You’ve heard the phrase “less is more.” Does it have relevance to dog training? Did you study physics? Do you remember Newton’s Second Law of Motion (I think). Yes, they are related.

Buddy and I were deep into preparation for an upcoming NAVHDA Utility test. It’s a tough test, full of anxiety-producing drills. Both the field and water portions require a dog to be rock-steady in the midst of distraction shots, walking birds, flying birds, dead birds, shot birds, bobbing decoys, and swinging guns. Not to mention a small gallery of judges, gunners and handlers adding to the circus-like atmosphere. And did I mention the steadiness thing?

Wham! It hit me during a less-than-stellar moment when, with my wife’s help on the checkcord, Buddy lunged every time the bird flew and the gun popped. Here was the revelation: Buddy was reacting to her tensing the checkcord, holding on for dear life in anticipation of the bird’s flush and his rush. She was telegraphing that tension to him literally and figuratively. He felt both physical and emotional stress, and simply couldn’t focus on what he knew to be right.

It was the literal manifestation of Newton’s Second Law: for every motion, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

[An obedience trainer who’d worked with wolves once told me canines will almost always pull back when you do, for example, on a lead. We use this to our advantage when steadying a dog on point by pushing on his rump. In my case, just the opposite was taking place.]

None of this would have sunk in near as quickly had I not taken him out to remedy that night’s situation with a brush-up the next day, sans spouse. No wife, no checkcord, less tension in the air and voila! A steady dog throughout the sequence.

Won’t get fooled again … or will he?

Every once in a while, I’m reminded that we are sometimes smarter than our dogs. Using that slight mental advantage when training might be of value to you. I’ll use sleight of hand to keep my guys on their toes, surprised, ready for anything. Or, to simply break up routines and avoid getting stuck in ruts. Either way, they’re thinking, situationally aware and paying attention. And those are good things. See if these magic acts make sense to you.

Dogs that jump up probably have a good reason. Often I’ve got a bowl of food in my hand. I want Manny to “heel” alongside me enroute to his crate where he eats as I deliver his bowl. But his walking is more like a series of hops, as he’s hoping to get at the bowl before we get to the crate.


Yesterday I switched hands, put my body between bowl and dog, out of sight. I got a sequence of nice, polite walking at heel all the way to the crate. It’s not as flashy as a rabbit out of a hat, but it worked.

Sometimes at the glimpse of a training bird, a fired-up pup can’t contain himself, spinning, jumping, and whining out of control. So I keep the bird well hidden until I can spring it my unsuspecting dog. The shock factor is often enough to freeze him in his tracks – eliciting a point.

I can think of a number of ways to outsmart a dog some of the time. Hiding from a pup in the field encourages him to stay aware of your location. Put two planted birds in the same spot, then flushing one while the dog points the other could help him hold steady through the first bird’s flight.

Surreptitiously dropping a bird while out walking, then asking your dog to “hunt dead” gets the drop on him, too. Even walking to a shot bird to pick it up yourself rather than let your dog retrieve it could be considered a trick.

Hiding food treats so their provision is an unexpected surprise is almost a Magic 101-level trick, but it works. But don’t torment your trainee. If you praise with food treats, be upfront when you’re not using them. I show my empty hands to my dogs before I ask them to do something for which they are accustomed to getting a tidbit.

Manny gets an adrenaline rush when he spots his e-collar. He is wiggling so much, I can barely get the collar on him. So I’ll hide it in my vest, give him 60 seconds of unbounded joy outside the gate, then call him and slip on the collar without all the drama of a minute ago.

The list goes on and on. Think about how you need to dial down, change up or otherwise alter the status quo with your dog. A magic trick up your sleeve might be just what you need.

Think about this as you mentally prepare for the coming season:

Dog points. You marvel. Then the fun begins, because you should flush the bird, not your dog. But how do you do that without buggering up your shooting?

  1. Choose your route with care. When approaching the birds, swing wide around the dog and you’ll cut off one of the bird’s escape routes.
  2. Two gunners performing a pincer movement means even fewer bolt-holes for a cunning rooster more inclined sprint than fly.
  3. If you can put the bird between you and the dog there’s a good chance it will fly, not run.

