Labrador Retriever Training for Upland – Pheasant, Grouse and Woodcock

Okay — I have been getting some heat from clients and friends that all my upland posts are with English Springer Spaniels and the only posts with Labs are related to waterfowl hunting. So here you go — just to prove I don’t play favorites.

An Ounce of Talent – Dog Training

Hunting Dog TrainingAs a professional trainer, I see a lot of dogs come in for training with a wide range of talent.  Like people, some dogs are blessed with more talent than others.  Some dogs have the drive and natural ability that will make them good candidates for advance field work, some don’t.  As a trainer is important to evaluate each dog and determine their strengths / weaknesses and build a training program that will allow each dog to reach its full potential.

My recommendation to anyone seeking a dog is that will be used as a hunting dog or if they would like to compete with the dog in AKC field event is to start with the best bloodlines they can afford.  (Here is an article on Breeding World Class Gundogs.)   This becomes extremely important if you plan on sending your dog out for training.  You see it’s like this, if you have a one gallon bucket and its full to the rim with talent, the job of the trainer is relatively easy to get the talent out – just bump the bucket and talent comes spilling out.  However, if you have a gallon bucket and it only has two drops of talent in it, getting the talent out can be a challenge.

The first thing we do when a dog comes in for training is to understand the goals the owner has for the dog.  We then spend time looking at the dog’s pedigree and evaluating its natural abilities to see if the goals seem realistic.   As a breeder/trainer, I am more likely to give a dog with a strong pedigree the benefit of the doubt during his/her evaluation.  For example, if a dog comes in with a loaded pedigree but shows reluctance to retrieve I would immediately probe to see what type of control the owner has put on the dog.  Often clients excited about the prospect of a new hunting dog start working dogs early and put too much control on them which masks their dog’s natural ability.   Through careful evaluation of both the pedigree and natural ability, we can structure a training program to bring out every drop of talent in the dog.

John Wooden, the famous UCLA Basketball coach, was quoted as saying, ” Success comes from knowing that you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.”  This is a quote I hold near and dear to me in all walks of life – including training dogs.




Breeding World Class Hunting Dogs

Field breeders are producing the athletes and show breeders are producing the models.

Field breeders are producing the athletes and show breeders are producing the models.

I am often reminded of how much time and effort goes into building a successful breeding program when examining the pedigrees of the top performing dogs at local and national field trials. Field trials have been and will continue to be a place breeders turn to evaluate and prove their breeding program and bloodlines. 

Competent breeders seeks to understand the strengths and weaknesses of all the dogs in a four-generation pedigree and carefully evaluate each dog in the pedigree of a potential mating. The goal of any breeding program should be to the continual improvement of the breed. Breeders have an ethical responsibility to do everything they can do to ensure that future progeny are free of both physical and performance faults. He or she must also be willing to eliminate breeding stock from his program that exhibits substandard traits.

Physical Traits and Genetic Testing

Responsible breeders check the genetics of all the dogs in a four-generation pedigree. He or she should have proof of hips being certified and eyes checked for congenital defects. Do not accept a puppy from a breeder who has not taken the necessary precautions to ensure at the minimum that both the sire and dam are genetically clean and can produce the documentation to back up this claim. Ask the breeder for a copy OFA and CERF certifications. If he or she cannot produce such documentation, look elsewhere. Some breeders will proclaim, “My dog’s hips are good” or “My bloodlines have no genetic problems” but cannot produce the certifications on their breeding stock to prove such claims.

Some breeders even breed generation after generation without checking either the hips or eyes of the sires and dames in their breeding program. This is simply irresponsible and can have ramifications that affect a client’s family for many years. Just imagine getting that gundog of a lifetime, which has become part of the family, just to find out that he/she has bad hips or eyes and his/her quality of life is significantly impacted. Don’t get me wrong, genetics are not foolproof, but taking proper precautions can dramatically reduce the risk of genetic problems in breeding programs.

