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.

Water entry

I have 3-year old Lab, she hunts upland game birds fantastic and also is good in the duck blind. My only problem with her is her entry into the water. She is very slow and paces back and forth before entering the water. She will always make the retrieve but really does not seem very excited about the water. Is there anything I can do?

Mike Bogert

We will assume that your dog is from a solid line of waterdogs and has no natural dislike of water passed on from ancestors. We will assume you properly introduced her to water at an appropriate age, on warm days, by gentle means; assuring no negative experiences. We shall presume that your retriever has not been injured upon entry into the water. Each of these factors could play a large part as to the problems you face.

Bold water entries are flashy, denoting enthusiasm, but they may be a very dangerous trait for the hunting dog. It is easy to injure a big entry dog on an underwater obstacle like a t-post, barbed wire, beaver snags or cypress knee. We want a stylish, direct entry but one that is not hazardous to the dog.

We shall forgo the commonly used method, "force to the pile," which is actually an extension of force fetch using an electronic collar. We want to build your hunting pal's confidence through natural means.

1. For water retrieves, use your dog's favorite bumper much like a fun bumper. Don't establish many other training expectations as we focus on direct entry. Concentrate on one problem at a time.

2. If you are using an electric collar, stop all correction in or around water. This could be the source of the stress; improper correction/force in the water. Do your training and corrections for a while on land. At the water, concentrate on simple retrieves that would motivate your dog to enter.

3. While training, get your dog hot on land where she will want to get into water to cool down (incentive).

4. Begin by conducting water retrieves while standing in shallow water accepting the retrieve upon return in the water. Use a water source that will allow the dog to "bound" away on release rather than swim. The bounding effect can feed on itself with a dog, making him more aggressive in the water.

5. Next, modify #4 by walking out while the dog is away on the retrieve to allow delivery on the bank very close to water's edge.

6. Reverse #4 by tossing the bumper from the water onto the bank. The dog is sent for the bumper while in the water, exits on the bank and returns into the water for delivery. Note the difference in the re-entry as you encourage the return.

7. Repeat step #5. When delivery is made, pitch a short, quick bumper in the water for an immediate return. No lining, sitting or steadiness. Get enthusiasm and excitement.

8. Later I use a long, sloped bank of short grass bordering a clean pond edge into shallow water. Get the dogs momentum up going down the bank for the bumper clearly visible and not too far out. Do this in a known area to the dog for confidence… they have been here and feel secure.

There are other tricks, but these should get you off to a good start. Remember we are developing confidence. Success promotes success. Keep it simple, fun and interesting and only address one problem at a time.

Soft mouth

My 7-month old Lab female has too soft a mouth. She does not like to hold
rubber bumpers. She will go get them and bring them back, but drops them
when she gets back to me. I have tried working with her to hold more, and
she will do it okay in the yard, but does not carry the lessons to the field.

Jerry Moreman

A soft mouth is a good trait that should be encouraged in a young prospect. First, you need to stop using plastic or rubber bumpers. They don't feel like a bird. They get slippery and dirty in hot weather due to excessive saliva and they are hard and cold in winter. Switch to canvas or fire hose bumpers that are 2-inches in diameter and are light enough for your young dog to carry. You may be surprised at the effects of just this measure.

Stop all retrieves in the field until the delivery problem is rectified. To continue will just reinforce the problem.

Follow the steps of my article, "Delivery to Hand, Part I and II." In the field keep your pup calm and focused as you do hold and recall exercises. Be sure to do the hold exercises in a variety of field situations including in the water, through ditches, under fences, etc.

Complete these drills in the cool times of the day to avoid excess panting. Use lots of praise after proper delivery. Initially use front delivery at sit instead of insisting on coming to your side.

If problems continue, you may find it necessary to polish your conditioning with force fetch.

Range control

I have a 2-year old German shorthaired pointer that did pretty well last year in his first hunting season. Although he pointed, held, retrieved well, he seems to range a
little further than I would like. Any suggestions?

Thank You,
George Carroll

Initially I train pointers much the same as a flusher. I want both to stay close in to gun range, be methodical in covering the ground, and be rock steady on the flush. So, my initial steps to establish range are very similar whether the dog is a Lab, German shorthaired pointer or Vizala.

I cut a large grass field into lanes of 60 feet cover and 30 feet mowed or plowed ground. I begin in the cover by casting the dog at angles (a zig-zag pattern) toward the outer edge. Before the dog breaks cover, I signal with a whistle command (2 peeps) and turn toward the opposite side at a hard angle while casting the dog over.

Obviously, the dog must be well conditioned to hand signals and whistle commands prior to these exercises. I run this zig-zag pattern repeatedly as we go through the field.

I usually run into the wind if possible and capitalize on the dog's natural preference not to run directly into the wind. Plant your cold game or bumpers at the outer edges of the 60'cover at staggered intervals at first. The reward is always found close in. If the dog ranges too far out, stop and recall him or simply switch directions recalling him. They soon learn your comfort zone which avoids recall.

On live/fresh game — Normally, I use a tailwind to keep a sharp-nosed dog from catching scent and forging ahead.

After your range is conditioned in the lanes, you may move into other environments.

Good training!
Mike Stewart