AKC Hunt Test Season – Wrap up

Wow!!! What a season we had this year at AKC Hunt Tests.

the crew

This year we passed 51 of 53 AKC Hunting Tests – (with both Spaniels and Retrievers). As shown in the picture (From Left to Right).

Gracie (Labrador Retriever) – Earned her Junior Hunter Title (JH) and 4 Legs toward her Senior Hunter Title (SHU) this fall.

Smoky (English Springer Spaniel) – Earned his Junior Hunter Title (JH) this fall.

Dallas (English Springer Spaniel) – Earned his Senior Title and 3 Legs towards his Master Hunter Title (MH)

Remi (English Springer Spaniel) – Earned 4 Legs toward her Senior Hunter Title (SH) this fall as a 1 1/2 year old.

Dixie (English Springer Spaniel) – Earned 4 Legs toward her Senior Hunter Title (SH) this fall.

Buddy – (English Springer Spaniel) – Earned his Junior Hunter Title (JH) in the Spring and Senior Hunter Title (SH) in the fall as a 1 1/2 year old

Luke (English Springer Spaniel) – Earned his Junior Hunter Title (JH) this fall.

Saydee (English Springer Spaniel) – Earned her Junior Hunter Title (JH) this fall.

Jazzy (Labrador Retriever) – Earned her Senior Hunter Title (SHU)


Gracie (Labrador Retriever) – Earned her Junior Hunter Title (JH) and 4 Legs toward her Senior Hunter Title (SHU) this fall.

Ellie (Labrador Retriever) – Earned her Junior Hunter Title (JH)

Abbie (Labrador Retriever) – Earned her Junior Hunter Title (JH)

No One to Blame But Yourself

Geoff and Dallas - Double Header MH Weekend

Geoff and Dallas – Double Header MH Weekend

This year we had a VERY successful season at AKC Hunt Tests, with both Spaniels and Retrievers. After passing 51 of 53 Hunt Tests, two tests stand out in my mind. For those of you that know me, I will give you one guess which tests they were… you got it, the two tests I did not pass. In both cases, I found myself coming off the line thinking to myself – “You have no one to blame but yourself.” While I know that may seem a little harsh, but both tests related to a simple mistake made days and weeks prior to actually running the event.

By the way, both dogs that failed were my own personal dogs, not client dogs — so I really had no one to blame but myself.

What was the simple mistake? Well, believe it or not, it comes back to the most basic of all commands — SIT (or HUP for spaniels). You see, it’s like this. Both tests were failed due to the dog not 100% complying with the SIT or HUP command. The first test was at the Senior Hunt Test water mark. Jazzy, an eager black lab, simply jumped forward before I sent her. The second test was in the Master Hunter land series, where Dallas jumped forward on the fourth shot of a missed pheasant – leading to his early exit from the competition. Some could say that they both had controlled breaks — where they corrected themselves and didn’t actually break — but I knew better. Before the judges could break the news to me, the shotgun was broken open and the slip lead was out of my pocket. So why didn’t they sit perfectly still like they had done thousands of times before? And why did they choose this occasion for such an indiscretion? Well, it comes down to this — “A dog is never going to be more consistent than you are.” When looking back at the days leading up to the test, both dogs showed signs of breaking. Of course hind sight is 20/20 — but the signs couldn’t have been any clearer.

Let me explain. Whenever I take a dog out of the kennel I SIT/HUP them before opening the door to go outside — in the days and weeks leading up to the test, both dogs were getting a little sloppy on such a simple command — their butts would start moving a little as I opened the door. Maybe they wanted to be the first to the truck. After all, this was test season and that means lots of birds. Do I blame them, no! Do I blame myself, YES! I should have seen the writing on the wall. Heck, it was like someone sprayed graffiti on the wall of the White House. If only I had maintained my standard and stopped these bad habits from forming in the first place. Could of, would have, and should have… Long and short of it. Little slip-ups eventually turn into big slip-ups if not addressed. Remember this, “Everything a dog does is a habit set in motion.” And of course, “You have no one to blame but yourself!”

I can’t tell you how many times a Hunt Test or Field Trial Marshall will say, “I know you’re running multiple dogs today. I would be happy to find someone to hold one of your dogs while you run the other so we can get through this event faster.” Thank you, but no thank you. When I take a dog out of the truck in an environment as exciting as a Hunt Test or Field Trial — I want to be in that dog’s head and the only one to blame if things go sideways. I don’t want commands as basic as SIT/HUP to slip minutes before going to the line. “A dog is never going to be more consistent than you are!”, especially in front of judges and at a Test or Trial.