Performance Traits and Field Trials

Identifying performance faults are considerably more difficult than identifying physical and genetic faults. The difficulty lies in the subjectivity of evaluating a dog’s performance. Field trials allow breeders to selectively breed based on performance traits, such as marking ability, desire, trainability, etc. Professional breeders spend countless hours researching potential mates for their dogs in their breeding program. Looking strictly at titles in a pedigree does little or nothing to help a breeder make a determination on a suitable mate. It is imperative that a breeder knows the strengths, weaknesses and dominant performance traits of a suitable mate before making a decision on whom to breed to.

A dominant trait is a trait that is thrown by a sire or dam no matter whom he/she is bred to. A field trial is a great place where breeders can determine dominant traits of a particular sire or dam. Carefully evaluating offspring of a particular dog (sire or dam) will reveal common physical and performance characteristics – these are the dominant traits that a dog throws when bred to.

All this research is important when a breeder is effectively trying to improve on a weakness in a bloodline. In contrast, by doubling up on a dominant trait that is a fault will inevitably cause undesirable results.

A recessive trait is one that is not readily apparent in either the sire or dam of a litter but is present in the offspring. Recessive traits can hide themselves for generations and only reappear when bred to a dog that shares the fault. For this reason, it becomes important for a breeder to critically evaluate each dog in the pedigree.

Common Breeding Techniques

Breeders may seek to improve the qualities of a bloodline by utilizing one of three common breeding techniques: outcrossing, linebreeding, or inbreeding. In essence, the later is less often practiced that the former.

Inbreeding involves either breeding parents to offspring or full brother or sister. This form of breeding is not very common today and requires that both dogs be from fundamentally sound breeding stock and of genetically clean lines.

A variant of inbreeding and a slightly less intense breeding technique is known as linebreeding. Linebreeding involves breeding dogs that are relatives through common ancestors, such as aunt to nephew or uncle to niece. Both inbreeding and linebreeding techniques quickly expose both the virtues and faults of a bloodline. If there are any faults in a breeding program they will be exposed when bred heavily, typically for 3 or more generations.

A common misconception is that inbreeding causes high strung, nervous and aggressive dogs. This is simply not true. The temperament of a dog is determined by the genetic makeup of the parents and the fact that a line was bred closely will not alter the disposition of the offspring. A breeder who uses dogs with volatile temperaments as breeding stock is likely to have problems in their lines. In contrast, a breeder who uses dogs of sound temperament will produce dogs with sound temperaments, even if bred closely.

Careful linebreeding has proven to be the best method to perpetuate desirable characteristics in sporting breeds. However, closely breeding on a strain of gundog for more than four generations will stagnate the line and make dramatic improvements of a strain more difficult because uniformity has been established in the line and the possibility of improvement is no longer possible. The decision to utilize an outcross breeding technique and go to a stud dog from a different bloodline is necessary to mix up the genes that have become uniform through linebreeding. Often linebreeding purist, will take a puppy from the outcross litter and breed back into one of the two lines and recapture the fruits of their breeding program.

Final Note

Remember the goal of any breeding program should be to continually improve on the breed. When selecting a puppy from a particular breeding, ask the breeder what he considers the strengths and weaknesses of both the sire and dam. Stay clear of the breeder that proclaims, “My dogs don’t have any weaknesses.” Every dog, even history making retriever 2xNAFC/2xCNFC/FC/AFC Ebonstar Lean Mac – “Max”, has traits a breeder should look to improve on. Admittedly, a dog like Max has fewer than most. A competent breeder understands the virtues and faults in both the sire and dam and looks to improve the breed through responsible breeding.

Note – Since the time this article was originally published in  as genetic marker for EIC (Exercise Induced Collapse was identified) come to find out 2xNAFC/2xCNFC/FC/AFC Ebonstar Lean Mac was a carrier of this gene.

Beginning With the End in Mind

If you have ever attended one of my seminars or had a dog trained by me what I am about to say should be familiar to you.   “A dog will never be more consistent than you are…”  Not only is this a fact when training dogs, it is a principle dog owner should live by, no matter how old the dog.

When clients pick up a puppy at 7-8 weeks old, one of the first things I bring up for the  puppy’s new family to  discuss and agree on is: What standards will the family maintain around the house and/or in the field?  Be specific.  Is the dog going to be allowed up on the couch? Is he going to get table scraps during dinner?  How about jumping up on people to greet them?  These are only a few of the many questions you and your family need to agree on before the dog sets foot in the house.

