Chances are, if you look outside this time of year you are going to see white, a lot of white. In our home state of Wisconsin, deer seasons have come to an end for the most part and we are moving on to the next season of outdoor activities- most of which include ice and or snow. These are also the kind of conditions that make most professional dog trainers load up their trailers and head south. But for trainers and dog owners like myself, these are the conditions I look forward to during those hot, humid months of June, July and August. Shed hunting dog season is right around the corner.
I can’t wait for cold temperatures which allow me to exercise and actively work dogs on quartering and casting with little or no concern for overheating and exhaustion. When I say quartering and casting, most think of their upland dogs working the CRP for roosters or the tag alders in hopes of flushing the King. But much like deer season, the small game season has come and gone this time of year as well.
So, what’s next on the list for our shed hunting dogs and I? With the close of the deer season I immediately shift into the mode of shed hunting dog season. My approach to preparing our dogs to pick up antlers will be picking up right where we left off during bird season. In fact, one way I prepare my shed dogs for spring is no differently than working my dogs for birds. I can take the quartering and casting drills we’ve been using to prepare our flushers and simply change from bumpers or birds to antler dummies and real antlers if the dog is ready.
For many like myself, shed season can be as much, or maybe even more exciting to look forward to than deer season. It happens at a time of the year when we are limited as to what other “hunting” we could be doing and it’s a great way to spend time working my shed hunting dog. I am asked often whether or not shed hunting with them will affect their bird hunting. My answer- yes, I think it does…in a very positive way.
I look at my dogs likes they are my kids in many ways. In fact, I know some dog owners that may prefer their dogs over kids! One of the ways I look at my dogs like I would my kids is when it comes to their hunting being relative to kids playing sports. I have always been a believer in the idea of kids that play multiple sports develop into better overall athletes. I think this happens because different sports require different skill sets, different muscle development and use, different styles and types of coordination and different meanings and understandings of the concept of a “team”. Better athletes will typically excel at sports, so by developing my dog into a better athlete/hunter, ultimately I am developing them to excel in sports/hunting. A dog that I can use to hunt birds and track deer in the fall, hunt and find sheds in the spring and have with us on family trips to the lake in the summer is the perfect “athlete” for me. Overall I think that all of these activities build off of and help strengthen each other.
So, what are some ways we can prepare now for that transition from fall to spring and how can you use the snow that is likely to be around to our advantage in training? One easy and obvious way is by using color contrast for training. The white of the snow is clearly going to cover and hide sheds visible to the eye. It can also create issues with white training dummies and white antlers on the surface as they blend in and become “camouflaged” easily. At times, this can be a struggle for us as trainers when setting our dogs up for success. No different than when we start young bird dogs, we use the right tools to help us find that success. Bright white bumpers with young retrievers are helpful to ensure our young dogs are able to find those early retrieves and develop confidence. Later in training we may use feather-laced bumpers that not only add realistic scent, but also make these bumpers blend into cover using nature’s camouflage. When working in snow conditions with my young or inexperienced shed dogs, I use a contrasting colored bumper, or in this case I use a brown training dummy that will surely stand out against the white snow. Prior to snow being on the ground, when the woods and fields are predominantly brown and grey the bright white antler dummy stands out and makes for a great opportunity for our young dogs to find success visually.
Shed hunters know it’s not uncommon to find antlers varying in color from nearly chalk white to the richest dark browns. Shed hunters dream of the dark chocolate color finds that North Country bucks are famous for. And when they are down in the prairies of the Dakotas, Nebraska and Kansas, it’s not uncommon to find a fresh shed that appears to be nearly bleached white. There is an old saying in sports that you need to “practice like you play”. When it comes to training dogs, I think that saying is true as well. By using a variety of colors in your shed training both with the antler dummies as well as with real sheds, you are able to control and prepare your dogs for success when it comes to the real thing in the field. Keep this in mind when you’re preparing for the next few months of shed season and you will be much more likely to produce on your trips to the field whether there’s snow on the ground or not.
For much more information on training and training products available for game recovery be sure to check out our website (www.dogbonehunter.com) and social media outlets @dogbonehunter. Best of luck in the woods!
