DIY or Bring in the Pros?

Going the DIY route for training can be very rewarding, but dog owners should be prepared to invest plenty of time and effort as well as money for birds, gear and more.

In a way dog training is like a home-improvement project. Some prefer the do-it-yourself approach, while others hire a pro. One approach isn’t necessarily better than the other, but they sure are different.

Proper Preparation

The joy of hunting over a dog you trained is identical to the feeling of catching a fish on a fly you tied. And the best way to do that is to set yourself up for success. 

Time: To bring along a pup properly, you need time. A daily commitment is best, so think about your work-life balance. Young pups do best with short sessions, but as they get older they require more time. Spending time with pups develops strong bonds and a team approach. Exposing your pup to everything it will encounter in its adult life takes time, as this includes introducing the pup to different environments, people, other dogs and animals, travel in a kennel, vet visits and the like. Once you start training, you’ll need time to move your pup from basic through finished work. Make sure you have enough time before you commit to doing things yourself. 

Birds: Most trainers work with a combination of wild and liberated birds. If you don’t have the space to raise your own quail or pheasants, you can always order a box from a gamebird farm. Costs typically range from $5.50 to $17 per bird, depending on the species and time of year, plus two-day shipping (unless you can find a local source). You’ll need feed, grit, water and a caged storage area too. Another option is to check with a local preserve about off-season training opportunities.

Training grounds: Basic yardwork and steadiness training don’t require a lot of space. But when you work on your dog’s handling and patterning, when you start conditioning and when you’re launching bumpers for retrieves, you’ll need more acreage. You’ll need to release birds and discharge a starter pistol, so review rules and regulations, if you’re training on public land. It’s also tough to maintain focus if you’re interrupted by folks exercising house pets, so try to find a secluded area.Again, some hunting preserves offer spring and summer training packages that might be a solution. 

A training platform: If you’ve trained dogs before, then you probably have your own training progression with benchmarks. If it’s your first time, then you’ll likely need help. Experienced friends are best, but there are lots of excellent resources ranging from books, magazines, digital articles, videos and YouTube training modules. Many pro trainers offer handler clinics that teach attendees how to work with their dogs. Consumer shows like Pheasants Forever’s Pheasant Fest or the various Game Fairs have demonstrations and/or Q&A sessions. The AKC and UKC are great resources for finding a dog training club or breed chapter in your area.

Gear: There are plenty of outlets that sell training gear and, depending on your training method, you’ll need clickers and treats, e-collars and/or GPS collars, leads, check cords, bumpers, launchers, whistles, starter pistols, remote bird launchers or cages, and more. The costs can add up, but it’s all part of the fun. 

Going Pro

Pro trainers have all the tools and talent to bring your pup along. Since they typically work with dozens—if not hundreds—of dogs per year, odds are high that they’ve been there and done that. Dog training is a reputation-driven business, so interview several trainers until you find one in alignment with your expectations. Most trainers provide references, but ask your hunting buddies for their recommendations too. How long it will take a pro to train your dog will depend on how much prep work has been done and what level of training you expect. But the fees should be all-inclusive and include premium feed, birds and everything else.

Timing-wise, puppies arrive at their new homes usually when they are around eight weeks old and, since their brains develop much faster than their bodies, pro trainers like to see them as early as possible. Also, when picking up your pup from the trainer, plan to work with the trainer so that you are familiar with commands and hand or whistle signals. It’s important to all be on the same page.

Here are some tips from leading experts on how owners can get the most from professional dog training.

Chris Akin, Webb Footed Kennel (Jonesboro, Arkansas)

Years training: 35

Focus: retrievers

Boarding and training cost per month: $1,000

To date, Akin, a Eukanuba Sporting Dog pro, has trained more than 5,000 Labs. He’s also produced more than 600 Hunting Retriever Champions, more than 300 Master Hunters, 65 Grand Hunting Retriever Champions and two Super Retriever Series Crowned Champions. 

His request is simple: Socialize your dog. “Forty years ago folks were terrified to do anything with their puppies,” Akin said. “They didn’t want to make a mistake. But the fact is that the biggest mistake made came from doing nothing. My biggest request for clients is to socialize their dogs. Get them used to everything they’ll encounter in their lives. Introduce them to water, fields, other dogs, kennels, boats, blinds, you name it. Get them used to yardwork like sitting, fetching and retrieving and walking quietly on a lead. Bird contacts are a plus but not necessary. When you drop ’em off at the kennel, make sure they are socialized and their instincts are sharp. I’ll take care of the rest.”

Jared Moss, Best Gun Dogs (Beaver, Utah)

Years training: 28

Focus: versatile dogs and hounds

Boarding and training cost per month: $1,700

Moss wants owners to be knowledgeable about kennel life and training programs before they drop off their pups. “Home life is very different from kennel life,” he said. “It can be quite a shock for a dog to go from sleeping on a couch to sleeping in a dog run. At home a dog may be the only pup in the house. With a pro trainer, that dog may be around 50 to 75 other dogs. At home the pup might get a short daily walk that is 30 minutes long and in a park. At a kennel dogs get conditioned and worked for much longer times. At home rest follows the brief walk, while at a kennel there is little down time. Dogs barking, pacing and carrying on keep most dogs from getting a peaceful rest. Because home and kennel conditions are so different, I encourage all clients to visit my training kennel. During that visit I evaluate their dogs, work with them to set realistic expectations and then develop a timeline. We also work out a transition platform so that their dogs can more easily adjust to kennel life. A successful adjustment is important; if we have to spend several weeks on basic obedience or conditioning, then we’ll need to add more training time, which increases the costs.”

Mark Fulmer, Sarahsetter Kennels (Aiken, South Carolina)

Years training: 45

Focus: pointing dogs

Boarding and training cost per month: $1,200

Fulmer has been training and field-trialing bird dogs for nearly his entire life, but there is one element he can’t impact: bond. “I can’t affect the connection between a dog and his owner,” he said. “Before owners bring dogs to me for training, I want them to have spent time with their dogs. Time together creates a bond between the owner and his dog. If that bond is strong, then I can do a lot with the dog. A strong bond with a dog creates confidence in the pup. It creates desire to work, a willingness to please, obedience and a boldness in the field. Introductions to everything should be done as positively as possible. For example, if an owner drags or throws a dog into the water, then the dog will be fearful of the water. It will take me time to get the dog to overcome his fear of the water so that I can teach him a water retrieve.”

How an owner arrives at the kind of excellent dogwork that is cherished and remembered doesn’t matter. It matters not if you train yourself or hire a pro, because in the end it’s always been—and always will be—about the dog. 

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