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Retriever Training: Adding Polish & Style

One trainer insists that instilling confidence in your dog during training will result in top in-the-field performance

Style is hard to define, but one thing is certain: All of us want our dog to have it. Including Keith Allison. “To me, style is subjective,” he says. “Your idea of style may be different than mine, but when it comes to retrievers, a stylish dog to me is one that’s right on the edge, but under control. Typically, that dog is very focused on its work. It’s running hard, it’s putting out 100 percent effort, it’s persistent when it gets to the area where the bird is . . . and it’s confident. A confident dog is typically a very stylish dog.”

The confidence Allison speaks so highly of is systematically developed in his training program. Allison and his partners, Johnny Kinzey and Derek Randle, own War Eagle Retrievers, a kennel in, among other locations, Pea Ridge, Arkansas. Several years ago, the three young men tired of the 9 to 5 world (Allison was a physical therapist, Randle a graphic designer, and Kinzey worked at Gates Rubber), and pooled their talents to form War Eagle. The stars must have aligned that day, for since then the trio has racked up more than 60 titles in AKC, UKC, and NAHRA hunt tests, as well as appearing on ESPN and the Outdoor Channel and in sportsmen’s shows across the South.

Intense desire—a dog that lives to hunt and will do almost anything to complete a retrieve—is determined by genetics, Allison says. But if the dog has the intelligence and the genes, everything else is up to the trainer. And what trainers need to do, he says, is give their dog the experience it needs to develop its potential.

Still, no dog is ready for polish until it has thoroughly grasped the fundamentals. Typically, Allison says, that means beginning with a started dog, one that has been collar-conditioned, trained in basic obedience and force-fetch, and is completing single marks in the field and on water. “The single mark is the key,” Allison says. “To polish it, we take that started dog and go out and really work on those singles—increasing the distance, increasing the challenge, adding more cover, making that single mark more and more challenging—but only as long as the dog is performing at a level every step of the way that is showing that confidence.”

At this stage, Allison and the War Eagle boys use ducks to jazz their dogs and keep their enthusiasm level high. It almost always works. “By doing single marks with birds, we’ll typically build that dog’s confidence up and allow it to really focus on what it’s doing, as opposed to, say, lots of multiple marks, which a dog at that (started) level may not be ready for yet,” he says. “What we’re trying to do is simplify things. We’re trying to simplify the task or the mark or the blind, whatever it is that the dog is lacking style in. And we’re going to keep simplifying things until the dog is showing the confidence we’re looking for, because confidence equals style. Then and only then, we’re going to increase the challenge, but only if the dog has 100 percent confidence in what it’s doing, in what it’s been trained in so far.”

Allison keeps coming back to building confidence because he feels so strongly that it is critical to developing a hard-charging, stylish retriever. But most dogs aren’t born with confidence; it has to be developed. And in some cases, the path of development may short-circuit the process.

“People get eager, and they want to rush through the training,” Allison says. “Human nature gets in the way, and it causes some people to push their dog too fast, too soon. Then what happens is that the dog really doesn’t understand the task that’s in front of it, and it loses confidence in its handler.”

If that is the case, as it sometimes is with dogs trained by inexperienced owners, Allison suggests going back and trying to locate the sticking point. “What is the problem?” he asks. “What parts of the dog’s training aren’t yet stylish? And finally, how could it have been prevented? Again, what it invariably comes down to is simplifying things.”

Once he’s discerned the problem, Allison works with the dog on that particular task until it can perform it reliably. By learning one task thoroughly before moving on to the next, the dog learns to trust itself. Then, when the dog knows what it is doing and is confident of success, a transformation of sorts takes place, and the real retriever, the kind we all want, begins to emerge.