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.

What is the Trained Retrieve Process (aka Force Fetch or Force Breaking)

What is the “Trained Retrieve”, aka Force Fetch. In this video, Geoff explains what the Trained Retrieve process is and why it is an important part of advance level hunting dog training.

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.




How Long Does it Take to Train a Dog?

Hunting Dog Training

Dallas working on blind retrieves

I often get the question from clients, early in the training process, how much longer do you think my dog will be in training.  Well, my answer sarcastically is — “A lifetime…”  Now, I know that is not the answer they want to hear but it certainly illustrates the point that dogs are always in training and good habits developed during formal training take a lifetime of maintenance.

You see its like this, everything a dog does is a habit set in motion.  They are either developing good habits or bad habits and if a dog is left to develop his own habits, chances are they won’t be in line with what you had in mind as an owner.

The training process can be broken down into what I call the “3 T’s of Dog Training” – TEACH, TRAIN, and TEST.  Every new training concept that we work a dog through begins with TEACHING the dog the behavior we desire. This is when we develop the learned behavior in a dog.  With most motivated dogs we can teach a new concept relatively quickly.  All that is required is good technique, patience, and a willing student.

Once a dog has a solid understanding of the command/concept he has completed the first phase of training and the behavior has become “LEARNED”.  What comes next is to train the dog with lots of repetitions, so the behavior become “HABITUAL”.  This is where we find ourselves spending most of our time while training a dog.  The amount of time varies depending on the dog and the command/concept.  Often I will get dogs in from the same litter and put them through the same training process, however, one dog may demonstrate a tendency of habitual behavior quicker than the others.  Often times it’s a matter of how biddable the dog is.  For example, the alpha dog from a litter may take longer to develop habitual behavior than its littermates because he is used to doing things his own way.  If you encounter problems during the training phase its extremely important to be able to read a dog and understand whether your dog is digging his heals in or is he just confused.  Sometimes it’s best to back up a step or two and review the concept. Maybe you advanced the dog too quickly through the concept.

Only after a dog demonstrates HABITUAL behavior do we start to generalize the concept.  We use the term generalize in the dog training world to mean teaching the dog that we expect him to perform the command/concept regardless of our location or the distractions.  However, it would be a very big mistake to take a dog from the quiet setting of the basement or garage and expect him to perform a given command at a distraction filled dog park.  Why?  Because the gap is too large.

When we generalize a concept we need to make sure we don’t set the dog up for failure.  I tell clients that in order to keep a good working attitude we need to throw away the calendar and focus on reading and reacting to what the dog is telling us.  All too often I hear people say, “My dog is X months old he should be doing XYZ.”  That is nonsense.  And those same people wonder why their dogs have a terrible working attitude.  Well its simple, no amount of pressure is going to help a working attitude.  As a professional it’s important to know when the gap is too large for your dog and when its necessary to step back and simplify.

But generalization doesn’t stop at the dog park or when a dog goes home from training.  Maintain your standards and don’t allow bad habits to creep in.  It’s not fair for you or the dog if one day you allow your dog to get up off of the SIT command and the next day you come down on him for getting up when you turn your back.  Make it black and white for your dog.

The training cycle can be summarized this way:  Learned Behavior evolves into Habitual Behavior which is reinforced through a lifetime of maintenance.  Have fun with your dog and remember dogs don’t live by a calendar.  It’s the other end of the leash that will tell us how quickly we can advance a dog.


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.

Training Your Dog with Treats — Good or Bad?

Whenever I get a young dog in for training the first thing I evaluate in the dog is what makes him/her tick.  Sometimes its a tug toy, other times its a throw toy, but most of the time it’s dog treats.

Why is that?  Well if I had to guess, it has to do with how motivated young dogs are about food when they go to their new home at 7-8 weeks of age.  As new owners, we want to bond with the dog, we want them to come when they are called.  So we naturally reach for something the dog wants and offer that up as a bribe to come to you.  And you know what?  For 99 out of 100 dogs it works, so good we start using treats to train dogs for sit, stay, lay-down, etc.  Sound familiar?  I bet it does.

So this begs the question; Aren’t we bribing our dogs if we use treats to train them?  As a demonstrator/lecturer I hear this argument against training a dog with treats all the time.    So lets be clear about one thing: training with treats can be done in 2 ways: you can shape behavior with treats (reinforcing behavior) or you can bait a dog with treats (so called “bribing”).  