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When training dogs these days, it’s not difficult to find an answer to just about any question you could ever think of. If you have even the slightest level of tech understanding, the answer to everything is literally at your fingertips between your computer, tablet or phone coupled with Google, Wikipedia or Snopes. Heck, these days you don’t even have to know how to use your fingertips to type or swipe, instead a simple conversation with Alexa or Siri can get the job done. On top of that, if you can’t find the answers there, you still have all of the various social platforms to pose your question. Trust me, if you want an answer just post a question out there to any open page or forum and you’re guaranteed to get a response from all the “experts”out there!
It’s for that reason alone, I tend to shy away from putting my thoughts and opinions out there on the public forum-type platforms. It seems that in those arenas a simple question asked by someone looking for help inevitably turns into a heated debate of whose way is right or wrong. Many times, the threads and comments take dramatic twists and turns and ultimately, the core question that started it all is completely lost. Don’t get me wrong though, I find a ton of value in using social media to share information and content, and we use our outlets as our primary means of doing just that (@dogbonehunter IG, FB and YouTube). It’s a tremendous way to share a lot of ideas and information quickly and easily.
When it comes to raising and training dogs, I have long believed in the idea that there are many ways to do things. And I am certainly not the one to say, nor do I believe one way or another is always going to be right or wrong. I do know that when you do something for a long period of time, it is almost without fail that you will also develop a level of confidence in whatever it is you are doing. It’s just a matter of time and gaining that needed experience. I think this idea can be applied to any skill, trade, hobby or recreation. When you have the opportunity to experience something long enough, you begin to react to situations as a reflex and you just don’t have to think much about it any longer. I think that’s when you know you’ve reached a point where you can and should be willing to offer guidance to others who are looking for help.
Over the years I have been fortunate enough to have had the chance to work with and observe a lot of really good dog trainers. Each of them may have their own style, but they also all do some things very similar and other things quite differently. My personal strategy has always been to try and peel off from each of them what works for me and the stuff that doesn’t, I just discard. In the end, I manage to create a style of my own that has and will likely continue to evolve for as long as I keep doing this. In my early years of working with dogs, I was lucky enough to witness what I think can be referred to as a “softer” style or approach to training. I knew right off, that was the way I wanted to adopt. I believed that way of training dogs would allow me to get the most out of my dog’s potential. I made a particular point and effort to seek out and gather as much information as I could from those using that style. At that time, there was no option to just Google, YouTube, or like and follow social pages. I really had to go out of my way to witness this kind of training, but I was convinced and determined to figure it out. My other option was to learn and use a style of training I didn’t believe in, didn’t feel comfortable with and didn’t think would get the most out of the dogs I was working with.
The alternative style that seems to be so prevalent in the retriever world was and is one that requires a significant amount of force. In fact, the word “forced” is a commonly used adjective with several drills and activities. So, in thinking about and writing this article, I became interested in the meaning behind the words themselves. I looked up the definition of the word force.
Force used as a noun: coercion or compulsion, especially with the use or threat of violence.
After reading those definitions, I’m again reminded why I just don’t feel comfortable training that way. It both looks and sounds like something I’m not interested in doing or being a part of. In recent years I know there has been some conversation and debate about whether or not the use of such force is truly necessary in order to get the results we may be looking for as handlers. I have started hearing some folks call what used to be referred to as “force fetching” or “forced fetch” now call it a “trained retrieve.” The shock collar is now the E-collar, almost making it sound like some kind of tech product. I think the reason for these changes is that it just sounds better, and to be honest, does it really sound a lot better? The companies that make them are huge and have large marketing budgets with heavy influence, spending a lot of marketing dollars. The problem is what or how you say something doesn’t matter nearly as much as what or how you do it. Kind of like the old saying “actions speak a lot louder than words”.
It wasn’t that long ago that I was pretty careful about what I talked or wrote about in seminars and articles. When it came to things like shock collars and force fetch and the question came up whether or not I used them, I would always let the group know that I did not, but then moved on pretty quickly from there. Several years back, I gave a seminar that turned into almost an hour-long grilling from two guys in the back row that were clearly “traditional” gun dog trainers. They badgered me pretty steady, questioning how I could possibly train a good gun dog without the use of a collar. After having an answer to everything they could throw at me, the rest of the crowd seemed to enjoy and support the idea of me standing my ground with reasoning why I just didn’t think a shock collar was a necessary tool, and that it would likely create more problems for me than it could fix. I mean, it really did end up becoming a pretty heated conversation. When I packed up afterwards, I thought there might be a good chance those fellas were going to be waiting on me in the parking lot.