Allison loves that moment. “When I walk to the line and someone throws a bird, I want that dog to sit there and say to itself, ‘Man, I am on auto pilot. I know what I’m supposed to do.’ That tells me that the dog is confident. When the dog knows the drill, when it’s gone through its training a step at a time and knows its obedience and knows what it means when it’s corrected by a collar and knows that it’s supposed to hold a bird in its mouth . . . when it’s got all the yard work down and is able to apply it in a single-mark setting, then it’s going to swim hard to that bird or run hard to that bird because of what we’ve done to build that foundation of confidence.”

And that, according to Allison, is style.

Article by Dave Carty – From DU Magazine

Article Source: Ducks Unlimited Inc.

Ducks Unlimited conserves, restores and manages wetlands and associated habitats for North America‘s waterfowl. These habitats also benefit other wildlife and people. Visit their web site at to learn more, support their mission or to find more info.

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Retriever Training

Retriever Training: Common Problems, Practical Solutions for Serious Hunting Mistakes

Bad scenario number one: Your retriever runs to the mark, but halfway back to you, spits out the bird to devote attention to something else. Two: In the field, the dog won’t return when you call, although it minds flawlessly at home. Three: The dog breaks at the sound of the shot, dives out of the blind, and for good measure, wrecks the decoy layout while swimming through it.

Reality check: These are problems to be dealt with by every trainer—pro and amateur alike—and they may occur over and over again.

If there is one constant in dog training, it’s that there are no quick fixes for any chronic problem—shock collars notwithstanding. There is no trainer alive who has not run into a wall at some point in his or her career. Verily, while the sheer number of problems is as numerous as stars unto the heavens, most of them fall under four general categories.

Each category presents a dilemma, and an opportunity for a sober reassessment: Are the problems due to a glitch in your training? If so, you will need to get through the situation at hand, then work on a long-term solution.

Texan Jeff Henard of High Praise Retrievers has suggestions for both. Henard is equally versed in the ups and downs of repairing canine behavior.

Problem 1: The dog refuses to complete a retrieve.

“During an exciting situation, the dog’s true habits are going to come out, good or bad,” Henard says. “My wife is an eighth-grade math teacher, and in a lot of ways, training dogs is like teaching math to kids: You have to teach them to add and subtract before you can teach them to multiply and divide.

“So, if the dog refuses to retrieve, I go out there and first try to get the dog to pick up the bird. If that doesn’t work, I’ll put the bird in the dog’s mouth and make him hold it. You have to try to get the dog to be successful, and your commands have to show the dog in black and white—this is right, this is wrong.”

Once back home, Henard says, the dog is re-schooled through a fetching regimen that forces it to retrieve in exciting situations—while guns are going off, duck calls are being blown, and so on. Eventually, he says, the dog will show him that it understands what it is being asked to do—regardless of distractions.

Problem 2: Your dog won’t return when you call.

Henard suggests nipping this one in the bud. “In this situation, I calmly herd up the dog and put him in his box,” he says. “Then, if there is a break for lunch, or later that afternoon, I will take him out and have an obedience session with him on a check cord or with a shock collar. He has to show me he knows what ‘here’ means.”

And at home? You’ve got it—he drills the dog in returning on the whistle over and over again. “We teach dogs book smarts in the yard,” Henard says. “But they have to learn street smarts in the field.”

Problem 3: Your dog breaks at the shot.

If your dog has spent the off season “sitting on the couch eating Scooby snacks,” as Henard likes to say, it’s almost a foregone conclusion that, for the first day or two of the season, the dog will break when it hears a shot. Here, Henard believes an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and recommends steadying practice before the season begins—“to get the dog back in the mindset of working and retrieving birds.”

Dogs still break, however, and for these infractions, Henard recommends an on-the-spot refresher course. “If there’s not a lot of birds flying around, we’ll have a little training session,” he says. “We’ll take a bird and throw it, and have someone else fire a shot. If the dog breaks, we correct him.

“ Hunting,” Henard says, “is controlled chaos. Typically, when dogs do things wrong, it’s because they haven’t been trained to do them right.”

Problem 4: Your dog won’t quarter to the gun.

