Train Your Retriever

Article published in Retriever News

What could be more exciting than getting a brand new puppy? You have studied the bloodlines, made countless phone calls, talked to breeders, examined the consequences of genetic health issues, looked at photographs of the mothers and fathers of various litters. You have made a decision on whether you wanted a male or a female. A lot of time and effort and planning has gone into the project and today the new puppy is in your home ... you have him ... he's yours. You've made sure you have the right puppy food, a complete assortment of puppy toys, his little dog bed. Now you have him home. This is a very exciting day! You hold him, pet him, take him out on the front lawn, try to get him acquainted with his new surroundings. But wait a minute. What comes next? What about teaching him things he will have to know. Will I be able to train him myself? When can I start training? Will I have to send him to a professional trainer, and if I do, what should he knows before he goes?

The two most frequently asked questions are: At what age should I begin training? and ... How do I go about it? When and how?

Years ago, experts were convinced that no training should begin until the puppy was a year old. The thinking was that they could have their spirit crushed and their confidence ruined if early training was attempted. We know today that it is easier to start a puppy very early in a very gentle way, than it is to try to undo bad habits and undisciplined behavior developed by waiting too long to start the training process.

My answer to this question is to start the training process now ... whatever age you get the puppy, that is the age to begin training.

There are three basic components to each training session.

  1. Chase something
  2. Learn to walk on a rope
  3. Learn to sit

Each day, during the training lesson these are the three things that you work on.

Chasing something is what creates excitement. Start with a little squeaky toy - develop great excitement, act silly and get the puppy to go out of his skin, try to get him to start to retrieve. .. it doesn't matter if he brings it back ... just get him to chase the toy. Next, put a small collar around his neck.. . just a little puppy collar. and attach a very light 6' line to it, and lt him drag it around for a while. Then take hold of the line and get him to walk with you. Don't worry about getting him to heel, that will come much later. What is important is that he begins to learn that where you go - he is going to go. After walking on the line for a while stop and kneel down next to the puppy and start the process of teaching him to sit ... hold onto his collar and push down on his rump and repeat "sit" as you do this. After you try this a few times get up and walk some more ... then stop and work on sit again ... then grab your toy and get silly again and try to get him to go into orbit with excitement.

Repeat this routine every day. Try to keep a balance between excitement and learning the sit command. Be consistent and in no time you'll have a puppy that is started well and is ready to begin new commands and will already have the right attitude to learn more.

In summary, you can begin training at whatever age you get your puppy. Be kind and gentle and keep him in balance by applying in a careful way the three main principles of beginning training:

  1. Chase something
  2. Walk on a line
  3. Learn to sit



"80/20 RULE" By Bill Hillmann
Article Published in Retriever News


Some time ago I was conducting a Seminar in which the subject was, "How to Train a Retriever to be a better marker." It was to be a two day event – everybody had notebooks and the mindset on learning how to get their dog to nail 350 yard marks.

I began by spending quite a lot of time on the importance of the "sit" command, and gave demonstrations on how to teach the command and then re-enforce it with the remote training collar. This went well, and several people had questions, such as "Would the technique that I was demonstrating would work with an older dog?" (who was in the habit of not sitting very well, ei, a creeper.) I explained that it took at least 30 repitions to teach a new command to a dog and at least 90 repetitions to overcome a bad habit. There were many questions asked and answered. I continued to explain all of the elements that, when linked together, made it possible to be a good marker. At one point I asked the class to remember the three main ingredients of marking – three things that must be present to be a good mark – three things NEVER to be forgotten, because all training on marks included these elements:

  1. Watch the bird
  2. Get the bird you're sent for
  3. Don't cheat

That's it - the essence of marking. I continued to demonstrate different drills to achieve better focus, to be more honest in the water, to study each fall as though it would be the only fall they would ever get in their entire life. We also worked on other drills and situations that continued to make a dog a better marker.

At lunch break on the second day the President of the club pulled me aside and said that some of the participants loved the things they were learning but were wondering when we would get into the subject of marking. I told him, "Get everybody in the tent."

I began a new speech which explained marking in a different way. I said, "Who is the worst shot in the room?" There were a few blank faces and finally a nice lady from the back of the group put her hand up and volunteered that she had never shot before. I said, "Perfect." She came forward and we put up a target the size of a garbage can cover. I had her stand 4 feet from the target with a BB gun. She couldn't miss. I said, "When you get home shoot 500 rounds at 4 feet, then 500 rounds at 5 feet, then 500 rounds at 6 feet, then 7 feet, etc. You'll never miss - even when you get back to 50 feet - it's the way the Army teaches it's sharpshooters to hit aspirin tablets when thrown in the air.

Then I looked into the group and said, "OK, who's the best shot?" That was easy for everyone. A slightly stout man with a hat, adorned with a number of shooting pins, was cheered forward by everyone ... He looked like a great shot to me. I handed him the BB gun and said, "OK ... go out in the middle of that field over there and try to hit this target." Everyone gasped. "That's impossible," they cried.

And I said, " Well, that's what a lot of you do with your puppies!"

You barely get them retrieving and all of a sudden the bird boy is out throwing marks they can barely see ... The poor pups are hunting aimlessly wondering what's going on. You're hollering at he bird boy (or your wife) to throw it better, "Higher arch!!" "Help him! Help Him!" But none of that's any good. You must throw the bird so that the pup can't miss ... whatever distance that is ... 20 - 30 yards? If he misses the throw, it was too far or to hard. It's the 80 - 20 Rule. The pup must nail the mark 80% of the time. This will develop his confidence.