That day marked the beginning for me to take a different approach to addressing some of these things. It was the point where I decided I was confident enough in what I was doing to have answers for those that did it other ways. It was also the point that I realized that when I asked someone why they thought they needed to use that style of training, I simply did not like their answers. The answer I almost always got was “because that’s the way we’ve always done it.” To me, that just wasn’t a good reason. This was also the point where I realized that although there are a lot of trainers using what I felt was unnecessary force because, “that’s the way they always did it,” there were maybe even more out there that would prefer not to, but just didn’t know it was possible to do it any other way.
I believe that dogs possess inherent traits, one of which is biddability or a willingness to please. This is something that has long been developed and bred into domesticated dogs, in addition to a lot of other natural tendencies. Biddability or that wiliness to please is one of the biggest reasons I believe the use of force is not necessary. A “retrieving breed” in my opinion should by no means need to be trained to retrieve by “force” or if you use the formal definition: “with the use or threat of violence” or “to make (someone) do something against their will.” It just doesn’t make any sense to me. Why would I want to connect something that I believe the dog already has inside of them and in the end is something I want them to like, with a negative? My style of training, speaking and writing is not to tell you what not to do, but instead I try to focus on what I have used and know has worked well for me for many years. But I also have realized that I need to be clear and let others know that “because that’s the way they always did it” isn’t necessarily a good answer or the only way.
I find that those who believe they need to use heavy force are often times concerned with speeding things up. We’re a push button society and we like to get things the quickest, easiest way. Having a bunch of professional trainers endorse the use of a push button fix is marketing genius. But my answer to that is we need to stop worrying about the finish line and instead start enjoying the process equal to, and even more so. The process itself is where these things are gained and that takes time. Unfortunately, there is no way to “speed train” a retriever. When we push young dogs further and faster than what they are ready for, that’s what brings things to a halt as far as progress is concerned. I think that unnecessary, heavy pressure does one of two things:
It will shut a dog down or at best, get the bare minimum out of them. By breaking a dog’s spirit and having them work out of fear, you will not maximize their potential. That kind of avoidance training is just not the philosophy I believe in.
It will create a hard minded, independent thinker.
This is the slippery slope. As the dog gets harder, so does the trainer. And quite frankly, it’s the lack of patience that most trainers suffer from that makes things get ugly. Pinched ears and toes with burn marks from collars are the results of a trainer’s lack of patience and understanding of what makes these dogs tick.
Instead, try slowing down and determine how to bring out what they likely already have inside them. The amount of trust you will gain in your dog as well as your dog’s trust in you over the long run will far outweigh any amount of time you might save by accelerating your training in the short term. Trust me, when things get tough out there in the field and distractions or other outside influences become part of the equation, a dog that trusts you completely will likely be the one to figure things out. A dog that lacks confidence and is working out of fear? Those are the ones that are likely to shut down and fail.
I wrote this article knowing that there will likely be some that read it and completely disagree. I’ll certainly upset many of the traditionalists and most definitely the shock collar companies. They will defend their style of training no different than those before them. And that’s fine, my hopes are certainly not to convince someone that is set in their ways. Instead, I hope to offer the idea to those who are interested in not using methods of excessive force in order to turn out a nice dog. Just because that’s the way others have always done it, doesn’t mean you have to as well.
As I continue to write these Dog’s Eye View articles you will see more and more ways of applying this training style. Hopefully then you will have another option and technique to decide whether or not is a good fit for you and your dog.
Until then, best of luck in your training.
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The answer is easy, in the beginning. Not only is it the best place, it is the only place to start when talking about training a dog. It makes logical sense, yet the question “where do I start” is often one of the most common I receive. The nice part about that question is I already know the answer, and it doesn’t vary; you have to start in the beginning.
Before we get into where the beginning is, what it looks like and where it leads us, let’s talk about why. You may have noticed I used both the word “dog” and “puppy” in the title of this article. More often than not, there is a reason for just about everything, and this is no exception. I think there is a lot of confusion when it comes to what the difference is between a puppy and a dog. That confusion is then compounded when new owners start to map out where to begin with their training. If someone brings home a seven week old puppy it’s usually pretty easy to understand, you have a puppy. But what about someone who just adopted the seven month old coonhound mix that already weighs 55 lbs? Or maybe you just brought in a year old black lab that’s tipping the scales at 110 lbs and looks like he still might have some room to grow into those oversized paws? Although each of these examples vary greatly in both age and size, they all may have one thing in common- very little or no understanding of basic obedience.