Flanking your dog also minimizes his chance of breaking point. “Allelomimetic behavior” is a highfalutin’ word for that flock of birds that jinks in unison, or pair of wolves on the hunt, trotting in parallel. Sauntering close alongside a pointing dog is an invitation to follow you into the flush – that’s how we teach “heel,” after all.

By Scott Linden

Do dogs get bored? Boy howdy, they do! Howling, digging, whining, fighting, barking are all indicators of a dog with too much mental free time.

But boredom isn’t limited to lying around in the yard, waiting for the paperboy to ride by. Disobedience, unsteadiness, inattentiveness are more subtle evidence of a dog that has lost its motivation.

How do you get it back? Maybe a dog that backslides on his training is like the underachiever in class: he needs more challenges than his teacher is giving him.

I’ve watched my dogs go off the rails as if we’d never worked on retrieving, whoa, or simple obedience skills. Usually it’s me who’s gotten stuck in a rut – relentless repetition of the same skills at the same level that we both end up phoning it in.

Back to the class underachiever: your dog might resort to canine spitballs, resisting your commands, or worse, if you aren’t fully engaging his mind. And all of a sudden, you’re back to square one on skills you’d thought were mastered. Instead, why not bump him up a grade level?

Yes, there is risk in raising the bar. Dogs that are asked to go too far, too soon beyond their abilities may fail. Whenever possible you want to avoid that. But it’s worth the risk – when you see him losing interest – to help your dog reach for the stars.

Example: we were working on the NAVHDA Utility-level “duck search.” Ultimately, Manny would be required to swim and wade a brushy pond for ten minutes, trying to find a wing-shackled duck that is trying hard not to be found. The most valuable skill for this test is using his nose to suss out faint duck scent lingering in the air and on the water, sometimes on the water plants. It’s easy for Manny entering a small pond downwind of the duck – that’s his comfort zone at this time. But every once in a while, I’ll put him on the upwind side of the pond so he has to expand his search before hitting duck scent. It’s a stretch, literally, but when motivated he’s up for the challenge.

Wherever you are in your training, there are ways to take it up a notch. Has he mastered retrieving from the whoa table? Go somewhere else, or have him fetch something different. Working on “heel?” Have someone – or someone with a dog on a leash – stand nearby while you reinforce your command. The simplest way to up the ante is to practice previously mastered skills in new locations or with added distractions.

In field skills, often the challenge becomes proximity. My young dog holds a point well when birds flush at a distance of 15 feet or more. When shot birds drop at a distance, he’s also nice and steady. Putting dog and bird closer together increases the challenge to the point it might require a firmer hand. But eventually your dog will probably rise to it, if you’ve prepared him, one baby step at a time.

In the marsh, there are analogs: steady in the blind is easy without gunshots. Maybe you introduce the “big bang” from a distance, closely monitoring his reaction. When he’s rock-solid, bring that gun closer. He might be steady to one shot mallard splashing in front of the blind, to the point of ho-hum. Next chance you get, throw two.

Make a list of skills you think you have down pat. Then add a column next to it with ways to make them harder – in increments – and you’ll keep your dog firing on all eight cylinders.

Are you putting together your “to do” list for training season? Mine includes re-doing Manny’s steadiness to a shot bird hitting the ground, and backing, among other things. Tracking is also high on our list, aiming for a NAVHDA Utility Test if our TV travels allow. So I’ve been thinking a lot about how I train. May I offer some suggestions?

Timing your command: Other dogs, people, and sounds can distract a dog and flummox a command. Breath deep, give it a minute, wait for your opportunity, then deliver your direction once there’s an open niche in the thought process. Right after he pees and before his hiked leg hits the ground is a perfect time. Following a good shake is another.
Hunger or anticipation of a meal is another deal breaker. Once a week I catch myself wondering why Manny won’t listen, let alone follow my clear direction. Then I look at the wall clock – it’s dinner time.

