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.

Ready to hunt?

My name is Larry Malicky from Columbus, NE. I recently purchased a dog from J.Paul Jackson. The dog is 13 months old. I was told that the dog is ready to hunt, but this is not true. The dog is not conditioned to gun noises and not trained to hunt in heavy cover as I was told. Can you make any recommendations as to who in this area is qualified to evaluate this dog and see what if any training can be done to help me overcome these obstacles?

Thank you,
Larry E. Malicky

No dog, despite its age, is ready to hunt until completion of a comprehensive basic gundog course. The dog must be totally reliable on all obedience commands, introduced to water, birds and gunfire, steady to shot/fall and honor other dogs, started on hand signals and whistle commands, lining and marking well, delivery of birds undamaged to hand, hunting cover on command.

Usually a young dog well conditioned to all these basic retrieves skills will be 12 to 14 months old. They are then ready for exposure to their first hunting experience.

Any competent retriever trainer should be able to assist in the evaluation of your dog or you may seek out a hunter/retriever club for assistance. Do not be tempted to hunt a young dog until all the fundamentals of a hunter retriever are completed…
Obedience, steady/honor, delivery to hand, lining, handling (hand signals/whistle commands) and marking.

Whining in the blind

Hi Mike,
I have a lab that when excited (hunting) whines incessantly. Any tips on how to stop this? It drives my partners and I crazy and I'm sure the birds can hear it too when they are close enough.

Todd Haun

No one likes a whiner… This is a severe fault in the hunter-retriever world. Whining can be a genetic fault passed along from parents in some cases. In other cases, it's how the pup was started — not enough emphasis on patience in training, too many excitable marks with gunfire, hunting too early, too much bird exposure at an early age producing overexcitement.

Once the habit is entrenched, it's difficult to correct. An immediate correction with each whine in the blind may help — a quick slap across the face with your cap. Some use e-collars to suppress the behavior but the problem remains. Take the collar off and it's back. If it is a genetic fault, it will not be rectified.

Practice patience in all matters around the house, in training, etc. Use lots of denial conditioning — birds and gunfire without retrieves. Pick up some of the falls yourself or allow other dogs to do it. Delay your releases for retrieves. Run less marks while emphasizing memories and blinds. Again focus on patience.

Teaching old dogs new tricks

I have recently discovered your articles and training tips on ESPN.com. I have found them to be an invaluable source of knowledge to me and my dogs.

I have two Labrador retrievers, a black at 6years old, which I have had for 2years, and a yellow at 3.5 years, who I have had for 1year. I adopted them both from a Lab Rescue organization in the Metro Phoenix area. I recently moved to Flagstaff, Arizona where there are as many dogs as there are people.

My question is, now that I am in a place where I can try and train my Labs towards becoming hunting dogs, how should I go about it? These are dogs that have been "pets" their whole lives and now I want to take them out into the field to work for and with me.

Should I try and train them together or strictly one at a time? I know these questions are very broad, but if you could give me a starting point I would greatly appreciate it.

Thank you very much,
Jeffrey A Davis

First, let me commend you for giving two labs a great home! Rescue groups do a great service to the world of dogs. Attempting to train an older dog as a gundog, one with no prior training at all, can be a difficult task. It's not that older dogs can't learn new skills, but there are hug barrier facing you in the process including:

  • A pet lifestyle. The dog has lived many of the years of his life in an unstructured environment both in and out of the family structure. This has been a lifestyle demanding little expectation for focus, patience and discipline. Hunting dogs can be excellent companion dogs, but the carefree, pleasure-seeking lifestyle of a house pet is not conducive to producing a hunting dog.

  • Unlearning Behaviors. You must overcome years of learned dysfunctional behaviors. With a pup, all one needs to do is train and condition in desirable behaviors and skills. They are a clean slate. Not so with an older dog.

  • A slower learning capacity. Older dogs usually learn at a slower pace than younger puppies. The same is true with people to an extent. Retention is less with older dogs.

If you do proceed with the training of your older dogs, simply follow the same steps for training younger retrievers. Don't skip over steps because of the dog's age. Be prepeared to proceed at a slower pace. Select a good retriever training resource that best fits your training style for assistance. Look at our recommended reading list at http://www.wildrosetradingcompany.com and subscribe to the free Wildrose training newsletter at http://www.uklabs.com.

Thanks for your kind comments about our articles and Q&A Forum. I am pleased that you find them beneficial.

Best in sport,
Mike Stewart