By Jessie Richards
There are many opinions about when and how to enforce steadiness in a young retriever. I think we all agree that perfect compliance in remaining steady—sitting and staying until sent for a retrieve—is not a negotiable concept when it comes to a waterfowl dog. But how to achieve that goal often raises questions.
When I’m asked, “At what age should I start steadying my dog?” it indicates that that person is making steadying more difficult than it needs to be. My answer is that I’m not going to give an answer, because steadying is a process that ties to other commands.
Let’s say, for example, that your five-month-old Lab is full of drive and has been running crazy with no restrictions, retrieving everything you throw for it. One day you can’t randomly decide that your pup now needs to sit and wait before it can retrieve. That’s a sure way to set yourself up for a battle. Don’t ruin a good thing by suddenly introducing harsh, negative pressure. Instead, follow two concepts: 1) Steadiness training should be a progression, and 2) there are rewards for remaining steady.
Steadiness is nothing more than remaining sitting until released. And what is sitting? It’s one of the basic obedience commands. You have been working on obedience, right? If not, you should really work on “Heel,” “Sit” and “Here” before you start fretting over how to steady your dog. It would be quite unfair to your retrieving-crazy pup for you to suddenly expect it to become obedient overnight.
Getting a pup to sit when on a lead and at heel is pretty simple. After all, your dog is only at arm’s length and you have the lead attached to a flat, chain or pinch collar so you can apply pressure when needed.
When you’ve achieved consistent compliance with sitting at heel, the next step is to teach the remote sit. With the lead—and eventually a longer lead or check cord—you are still in control, but you are expecting a bit more of your pup. Now you’re insisting on compliance at any distance, whether it’s at five feet or 50. Work on this until your dog is solid in its understanding that it can’t move until you say it’s OK, no matter where you are.
Start with a short duration of time from a few feet away. When your dog stays put for a few seconds, give it an enthusiastic, “OK!” to let it know it can move, and then reward with lots of praise. Vary the duration and distances from which you command the remote sit, so your dog doesn’t start to anticipate when it will be released.
Pay close attention to your dog’s excitement level and reactions to the throws.
Now you can introduce an even better reward. With your dog sitting at heel, casually flip out a bumper several feet. Wait a few seconds, and then send your dog for the prize. I say the dog’s name to release it. Some people say “Back” and some say “Fetch.” Do whatever works best for you. If your dog breaks, bring it back to sitting with a tug on the lead. If you’ve built the foundation through various sitting drills, I can almost guarantee this won’t turn into a drawn-out power struggle.
With that mastered, you can proceed to tossing bumpers while your dog sits some distance from you. Sit, good. Reward, bumper. Simple. You have progressed from simple obedience to steadiness and, other than some collar-and-lead pressure when needed, it should have been and will continue to be a positive experience for both of you.
At this stage in a pup’s development, I progress to a neat drill that my friend and mentor, Ray Voigt, showed me years ago. For this exercise you’ll need a helper with a bunch of bumpers positioned 30 to 40 yards away in a field with short grass. Your pup is sitting at heel, and you’re in control with a lead. Have your helper shout, “Hey, hey!” and toss a bumper. Make sure the bumper lands in plain sight, increasing the temptation to break.
Depending on your pup’s drive and its experiences so far, this might be more excitement than it can handle, so it might break. Calmly but quickly get your pup back to heel and keep applying leash pressure until it is sitting again. No steadiness, no reward. Have your helper toss another bumper. Do this as many times as it takes for your dog to remain rock steady during the throw. When your dog complies, pause a few seconds before letting it fetch its reward.
When you start this drill, pay close attention to your dog’s excitement level and reactions to the throws. If your dog is perfect, then challenge it to break by having your helper yell more excitedly and toss the bumper with more energy. On the other hand, constant breaking means you need to decrease the excitement until your dog learns that there’s a standard for steadiness behavior and no reward without compliance.
While this might seem like an overly simple drill, it’s one you really shouldn’t skip even though you’re enthusiastic about wanting to get to the fun stuff, such as longer marks with duck calls and gunshots and of course real birds. Trying to progress too quickly may result in a dog that is steady some of the time but wants to break during a hunt when birds are circling and guns are going off. Worse, it’s too easy to let things like that slide during the heat of the hunt, which will compound disobedience in the future.
You’ll be way ahead if you treat steadiness as a progressive extension of obedience training and get it wrapped up before your dog’s first hunting season.