    North Carolina

    You are to be commended for adopting this fine dog that obviously deserved a good home. I am pleased he is turning out to be a beautiful, compatible family dog for you.

    Don't worry about what commands may have been used with your Pointer in the past. Start over with the basics. Establish the verbal, hand signals and whistle commands you want. Be consistent and through repetition your dog will learn your commands.

    To begin with, give the signal/command exactly at the time the dog performs the desired behavior. He will soon make the association. Retraining the dog with new commands should be no problem.

    As far as this tendency to hang on to items, this is really an obedience issue. Perhaps someone played chase or tug-of-war with him in the past. Never do this. Do away with any chew toy he may have as well. Complete your basic obedience training and make sure he comes to you directly every time he is called.

    Next, refer to my "Delivery to Hand" training program (located here Part I, Part II, Part III) for details on eliminating these annoying tendencies. If your dog won't release an object, simply hold the object with one hand and grasp the dog in the opposite flank quickly giving the command, "Dead, give, etc." He will release.

    Siberian hunter?

    I am the proud owner of an 11-month-old Siberian Husky though I'm
    infatuated with watching field tests. I know to be eligible for the
    contest you have to own a particular breed but my question is: can any dog
    be trained to hunt?

    My girlfriend thinks I'm nuts because I went out and
    bought a whistle to start whistle-sit training him. I'm expecting my road
    to be a bumpy one because the Husky temperament is known to be

    Any tips also to grab his attention and keep it?

    He walks
    really well next to me and does alright with heel but when he sees something like
    someone working on a car, another dog, squirrels/rabbits, I've
    automatically lost his attention. I try standing in front of him and
    telling him to 'watch' to get his eyes on me, but instead he'll stay
    but try looking around me. If the distraction is close, he'll try chasing.
    Which brings up another question … do you believe any dog can walk
    off-leash? That was another thing I was told, "Siberians love to run
    and can never be trusted off leash."

    I don't know what to think. He is doing
    alright with the work so far but his temperament and what I've been
    told stops me from going all out. Am I crazy or can it really be done?

    An enthused dog lover even if he does have the "wrong" breed,


    The "best," most probable, answer to your questions of whether any do can be trained to be a hunter is "no." At least not a competent one. There are exceptions.

    I've seen border collies (herd dogs) working as treeing squirrel dogs, Labs working as hound dogs and I once trained a German Shepherd to be a good working retriever (but he didn't like to swim). The best answer is still no, especially if we are looking for natural game-finding ability and handling skills.

    A Husky will likely not have the core instincts to develop into a great hunting dog. Now, he may go out and pick a bird but he may lack the instincts that you would find in a well-bred dog from hunting breeds. In this case, I must agree with your girlfriend.

    Holding your dog's attention would be the first critical need for training any dog, especially a retriever. This should be no problem for you to accomplish even with distractions.

    Get serious about your obedience training on lead with a choker. Don't go off lead or introduce distractions until your dog is 100% on lead.

    At first keep sessions short to hold his focus and gradually extend your training time.

    Once all commands are responded to on lead, begin to drop the lead during sessions. If problems pop up, step on the lead to recover. Gradually add distractions, at first at distances while the dog is on lead. Hold his focus with eye contact, snapping fingers, the clap of your hands or the peep of your whistle if you are whistle training.

    Your Husky, as with any dog, can benefit from obedience training even if he does not have the faculties necessary to become a hunter/retriever.

    The biggest rule of dog selection is always — begin with the end in mind.

    If you want a hunter, the best prospects will always come from the best bred hunting breed you can find whether it be pointers, retrievers, hounds or tree dogs.

    Best of luck to all of you,
    Mike Stewart