Did your dog do anything last hunting season that you weren’t particularly happy with? I’ll admit that mine did. What’s really frustrating—and I’m sure you can relate—is when a dog that exhibits near-perfect manners and performance during off-season training starts to just “do its own thing” in the heat of the hunt. What to do?
One concept that I explain to clients who bring me dogs for training is that you should think of your relationship with your dog as an employer-employee agreement. As much as you love your dog, when you head to the field, you are putting your dog to work. If your dog does its job well, it will be rewarded with a paycheck in the form of getting to wrap its mouth around a warm mallard, grouse or pheasant.
With this agreement in mind, it follows that the way to fix bad behavior is to withhold that paycheck until your employee improves its performance. I can’t address every problem situation you might encounter, but let me give you two examples and explain how I would correct them.
Let’s say you have a young pointing dog that has proven to be rock-steady to wing & shot during training. Then during hunting season your normally perfect dog develops an annoying habit of trying to jump in and catch the bird (breaking) before you’ve had a chance to flush it. But it’s hunting season, you tell yourself. It’s a minor infraction. And you can still make the shot, so you do, and your dog retrieves the bird. All good, right? No, it’s not. You just rewarded your employee for not doing its job. This problem won’t correct itself. In fact, I guarantee it will only get worse.
The short-term solution, which requires some willpower on your part, is that the next time your dog flushes or breaks, don’t shoot. You’ll need to do some retroactive training after the hunt, but for the short-term you need to withhold that paycheck. Every time you pay your dog for not doing its job, you’re making it harder to gain compliance when you go back to training.
In this case, my suggestion would be to take a time-out from hunting the next weekend and address the root of the breaking problem. This means going back to live, planted-bird work in setups that tempt the dog to break. I wouldn’t reward the dog with the chance to retrieve a shot bird until a couple dozen repetitions of rock-solid, no-break points and flushes. Once the employee has worked through your “performance improvement plan,” you can put it back on the payroll.
Retriever owners run into similar problems. I recently had a client bring me a two-year-old, super-talented, hard-charging Lab for the summer. During her training time at my kennel, the Lab ran great on cold blinds, stopped at my whistle to take casts and was developing into a dog that was everything a duck hunter could ask for. But come fall the client was back, needing help. He was frustrated because when hunting, once his dog took off for a retrieve, there was nothing he could do to control her. Being new to dog training, he also was worried about using harsh corrections for fear of ruining his dog’s drive. So he felt he had no choice but to let the dog run hither and yon until she eventually found a duck to bring back.
Now we had a situation where a dog had collected a lot of paychecks without really doing the job her employer was supposed to require. I showed my client a solution that has worked for me numerous times on dogs that develop a whistle-refusal issue. We took the dog back to the same place where we had worked on “double-T” casting drills, which involve a lot of whistle-stopping.
I set out a pile of plainly visible bumpers at 100 yards, and then sent the Lab for the first retrieve. At 30 yards I whistled to stop her and, predictably, she barely hesitated. A sharp “No!” stopped her. I then repeated the whistle blast to get her to sit. Next, I called her back to the exact spot where she had refused to stop and again whistled for her to sit. Now she could connect the bad job she had done before with the good job she just had completed. I gave her a “Good girl,” and she wagged her tail.
That interaction was kind of like a paycheck advance, but she wasn’t going to get the full payment unless she did things the way the boss wanted. I sent her again, let her go a few yards and then stopped her with the whistle. I did that six more times on her way to the pile before finally letting her pick up a bumper and bring it back. This process of “overemphasizing” what you expect is the kind of repetition that builds compliance.
After a few sessions like this, I had my client run the same drill as I stood by and coached him. We needed his dog to understand that the employment agreement was in force no matter who the boss was on any given day.
When a new problem develops, whether it’s during training season or hunting season, the solution is not always immediately evident. You may need to get input from your training buddies or ask a pro for help. If you’re dedicated to finding the fix, it will come to you. But first and foremost: Don’t let the problem get worse by continuing to sign that paycheck if your employee isn’t doing the work.
Charlie Jurney has been training performance and hunting breeds for more than 30 years, during which time he has produced hundreds of titled dogs. He and his wife, Cathy, own and operate Beaverdam Kennels, in Terrell, North Carolina. For more information, visit finisheddog.com.