All too often clients think one particular behavior is cute when the dog is a puppy but quickly becomes unacceptable as the dog gets older.  When I take a dog in for training, I will insist that the new arrival understands the laws of the land from the first time we meet.  You see, I believe that everything a dog does is a “habit set in motion”.  If left to create their own habits… well, chances are they will not match the habit you in mind when you purchased your new four legged friend.  Now I am not saying that you should be so controlling that you nag your dog to death.  A dog should be a dog, too.  Here are a few quick rules I would live by when setting standards for your new dog:

1. Teach your dog good citizenship around the house – This is a time when a new dog owner can quickly go overboard and nag a dog to death.  I would keep the number of rules to a minimum.  After all, you just brought a puppy into your new home – not a miniaturized version of yourself.

2. Mark both good behavior and bad behavior – Now when I say “mark” I mean just giving a simple “yes” or “good dog” command for behavior we want to see repeated and “no” command for behavior we do not want the dog to repeat.

3. Maintain consistency in your program – It not fair to the dog if one minute you let him jump up on you and the next time you don’t. What message is that sending to the dog. Simply put, he can’t trust you.  Everyone is free to set their own standard of behavior when it comes to their dog – who am I to judge?  But maintain consistency and be fair to the dog.

4. Reward effort – Only correct a dog for blatant disobedience and lack of effort. Some dogs will do anything to avoid the task at hand, to me that is lack of effort, others will try really hard and just not do what you are asking. It’s important to recognize the difference.

5. Begin with the end in mind – Think in terms of this pint-sized puppy growing to full size. Some behaviors may be cute when they are 8 pounds but unacceptable when the are 80 pounds. Also, if you own a hunting dog start thinking in terms of that dream retrieve when a dozen mallards set into your rig. Does sit mean sit – or do we allow a little creeping because “he is just a puppy”. My only comment to the argument of “he’s just a puppy” is that performance standards only erode with each passing year if you don’t maintain them. A puppy that is allowed to creep when he is young is a good candidate to breaking on that group of mallards that set into the rig at shooting time.

Keeping it Fun for You and Your New Puppy

8 week old ESS

8 week old ESS

There are not many absolutes in dog training.  However, one thing is for sure, when it comes to training young dogs you are either making emotional deposits with your dog or withdrawals.  Remember that the next time you take your young dog out for a training session.   In fact, write it down on a yellow sticky and place it next to your training equipment.  Better yet, stick it to your forehead – just kidding. Imagine the looks you would get at work the next morning.   Oops – I digressed.

Dogs, like humans, establish likes and dislikes early on in life.  In fact, they start establishing strong associations between 12 and 20 weeks old (the so-called “imprinting period”).   It’s during this time when most dogs’ working attitudes are established. What is “working attitude”?  Well, its just like it sounds – the attitude your dog has about working or training.

When you were in grade school, did you get up in the morning excited about school or do you hit the snooze alarm a dozen times before finally getting out of bed?  Well chances are, how you felt about going to school was largely based on the associations you had with school or what you thought the day might bring – spelling test, a bully on the bus – yikes, maybe I will hit that snooze button again!  Well, dogs are not cognitive thinkers like humans, they are associative thinkers and even dogs might not be so keen on school if every day they had a SPELLING TEST or were greeted by the NEIGHBORHOOD BULLY.

My point to all this is simple.  If school was about gym, lunch and recess many kids would start their day with big smiles on their faces, eager to head to school.  Was there ever a time that you enjoyed school?  Perhaps it was a great teacher who made learning fun?  Think about it.

As a professional dog trainer, I find so many clients are too quick to jump into a structured obedience program and use traditional corrections with their dog before taking the time to fill the glass with good positive experiences.  Sure I like an obedient dog as much as the next guy. But what I love more is a strong bond and connection with the other end of the leash.

I have so drastically changed my young dog training program over the last several years.  My emphasis now is about one thing,  making it fun to learn! No, my standards have not change, what has changed is the methods I use each day to make regular positive deposits with that dog, instead of withdrawals.  It requires a whole lot of creativity and in the upcoming articles I will share some of the ways you can make your next training session fun — for both you and your future gun dog!