Breaking bad habits
Bob Coffey has a 16-month-old chocolate labrador bitch called Luna, a much-loved member of his family who started retrieving well on land and water from six months old, but a few months ago the training stopped when she ‘lost the plot’. Bob, who is 66 and
G’day Bob, yes, there is hope: the first step is to ban the grandkids from playing fetch games with Luna.
Here are some tips on solving this problem.
Lots of folk buy a gundog and assume that it will train itself; unfortunately, by the time they realise that’s not the case, there are all sorts of bad habits becoming established.
In your case, it sounds like Luna was retrieving OK before the grandkids taught her a new game. Unfortunately, you are going to have to spend time correcting the problems that have been created.
There is no doubt that if you buy a gundog of any breed from a knowledgeable breeder, then yes, the pup will have retrieving desire or natural pointing instincts, or both. I tell folk who pick their pup up at eight weeks that they do not need to worry too much about the retrieve, that desire is in the pup already. They only need to do a couple of retrieves a week down the passage to begin establishing the correct behaviour.
The most important thing is obedience training, and that should start as soon as the pup has settled in. And the most important obedience command of all is the recall: the recall command, properly and thoroughly taught, would go a long way to solving part of your problem, but you need to be at a standard where you can call Luna, even with high levels of distraction happening around her.
You also need her to sit and stay (which, by the way, is one command: ‘sit’), again with high levels of distraction. A great way to steady dogs on retrieves is to pick up a lot of dummies yourself when training — this way your dog is not pre-empting.
Bob, when you think Luna is at this level of training, test it out — have your grandsons come over and provide the distraction, but make sure you instruct them on how much of a distraction you want them to be. This will also involve them in Luna’s training and give them an insight into what you are trying to achieve.
The next stage for me would be to bring Luna inside and sit her in front of you while relaxing in front of the TV, ask her to hold a dummy, only for a few seconds initially, and give her a treat when you take it back with the ‘give’ command. Build on this to the stage where she will happily hold the dummy for 10 minutes. This training will help settle her whilst improving her attitude to the dummy and, at the same time, she is learning that giving you the dummy is a positive experience.
The next step is to take her to a spot with few distractions: she needs to be totally focused on you — have a dummy in a bag over your shoulder. By this stage, Luna should be reliably coming when called with high-distraction levels.
Allow Luna to familiarise herself with the area, then place her at sit, walk off 50 m, wait 30 seconds and call her to the sit position in front. Do this three or four times. When she is doing this perfectly, clip a 20 m check cord to her collar (the check cord is only an insurance policy, hopefully your previous training will ensure it’s not needed), walk out 20 m and place the dummy on the ground, return to Luna and send her to retrieve the dummy. As soon as she picks it up, hit the recall whistle.
I’m confident if you have been thorough with your training she will turn and come straight back to you, but if she gives any indication of heading elsewhere give her a tug in your direction and reward her on delivery.
Keep this training going for a couple of nights a week and limit the retrieves to three or four only. When she is reliable, move on to hand throwing the dummy: again, place her at sit and walk off 20 m or 30 m, throw the dummy whilst making sure Luna remains sitting, and return to her before sending for the retrieve, then repeat with cold game.
Bob, throughout all this training, keep everything calm — you want Luna to be settled and not over-excited.
Hope this advice gets you back on track and sees you both in the swamp next opening.
Mark Davis has been a Field & Game member since 1983 and is happy to answer any questions about dog breeds and training methods. Send any questions for our gun dog team to e firstname.lastname@example.org and include a photo of you and your dogs if you are...