Steady to wing, shot and fall is our goal.

Or something in the wind will entice … and it doesn’t need to be bird scent. Dogs often react first to what their noses tell them. If you don’t give that new scent a beat or two to “sink in,” your command will fall on deaf furry ears.

Out of sight, out of … Back before Go Pro, I rigged a video camera on Buddy and put him through his paces. Then I played back the footage. Pardon the pun, but it was an eye opener. Now that I know what my dogs see, I will be more clear and add audible clues to most of my hand signals.
Buddy could seldom see me as well as I could see him. It’s a simple matter of geometry – the angle of his eyesight slams into every bush, tree trunk and hummock between him and me. For example, when I’m signaling him to change directions, the brush often obscures most of my body, not just my hand.

Windows to … your dog’s obedience? Dogs are great readers of body language, so while your voice is giving the command and his ears may be hearing it, his eyes are searching – for what, I’m not sure, but definitely something. I believe your dog needs to see your eyes to complete the transaction. Cover them with dark glasses and he is less likely to respond to your commands.

It’s noisy down there. Next time your dog disobeys you, don’t jump to the inevitable conclusion. There’s a chance he’s not disobeying. He may not be able to hear your commands.
When I attached that video camera to Buddy, it was clear that it’s an audio circus down there, too.
Depending on who you believe, dogs hear up to ten times better than us. So, many of the annoying little pops and crackles we hear sound like a freeway accident to our dogs. Think about what he encounters down there: tags jingling from his collar or a bell, brush crashing, screeching wind, footfalls on dry leaves, maybe a beeper collar right behind his ears, his own panting. All are overwhelming your frantic commands yelled into that auditory chaos.

Hands are quicker – or should be. Do you use hand signals? So do I, and I learned something that might be valuable to you and your dog. A veterinary ophthalmologist told me dogs, as predators, see moving objects much better than stationary ones. Makes sense: prey tries to escape, dog chases.

So when you’re giving hand signals, add a little “jazz” to them – finger wiggle, waving arm, closing fist, whatever makes sense. I’ll bet your dog “gets it” a little quicker.

Here’s hoping you meet your training goals – remember the season never ends and every day is a great day to spend time with your dog.

I get thousands of questions every year from viewers, and one of the most common is “how do I get my dog to retrieve reliably?” The right answer is not the one most dog owners want to read: force break that dog.

“Conditioned retrieve,” “force breaking,” “trained retrieve,” all are euphemisms for the same process: using aversion to elicit the desired behavior. In this case, he should go out, pick up the object, and bring it back without passing go or collecting $200. And he shouldn’t drop it until told to drop it.

How you get to this is the question.

How you get to this is the question.

Force breaking can get brutal in the wrong hands. Ear pinches, pliers, rope, and electric collars are all used in one version or another. Recognizing that many of us don’t have the stomach – or patience – for it, here are some quick tips on getting more reliable retrieves from a dog that is not and never will be force broke.

  1. KEEP IT. A dog is already inclined to hold a bird – what self-respecting predator would give up food? If he won’t come those last few steps to you, it’s his way of reasoning: if I never close the gap he can’t take it away from me.

So, your first tactic might be letting him keep it. Don’t take it away. At least not immediately. Here’s why: A bird in the mouth is the ne plus ultra for a bird dog … his reason for being, the ultimate reward. If we snatch it away the moment he gets within range, it’s no wonder he won’t approach.

Don’t crouch with hand outstretched. Sit down, turn your back, put your hands in your pocket … anything that shows him you’re not stealing his prize – yet. Heel him along as he trots proudly. Sit your Lab at your side, bird displayed like a trophy in his mouth. Eventually, he will probably give it up, especially if you barter a food treat or send him hunting again.

He might want to run off or do a victory lap with his feathered burden, so be prepared to grab his collar or step on his checkcord. But remain steadfast in your resolve and let him savor that bird for a while.