Eventually, it won't matter where you throw the bird - he won't miss because he has never missed. Develop confidence. Create a habit of pouncing on every bird - never missing - never failing. Once in a while - never more than 20% of the time, it is OK to throw a mark into heavy cover - a slightly more challenging situation to develop the pups' ability to hunt and use his nose. But, there's plenty of time for that. Now you know the secret of how to make a great marker: the 80 - 20% rule.

In Summary:

  1. Watch the bird.
  2. Get the bird you're sent for
  3. Don't cheat

Stick to the 80 - 20% rule - throw the birds where they can't miss.



"Role Modeling" by Bill Hillmann
Article Published in

Statics show that it costs $16,400 to raise an average sized dog to reach age 11.

Can you even calculate what it costs to raise a dog for competition. Nobody even wants to know the answer to that question. So wouldn't it make sense to do the best job possible in the process of training a dog for competition? Yet in my experience many dogs are trained in a haphazard way. There is no plan, no procedure, no way of calculating results other than by a hit and miss process. The solution is what can be called role modeling. Role modeling is when you pick someone who is getting the results you want, and then you duplicate exactly what they do, in order to get the same results they get.

Some examples of role modeling are, for instance , a friend of yours saves $12,000 per year by putting $250 per week in the bank. You like those results, and you say "Look at the end of the year this guy has twelve thousand bucks. Man, I'm going to do that too." So you start to save money except you put in $100 per week. At the end of the year he's got $12,000 and you've got $5,200. You didn't do a good job of role modeling. Lance Armstrong rides his bike 6 hours a day, does 2 hours at the gym, and doesn't drink. You want to win like Lance but you ride the bike 2 hrs a day, workout at the gym for 30 min a day, and drink two martinis before dinner and eat a big steak, and top it off with a piece of apple pie.

Lance wins 7 Tour de France's and you don't make the team.

Role modeling is training precisely the way the person trained from which you want to get the same result. So you can't take one technique from one trainer and another technique from another trainer, another technique from a third trainer, put them all together and hope to have the same result that you want. You can't use cookies to train a dog to "fetch" and use maximum e-collar pressure to make him "sit." You have to have a program that is coherent , one that blends together all the aspects of training. You can't expect to get good results with a haphazard program modeled after a variety of people that do not necessarily meet the criteria that you are interested in.

So, in training retrievers, if your hero is Rex Carr or D. L. Walters or any other person, even your neighbor, if you want the same results that they have do exactly what they do. If you follow their program 70% of the way, you might get 70% of the results that they are getting.



Balance is the Key
by Bill Hillmann

In retriever puppy training the key is to get the retrieving going first. You have to have a wild puppy before you start to do obedience. First thing is to get them wild to retrieve. If they aren't wild to retrieve, you don't want to start making them sit and walk on a lead. First they get wild, then you balance that with the leash and the sit command. The same balance should be carried throughout the dog's life. A dog that is wild to retrieve should have more obedience lessons than retrieving lessons. A dog more obedient and less wild to retrieve should have more retrieves than obedience.

Every dog is different and the training program must match and balance their unique personalities. All dogs need balance, and a dog trained with the correct balance is eager to retrieve, obedient on the line and in the field, and extremely HAPPY!

"They can all do it, you just have to bring it out in them."



Dog and Handler Relationship

Dog training is about the relationship between the handler and the dog. The dog looks to the handler for guidance, stability and rewarding experiences. The relationship between man and dog should be based on admiration and respect, not based on fear. In my opinion, one of the first and most important things you can do with your new puppy to begin this process is to take them on long 'walks' several times a week.

These 'walks' should be at least 30 minutes in length with no training involved. Take your pup out in a safe area where he can run free and is with you and you alone. Leave him off lead walking with you on a trail, through the woods, or in fields exploring as a team. Let him sniff and smell what he likes. Lead him over logs, obstacles and through cover. You are his buddy exploring along beside him. Find creeks and puddles to walk through as a team. Give him plenty of encouragement, touching and praising as you both go along. This will work to establish the team mentality in your dog and is the basis of creating an attitude of a teamplayer throughout his life. (These 'walks' are an excellent idea for older dogs also!)



Using Pressure

Several years ago there was a group of us training dogs at Rick Bauer's in Wisconsin. On Friday night we bought six really beautiful rib eye steaks, with a big baked potato and a salad to go along with them. When it came time to do the cooking, Ron Ainley, the well- known trainer and manufacturer of custom dog carrying equipment, declared that he would be cooking the stakes. Several eyebrows went up but he was allowed to grill the steaks. We were all starved so we waited anxiously for the meal to develop. Ron diligently flipped the steaks while expounding on several aspects of the discussion. I kept wondering why it was taking so long because I had repeatedly made it clear that I wanted my steak VERY RARE. I mean still wiggling.

OK ... Here we go. I took my first bite, guess what? Gray all the way through. It was virtually inedible, almost like trying to chew the edge of a baseball mitt. But later, I used the occasion to illustrate an important lesson in dog training. Training and pressure are sort of like cooking - if you do too much, it's ruined. If the meat is too rare you can always throw it back on and add more heat.

In training also, if you're dealing with an issue such as getting in the water or force fetch or taking the correct cast or any other lesson - go easy at first because you can always add more pressure later. It is the sign of a poor trainer to use too much pressure right off the bat. The results can be very disappointing and may require weeks of back tracking to get to the point where you were before you even began. Even worse, a dog can be ruined and many have, for life.

There are countless stories of heavy - handed trainers who have done great damage to dogs, some which never recovered. This may seem obvious but watch, it happens all the time ... too much pressure too soon ... and the results are usually miserable. It's a much better idea to use pressure or force, whether it's a stick or e-collar or choke chain, a little more judiciously than just wading in with both barrels. Be careful and use respect and kindness.

So what is the moral of the story? The moral is just because you can build a great dog box doesn't mean you can cook meat.