Shaping or Reinforcing Behavior with Treats

Training dogs using treats to shape behavior is very different than baiting or bribing a dog.   Shaping behavior occurs through “Operant Conditioning”.  In Operant Conditioning a dog’s behavior is conditioned by the consequences that follows.  When a dog performs a particular behavior that produces a favorable result, he is likely to repeat the behavior.  So, in Operant Conditioning, the dog learns to become problem solvers by trying many things to get the favorable result.  We mark the negative behavior by simply saying “No”, in other words keep trying.  When the dog starts performing actions that represent the desired behavior we reinforce that behavior by offering a reward.   With each successive attempt we reward for the dog performing a behavior a little closer to what we ultimately expect — and as a result to are shaping the behavior through reinforcement.  

Remember in Operant Conditioning the reward is not presented until AFTER the behavior is preformed,  which makes the reward reinforce the behavior.  Now the reward does not have to be a treat, it could be a throw toy or tug toy,  but in most cases a treat is what  motivates young dog.  

Now I am not a Operate Conditioning purest who thinks that everything should be done as a reinforcement.  After all, there is a fine line between shaping and baiting anyway.  How long do you think it takes for your dog to figure out that you have the treats in your training vest pocket or bait bag?  Not long at all.  And our body language is probably pushing or pulling the dog in one direction or another.  

I like to think of myself as a balanced trainer that knows how to read dogs and has many tools in his tool box to get the job done. Sometimes the right tool is a screwdriver sometimes its a wrench.  Its my job as a dog trainer to be able to know the difference between a screw and a bolt.   

Baiting or Bribing Dogs with Treats

When you bait or bribe a dog to perform a particular behavior you produce the treats BEFORE and lure the dog into performing the desired behavior.   Many trainers, like myself, believe that with some dogs you can speed up the process of training if you use subtle baiting to teach the dog what is expected.

Alright, I can hear the “Operant Conditioning” and “Motivational” purists screaming at their laptops/tablets/phones – are you kidding me you’re encouraging baiting when training dogs.  Not exactly, what I am referring to is proper placement of rewards regardless of timing.  Of course, I don’t believe in leading a dog around the room with treats out in front of the dogs nose in order to teach a concept.

No matter when the treat is presented, before or after a behavior, proper placement of the reward is critical to the dog’s understanding of the behavior you are asking them to perform.  For example, the proper placement of a reward for the “LAY DOWN” command would be at ground level and below the dog’s nose — not above their head.  This can go a long way toward communicating with your dog.

Remember, sometimes it’s necessary to bait dogs or use a body language to get your message across to the dog so they perform a particular behavior successfully.   After all — isn’t the name of the game when training dogs — Success Conditioning?

Can You Teach Old Dogs New Tricks?

Labrador RetrieverAs a professional dog trainer I can’t think of a question I get asked more often than, “Can you train an older dog?”. My standard answer is yes, of course, you can. However, the truth of the matter is that it all depends. There are many factors that go into determining whether in an old dog can learn new tricks or not.

The number one factor is how ingrained the habit is that we’re trying to change. You see, when young dogs are going through the imprint period (between 12 and 20 weeks old) they begin to learn what they like and dislike about life. It’s also during this time that they create associations about learning and training. Associations that dogs create early in life are the basis of the habits that are going to last a lifetime.

When I get a young dog in for obedience training — it’s my job to be able to foster a positive learning environment — similar to that of an elementary school teacher. As a dog owner, it’s extremely important to make sure we are creating habits that are in line with the “rules of the house” or our “standards in the field”. If a dog is left to determine its own habits, chances are his idea on what are good habits will be considerably different than yours. So it should go without saying that it is far easier to stop a dog from misbehaving when they are young and impressionable than it is to change a habit that has been ingrained for years.

Similar to humans, bad habits are hard to break and most importantly it takes time and consistency. You can’t expect your dog to be any more consistent than you are. In fact, it is extremely unfair to a dog to keep changing your standard. For example, if one minute you let him jump up on you and the next minute he is met with a knee to the chest. Well, what message is that sending to the dog? Simply put, he can’t trust you and its this bond that will have a lasting impact on the relationship you have with your four legged friend.

I am a firm believer that you can teach old dogs new tricks. I do it every day. Admittedly, older dogs take more time and patience and sometimes require that we reprogram their associations with learning before ever attempting to teach an older dog “new tricks”. In many cases, I will start my training program with an older dog the same way I will start it will a young puppy. Remember, you have to reprogram the dog’s associations with learning first — find out what motivates your dog and keep it short and fun. You might be surprised how far treats, praise or throw toys can go in motivating an older dog and help teach that old dog new tricks.

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!