My Dog Training Background
I was 17 years old when I went on the first waterfowl hunt of my life. I had hunted all my life, so the whole process was a familiar mystery to me. I went with a coworker of mine to a rice field in Brinkley, Arkansas, and we grinded it out the entire day, sunrise to sunset. “I didn’t drive all this way to sit at the cabin,” he said to me when I asked how long we planned on staying. Looking back, considering the small number of birds we killed, it really was not a very good day of hunting, but little did I know it would be the start of something special. The last bird of the day came in, a lone juvenile speck, looking for a last-minute meal before going to roost. He let me have the shot(s), yes it took all 3, and the bird finally fell into a big muddy splash. When I watched that 13-year-old chocolate lab, named Chief, give everything he had to bring me back my first goose, I knew I was witnessing an aged veteran whose body was starting to fail him, do what he was meant to do and what he loved, for one of the last times. I knew after that that I wanted to work with gun dogs, specifically retrievers. My name is Jake Riley and I own Riley’s Retrievers, a retriever training business located in Bowling Green, KY. Today I am going to take a moment to talk about most of what goes into making a solid companion and hunting partner.
When people bring a puppy home, a lot of times they are unsure of how soon to start working with them. My answer is, “immediately” It is never too early to start teaching your puppy the basics. You don’t have to take them out in the yard and make them heel or sit and stay. You can subconsciously teach them while playing in your living room floor. When you’re playing tug of war, tell them “hold,” and after a few seconds, open their mouth and tell them to “release” or “give.” They don’t have a clue what you are saying, but you would be surprised how quickly they pick up on those key words. Pay attention to them when they are playing. When you can say their name and they stop and look at you, then you’re ready to start the actual training process.
The Importance of Basic Obedience
Training a dog, no matter what it is for, is all about building it up, step by step. You can’t expect a dog to go on a 200-yard blind retrieve if you can’t make him sit beside you. I can’t stress enough the importance of basic obedience. I start with feeding time. Start with just sitting before you feed them. Then make them sit and stay while you sit it down. Then make them sit and stay until you sit it down and give them the okay command. Once they have a general idea of sit and stay, we start walking on a lead. While they’re on the leash you can begin the “heel” command, while still reiterating the sit and stay command. After the dog is comfortable walking with you, and being led by you everywhere on the leash, then you can start with the place command. After about a week the dog should be placing on a box, cooler, dog stand, tree stump, log, etc. without any guidance from the lead rope. Once the dog is placed, then it needs to sit and stay until you tell it to break. After 1-2 months, the dog needs to be heeling, sitting, staying, laying down, placing, and kenneling on command, as well as collar conditioned. If you get nothing else out of this blog, remember that the basics are by far the most important thing you can teach a dog. If it can do the little things right, then it can do the big things right. Throughout the entire process, ALWAYS go back to the basics.
The "Hold" Command
Once I am confident in the dog’s basic obedience abilities, I will move to the force fetch table. Some people teach the “hold” command and some don’t, but I am 100% in favor of teaching it. The last thing I want is my dog dropping a cripple on the way back and it diving and getting away. I make my dogs hold my hand with a glove on, then the glove itself, then a paint roller, followed by a canvas bumper, small training buck, wooden training buck, 2” hexabumper, 3” hexabumper, an oversized bumper, a 2” stick of pvc, 3” stick of pvc, and finally a real bird. It may be excessive, but this is starting the dog’s thought process that it has to fetch and hold anything it is told to.
Advanced Training Tips
After the hold command, I move onto the ear pinch and force fetch process, A lot of people disagree with the force fetch process. They view it as a cruel way to get a dog to do what you want through pain. I have to disagree. Force fetching shouldn’t be about inflicting pain on the dog. When done properly, it will start to teach a dog the drive that it takes overcome distractions and uncomfortability to get the job done. After the dog is picking up birds off the table, with or without pinching their ear, then we will move to the ground. I will start pile and ladder drills, getting further away and getting them comfortable with picking up birds off the ground. After all that, now we will start the actual retrieving, throwing short singles and doubles for them. Soon thereafter I will introduce the gun shots to them, incorporating them into the retrieves. They have to realize that gun shots are good, not scary. Gun shots mean they get to do their job (unless you shoot like me), so incorporate them as much as you can into your training. Once the dog is holding steady to gunshots, retrieving singles and doubles, holding the bird to heel on land and in water, and kenneling in their blind with the bird, then I will move onto the finishing side of things.
When people think of blind retrieves, they generally only think of stopping the dog with a whistle and give them hand signals to guide them to the bird. In reality, the goal of a blind retrieve is to run a straight line to the bird without having to stop the dog at all. So, before I even start with whistle sits and hand signals, I go back to my pile drills. I love wagon wheel drills to work on going to whichever pile I send the dog to. Once I’m confident in the dog running solid lines, then I will start with the whistle sits and hand signals. Tee drills, line drills with a pile off to the side, etc. After that the possibilities are endless. I’ll start running simple blind retrieves, then add a poison bird, then move the blind a little further, or move to a hilly or brushy terrain, and so on. The dog is only going to stop learning when you stop trying to teach him new things. Your dog should be close to finishing and ready to hunt after a minimum of 6 months. However, just like children, no two dogs are built the same. They learn differently, and will struggle with some things that other dogs will breeze through. It could take 6 months and it could take a year and a half to get a dog where the owner is satisfied.
Remember to Remain Consistent
If I could give everyone three pieces of advice for training their dogs, it would be to do the little things right, begin with the end in mind and be consistent. Know what you want in a dog before you ever start, so you know what to expect, what to work on, and what you want when you take that dog to the blind. Lastly, consistency is key. Once you decide what you want the dog to do, don’t stray from that and work on it every day. Even if it is just for 10 minutes at a time, work with your pup every single day if you want to see the best results. Thank you for taking the time to read this. If you ever have any questions, advice, or just want to talk hunting or dogs, feel free to reach out to me on Facebook or Instagram. Thank you and God bless.