As I continue to learn almost daily, successful dog training is about control. Sure, control of your dog’s actions, but also control of every situation. Delmar Smith said “never give a dog a chance to fail.” By eliminating variables in a training situation, you minimize the chances he’ll have to fail. And I need all the help I can get!
A dog progresses down the learning path by being introduced to skills, then mastering those skills in the face of growing distraction. But those distractions should be introduced by you, at the right time, in the right place. Linear thinkers that dogs are, it makes sense to carefully lead them (sometimes literally) from point A to point B to point C, rather than hope for the best.
Think about it: the whole concept of “yard training” is, fundamentally, a way to introduce concepts with minimal distractions before taking them to the field and the chaos that reigns there.
I talk elsewhere about having all the required tools on-hand prior to training. Now, let’s talk about what to get rid of.
For a while, leave out other dogs and people. Being a social animal, your dog will be as interested in other beings in his line of sight as he is interested in you. Despite your pleadings and their best intent, spectators will invariably do something that’s not part of your training strategy: talk, move, bark, reveal the bird’s location, shoot too soon or not at all, to name a few. There will come a time for people and dogs – as distractions in a long-term training strategy – but early in the development of any skill is not one of those times.
More subtly but even more important, are the surroundings and gear you use.
The day you haven’t got a checkcord on your dog will be the day he bolts at the sight of a whitetail when he’s supposed to be on point. If you haven’t determined wind direction, this will be the time you release your dog from upwind and he crashes into the bird launcher.
My electronic collars are always charged up, so if or when I need one, I have it. I’d rather not improvise or cut corners. When training the retrieve, I put bumpers along a fenceline. My pup is helped to run a straight line out and back. If I want him to find a bird or bumper quickly to instill confidence and reliable performance, I make sure it lands where it’s visible to him. During dicey retrieving or search challenges, I carry an extra “throw bird” so if a young dog’s intensity lags, I can turn the situation into a “win” quickly.
”Heel” is a simple obedience command, but early in the learning process I use curbs, fences, and a Wonder Lead to ensure it is easier to comply than not.
Birds complicate matters exponentially. They are probably what inspired the cliché “what can go wrong, will go wrong.” Gabbing with your training partner while you reach into the bird box almost guarantees an escaped bird and chasing dog. Dizzy a pigeon and hope for the best, and today will be the day he walks off or flies away before you can checkcord your pup into his scent cone. Plant a bobwhite without flagging tape and odds are you’ll forget its location and a controlled find-point-flush becomes a Chinese fire drill.
Quail waiting in the “bullpen” for later use are out of sight and smell from my dogs. What about those “strong flyers” you bought from a local bird raiser can’t seem to get airborne and your dog scoops one up because you forgot your bird launcher? Or my nemesis, pigeons that fly to the nearest tree, where they unknowingly taunt my freaked-out dog baying and pacing underneath.
I confess, I overuse my training table. My dogs probably get bored with the warm-up drills they go through before their minds are truly challenged in other locations. But setting the stage gets us all in the training mode, and helps me maintain control over many of the wild cards we will surely be dealt.
So, what’s the key to a happy training scenario? Define what you want to accomplish. Anticipate the gear and situation you need to succeed. Maintain control over as many of the variables as possible.
“Hope for the best and plan for the worst” is another shopworn cliché that has earned a place on every trainer’s kennel wall for good reason. If you can carefully orchestrate training situations, you’ve done both.