So, how do you know where do you start with each of those scenarios?
To clear things up right out of the gate, I called all three examples noted in that last paragraph puppies, even though two out of the three certainly look more like a “dog” than a “puppy”. I think there is a big misunderstanding when it comes to what makes a puppy a puppy, or a dog a dog. And I don’t think it’s always completely black and white. Something I see very often is that there are a lot of folks out there that think they have “dogs” because they look like grown dogs physically, but mentally (which we can’t see and often times don’t truly understand) they are still very much so puppies. However, because they look like a dog we often times think we need to take a different approach to training them or as I prefer to call it, raising them. I think an important thing to understand is that just because they look like a dog and appear physically mature, we need to be aware that mentally they are likely still quite immature.
It takes a lot longer for pups to “grow up” mentally than physically and at times, they will give us reminders of that. You know, those moments when their coordination and agility, or more accurately their lack of, shines through. There are those times when their feet just don’t line up with what they are trying to do in their mind, and they can be downright clumsy! We see this same thing more often than not with kids, particularly in sports. Just because a 15 year old kid is 6’ 7” tall and weighs 220 lbs, that doesn’t mean he plays the game of basketball with the same level of understanding and decision making that a similar sized 28 year old, 10 year NBA veteran would. We all know that just because that 15 year old kid looks like a man, to expect him to make all the other life decisions with matching maturity is also not realistic. It takes time for both dogs and people to truly “grow up”. Our patience and understanding is usually there when it comes to humans but greatly overlooked with K-9’s. You will hear me refer to any dogs under the age of 2 years old typically as puppies. Now that’s not to say that somehow they magically reach maturity after their second birthday, but as a general rule that is around the point where I start to see them really make the turn when it comes to “growing up”.
Foundation is where everything starts. If you have aspirations to build anything that will perform well and last you will need to be sure you put in a solid foundation. Whether you’re looking to build a business, a sports franchise or team, a 20 story high-rise, or a raise a well-mannered dog…without a solid foundation it is impossible.
When it comes to the dogs, the nice part is that the foundation you will need is relatively simple. In fact, I feel comfortable going so far as saying it’s very simple. Does simple mean easy? Not necessarily. When I say simple I mean it’s not complex. Regardless of your aspirations both in the field as well as in the home, you will need to start at the same point. Heel, Sit, Stay and Here or Recall. That’s it, it is that simple. In order to do any kind of complicated drills or lessons in an attempt to develop a fine sporting dog in the field you will need a few things to be there without fail. That is where those aforementioned foundation skills come into play.
For example, there will come a point in training that I want to look at extending my dog’s ability to make retrieves at a distance of 100, 200, maybe 300 yards or more. I certainly cannot throw a bumper out that far, so how can I get them proficient at extending their lines? One of the most effective ways I know how to do this is by setting up a trailing memory. I simply heel the dog out to a predetermined area or point of fall. Pitch the bumper, turn around and heel the dog back incrementally making maybe 50 yard jumps in the length or distance over 3 or 4 repetitions. Really quickly and easily I can go from a 50 yard retrieve to 200 and with a lot of success. But, in order to do this drill I first need the dog that can heel without any issues. If I can’t get a dog to heel well throughout the trailing memory setup, I will be fighting just to set the drill up and the chances of us finding success are slim to none in the end.
In order to build on any and all of your training you will need to scale drills and lessons by incrementally adding complexity. If your foundation isn’t sound, you simply won’t be able to add to the drills. It’s like asking a kid to write a book. Before you can expect them to be be able to do that, you first have to teach them how to write a complete sentence, and before that they will need to be able to spell and use words correctly. Even before that, they will need to learn the alphabet and what actual letters are. That makes a lot of sense to most of us. The same idea needs to make just as much sense when it comes to raising and training dogs.
Over the years I have come across plenty of issues, problems or struggles with the dogs I’ve worked and continue to work with. For every struggle I’ve had myself, I’ve been asked similar varieties of questions 50 times over. And over all those years with all those different questions, I can still say with a lot of confidence that the great majority if not all of them can be traced back to, and remedied by, simply strengthening the foundation. Like I mentioned earlier, the good news is that the answer is simple. It all starts in the beginning and the beginning is your dog’s foundation. In the next issue I plan to break down the foundation, Heel, Sit, Stay and Recall or Here even more in depth.
Until then, best of luck to you in your training,
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