August 21, 2018
My current Lab, Luna, draws a lot of attention wherever she goes. She's into retrieving in a way that borders on maniacal. But she also listens (mostly), and will work through a series of commands with the best of them. People often ask me who trained her, and I'm not too proud to say that it was none other than myself.
In full disclosure, I should say that I did have the benefit of having Tom Dokken research litters for me. He found Luna after sleuthing out the right bloodlines, and he gave me a week-by-week schedule on what to do with her once I brought her home as a puppy. That, as you can imagine, is no small advantage.
And then if you factor in the life of a freelance writer and photographer, you can come up with a fair amount of free time to train a dog. She's spent hours upon hours working drills with me in various environments, and has hunted more than most dogs could fathom.
Even so, Tom hasn't met her. I'm too ashamed that he'll see what I don't, and realize that there is much in the form of wasted potential with my dog. Or that the small obedience issues I live with and largely ignore will be glaring to his eyes, which are backed by 40 years of training experience.
The truth is, training a dog takes a lot of work. It just does. And it has to be the right kind of work that involves building up a dog through repetition, reward and an eye toward confidence. Most of us can't get to where a professional can, and that's why we need to take a hard look at whether we should enlist help or not.
Pups First, Please
I've heard Dokken say countless times, "Don't let bad habits form. They are like weeds and once they start they keep coming back." The best bet if you think you might need a pro's help is to get that help right away. Puppies are malleable and they are ready to learn. The right teacher can help shape them in a way that doesn't give the bad habits a chance to bloom. That matters, a lot.
Most of the issues we run into with duck dogs involve obedience shortfalls. Obedience is the foundation upon which stellar retrievers are built, and if it's not a solid foundation, issues will creep into all facets of life in and out of the duck blind. If you're not capable of taking the time to work with a puppy right out of the gate in an effort to mold it into an obedient dog, it might be time to ask for help.
Good trainers can bring a dog back from the brink of bad behavior, but it takes time. And since dogs are individuals in their own right, not every one will respond well to the re-learning process. Most, if not all of them, can be helped to a large extent but it pays to understand that some damage has likely already been done.
These are also the dogs that once they are in your possession again, need the structure that the professional has laid out. If you slip back into your old routine, your dog will follow. If you keep up with the program that the trainer has developed, your dog will keep making strides in a positive direction. Again, it's a lot of work but is totally worth it once you get into the boat or the blind.
Finding A Trainer
Bargain shopping for a pro is generally a bad idea. Good trainers will have references galore and a solid reputation that is easy to suss out. Now, there are low-profile professionals out there that might charge less and still deliver a great dog, but you'll have to do your research. You'll also have to understand that cheap rarely means it's a good deal in the dog-training world.
I've got a buddy who went that route with his chocolate Lab puppy. He's a busy guy and recognized that he simply wouldn't have the time to put into his dog, so he found a trainer. When he told me the two-week course that the trainer was going to run his dog through I was suspect. When I saw her during our first hunt, I was less than blown away by her behavior. She hadn't changed at all. I'm sure that was partly the owners fault, but I also believe that the trainer he hired didn't spend enough time with her.
Work With The Pro
The thing about great trainers is that they'll show you what you need to do. They'll work your dog into a better place, and then hold you by the hand and lead you there as well (not literally). They'll explain why a dog is doing what he is doing, and why you should be doing whatever you should be doing.
This is the key to what they can do for your dog. Not only do they craft a better dog out of your retriever, they will explain how you can become a better owner and amateur trainer. If you heed their advice (you're paying for it, so you should), you will have a better dog that understands his role in the field and at home.
That is worth the price of a good trainer, every time.