  1. REEL HIM IN. A 20-foot-long rope or “checkcord” helps you reel him in, no matter what. If he’s amenable, this works great until a bird drops at 21 feet away. It fails miserably if your dog is a drama queen and reacts negatively to being dragged toward you like a steer at a rodeo. That might be as “forceful” as any of the force-breaking techniques you’re studiously trying to avoid.

If these don’t work for you, try leveraging a dog’s instincts: to race out, catch and hold prey, then to chase you. Many trainers smarter than me suggest running away from the dog to get him to come back to you. It’s a tried-and-true obedience school tactic. But I seldom see it employed for retrieving and it might work for you, especially if your dog is fairly obedient to “here” or “come.”

  1. BE THE PREY. If he won’t come to you at all with a bird or bumper in his mouth, run away to elicit the chase instinct. Let your dog gradually catch up with you and as he gains ground, pivot like an NBA forward, slamming on the brakes. His momentum should carry him into your arms. Grab his collar. Let him hold the bird for a while.
  1. EXTEND THE CHASE. If he’ll come to you reliably until the last few feet even when you don’t run off, let him get to the point of standoff. Slowly back up to encourage a “chase.” Build a little momentum, then quickly move toward him and hold his collar

None of these are a substitute for the forced retrieve training process. But if you don’t have the time, heart, money or expertise, you might utilize your knowledge of his instincts to get closer to a completed retrieve, without the angst.

Glossary, T-Z

Useful terms as you read, learn, train, trial, test and hunt …

Tethering: Tying a cord to a bird used for training so it will fly some distance then fall to the ground so the trainer can use it again. Often, trainers will attach the other end of the cord to a “pigeon pole.”

Tie-out stake: A metal post in the ground to which a dog is attached via a chain.


Everything is relative … even your praise.

Timberdoodle: Woodcock, also called mud bat, bogsucker, and woodsnipe.

Training table, whoa table: A raised platform on which you put a dog to train it.

Trap: 1) Original clay target game, shooters are arrayed in an arc behind a “trap house,” from which targets fly away from the shooters; 2) in some hunt tests or trials, when a dog catches the bird prior to the flush.

Trash: Game you don’t want your dog pursuing, i.e., deer, coons.

UH: Upland Hunter, a UKC title.

UPT: Utility Preparatory Test, a NAVHDA test for dogs over 16 months of age, including many of the components of the Utility Test, but in simpler forms.

UT: Utility Test, for more advanced dogs in the NAVHDA system.

VC: Versatile Champion, a dog that has passed the highest test level in the NAVHDA system. A dog is invited to participate in the group’s invitational test after earning a Utility Test Prize I.

VDD: Verein Deutsch Drahthaar, or German Wirehair Club based in Germany with an affiliate (VDDNA) in the U.S. and Canada)

VDDNA: Verein Deutsch Drahthaar North America, branch of the German-based VDD.

Versatile dog: Any of the “continental” breeds developed in Europe in the 1800’s for the middle-class hunter who needed one dog to point, retrieve on land and water, track furred, feathered and wounded big game as well as protect the family. Examples: German Shorthair, Spinone, Weimaraner, Viszla.

VHDF: Versatile Hunting Dog Federation, a dog testing and training club in the U.S. focusing on the “continental” breeds.

Viszla: Shorthaired versatile breed from Hungary.

Wachtelhund: German spaniel originally bred to hunt quail.

Weimaraner: Shorthaired versatile breed from Germany.

Whoa: Command word to stop a dog and have him remain motionless.

Whoa barrel: Metal or plastic barrel laid horizontally on the ground on which trainers place dogs to encourage steadiness to the whoa command and to birds.

Whoa post: Metal or wooden post in the ground around which a checkcord is looped to stop a dog’s forward movement.

Whoa table: Another term for training table, typically a low platform trainers put a dog on to teach or enforce commands, often including the “whoa” command.

Wild flush: Bird that flies before the hunter or dog purposely flushes it.

WPGCA: Wirehaired Pointing Griffon Club of America.

WR: Working Retriever, an NAHRA title.

Yardwork: The term used to describe any number of training drills done in and around the kennel area or “yard.”

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