In the uplands, a retriever that stays within range is a must. Unfortunately, that’s not always what happens. “One of the big mistakes people make with Labs is not putting any scent out or not running the dog in thick cover,” Henard says. “You turn a Lab out where there’s no scent and no cover and you’ve got a track meet.”

If one of Henard’s dogs takes off and flushes birds out of range, he first tries bringing it to heel until the dog settles down. If that fails, he puts the dog up. Henard believes that bad behavior is self-reinforcing.

Later, Henard will retrain the dog in quartering. He’ll zigzag through a field, planting birds at visual reference points—a tree, fence line, whatever. That way, the dog learns to run from one visual reference to the next, expecting game. As the dog’s training progresses, Henard uses fewer birds until the dog is quartering naturally before him.

There they are—a list of the biggies. If you have not yet run up against one of them, take a deep breath, for you most certainly will. But with patience and persistence, these problems nearly always can be solved.

Article by Dave Carty – From DU Magazine

Article Source:
Ducks Unlimited Inc.

Ducks Unlimited conserves, restores and manages wetlands and associated habitats for North America‘s waterfowl. These habitats also benefit other wildlife and people. Visit their web site at to learn more, support their mission or to find more info.

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Balance in Dog Training

By Mike Stewart – Wildrose Kennels – Home of Drake the DU Dog

The Process

A well-rounded hunter retriever is best developed when provided a balanced diet, not only in the food he consumes, but also in the training experiences he encounters. The art of retriever training includes striking a productive, logical, progressive balance in a dog’s training regiment. Dwelling exclusively on just one skill for extended periods can diminish other previously established skills. Furthermore, this oversight will likely result in a bored dog displaying lackadaisical performance. Successful training methodology involves balance in its structure.

First, let’s review a few of the previously established basic truths about dog training methodology.

  • Dogs learn best through causal relationships established through consistent repetition (the learning chain–parts of the whole).
  • Dogs have better retention through positive reinforcement, not force.
  • Training should enhance/complement natural ability, not disguise it.
  • Training is teaching, not testing. Dogs don’t learn from failure.
  • Dogs do learn through group dynamics.
  • Training involves 4 phases: yard, field, transitional, hunting.

These assumptions have been established in many of our Wildrose Training articles. Now let’s add balance in training structure.

  • Training is not a program, it is a process.
  • Dogs learn best when instruction is cyclical.
  • Training sessions should involve both primary and counter skills.

Training as a Process

To establish balance in training a retriever, one should not subscribe to a mindset of a “training program.” Successful retriever training methodology is best described as a process, not a program. Programs are straight continuums with a beginning and an end. Far too often this “training program” is universally applied to all dogs, despite the dog’s maturity, aptitude, ability, or progression. Programs move from step to step, seldom re-visiting previously established skills. Processes, on the other hand, are never-ending cycles of planning, teaching, re-visiting established skills, and evaluation. The assessment phase provides direction for the next training session.

Daily evaluation causes the trainer to assess results, scrutinize methodology (is it working?), clarify desirable outcomes, assess the dog’s attitude and as a result, modify training methods accordingly. The training process must remain flexible based on the individual dog’s needs and abilities. No “fixed regiment” or off-the-shelf, canned training program can replace a logical training process customized to fit your individual dog. In dog training, one size does not fit all.

When training your dog, remember to:

1. Evaluate your dog daily and periodically throughout the training session. Ask yourself these questions:

Is the learning progressing?
Are the methods working?
How is the dog’s attitude?

2. Re-visit previously established skills continuously. Keep core skills entrenched. Avoid, “Okay, that’s it for obedience, you got it, ole boy. Now it’s on to marking.” You can never stop reinforcing previously conditioned skills.

Article Source: Ducks Unlimited Inc.

Ducks Unlimited conserves, restores and manages wetlands and associated habitats for North America‘s waterfowl. These habitats also benefit other wildlife and people. Visit their web site at to learn more, support their mission or to find more info.

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