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How to Harness Drive and Instinct in Your Dog Training

Two different approaches to building a better gun dog.

How to Harness Drive and Instinct in Your Dog Training

A lot of handlers come at the same goal from different angles, and that’s part of what makes training so fun. (Photo courtesy of Eukanuba Sporting Dog)

Steadiness in retrievers, or in any gun dog for that matter, is highly prized. Dogs that don’t break when the first ducks are killed, and don’t whine, pace or bark when a flock of geese makes its final approach. Steadiness is critical and for good reason. Dogs that are steady are calm and focused. A dog that doesn’t break clearly understands what their handlers want them to do and they do it when they are asked. Their steadiness is one reason their masters kill one heck of a lot of birds. It’s also a reason they get a lot of feathers in their mouths, and that sets them up for more success.

Getting Started

Al Arthur is the owner of Sandhills Retrievers in Lincolnton, Georgia. His late father Hugh was a trialer who not only won the National in 1985 but was recently inducted into the Retriever Hall of Fame. To win qualifiers to get to the National which he won in 2015 and 2020, Arthur needs mannerly dogs with tremendous drive as well as rock-solid steadiness. To make dogs steady the Eukanuba pro trainer begins by firing up the puppy’s prey drive by cutting ‘em loose. “Dogs will have their entire lives to be steady,” he said. “I want puppies to go, and to get them to go I don’t hold them back. Firing up their prey drive is the best way to go. I want puppies to think that retrieving is the best thing ever, and that means when I launch a bumper I let ‘em roll.”

dog trainer in white coat casting black lab on a line
Arthur knows dogs, and one way he keeps them focused and motivated is to keep them hungry. That’s not hungry for food, it’s hungry to go to work. (Photo courtesy of Eukanuba Sporting Dog)

“I always end my training sessions on a positive note at a time when everything has come together just right,” he said. “When I feel that a puppy’s session is done and I’ve got to start work on another dog then I put him up in his box. I want him cussing at me for putting him in the box. By picking him up just a little bit early means that the next time he comes out of the box he’ll be ready to work. Find that balance and develop puppies that look forward to going to work, and then give them a reward of some repetitions. It’s one good way to develop their drive.”

Chat with Arthur and you’ll quickly realize that he’s crystal clear about his dog training. “My training is always black and white,” he said. “I don’t want there to be any confusion in what I expect my puppy to do. My ultimate goal is to have a bird or a duck that is shot to fall at arm’s length and not have my dog move, budge, or flinch. To get there doesn’t mean that they have to be steady when they’re really young. Puppies need to learn about life and how much fun retrieving is. They don’t need to run 200 yards to make a retrieve when they’re six months old. There is time for that later on, but that kind of intense training needs to wait until they’re older. But I do expect them to work perfectly at 50 yards.”

After two months of bumper work, Arthur continues to fire up the pup’s prey drive by introducing him to live birds. “After they’re doing well with the bumpers I’ll let them drag a dead pigeon or duck around the yard,” he said. “That’s usually around eight months old. After doing that for a bit, I’ll introduce them to live birds. I’ll let them run up on either pigeons or ducks and start to focus on some light steadiness work. The pups get real excited, but I make sure that the experience is pleasurable. I focus on my set ups so that released birds fly away from the pup and not back in their face which can scare them. Get those birds flushing a little bit in front of the pup so he gains confidence and wants to work harder to get to the real deal. Once he’s rolling good I’ll start to work towards getting him to engage his brain and quiet down. He’s got to learn that by being quiet he’ll get the prize, not just by running fast. I start working on that when pups are around 10 months old. Calm dogs release that energy when I give them a command and send them on a retrieve.”

dog trainer in white coat with black lab running in grass
My training is always black and white. I don't want there to be any confusion in what I expect my puppy to do.” Al Arthur (Photo courtesy of Eukanuba Sporting Dog)

There’s a different way, says Robert Milner, the owner of Duckhill Kennels and world-renowned breeder and trainer. “It’s a firmly entrenched myth in the gun dog world that handlers build prey drive through tremendous amounts of bird exposure followed by the throwing of thousands of dummies,” he said. “There is no question that the dog will be totally fired up by those activities, but the handler has created a new issue: bringing the dog under control so he’ll be steady. Compulsion training which I have done and discontinued in favor of positive training methods, is the only way to get dogs that are out-of-control to be obedient. That process can be easily solved with a different approach that is much easier on the dog as well as on the trainer.”

Milner’s first step is to look carefully at pedigree. “All behaviors that a dog needs to be a gun dog are provided by good breeding,” he said. “Dogs genetically are wired to retrieve, take hand signals and the like, for thanks to good breeding it’s in their blood. The role of an owner or handler is to bring out those behaviors. Steadiness is a critical behavior that cannot be gained through breeding. Steadiness comes from teaching a dog to be calm in a high-distraction environment. By teaching a dog to be steady you’re really teaching him how to deal with his excitement. If they can handle their excitement, then their thoughts will overrule their emotions and they’ll be calm.”

Robert Milner’s Training Process

Start them young. “A dog’s earliest learned behaviors are the ones that are the most persistent throughout their life. Determine what critical behaviors you expect of your dog and teach him those when he’s young.”

Start them right. “The shortest point between two points is a straight line. If you want a dog to be steady then start with steadiness work. I introduce all of my pups to birds starting at the 8-week mark and I do so in my bird pen which is a controlled environment. They learn that birds are just part of their life and don’t get overly excited when a big flock tries to land in a spread.”

Engage their brain. “Put puppies in a situation where they can be successful. For instance, if you put them very close to a bird, they will get excited and try to chase it. Instead, place the birds at a distance so the puppy can see them but not get excited to chase. Then, bring the bird closer and closer. Praise and reward the puppy for NOT chasing the bird. If the puppy places a high reward on verbal praise or a pat, give them plenty. If they are motived by food, then give them a treat. Pups with a high drive will need more repetitions to master than those with a lower drive. Pups will start to show improvements at the 200-300 repetition mark with mastery coming around the 1,000 mark. Those reps change the dog’s neurology by laying down more mylin in the nerve cells and rewiring them. While those neurological changes come from repetitions, they can’t be done in one day, they have to come over time.”

robert milner sitting in canoe in marsh with labrador retrievers
While those neurological changes come from repetitions, they can’t be done in one day, they have to come over time.” (Photo courtesy of Robert Milner)

Dogs have a lot of instinct, and Milner says it’s up to the owner to bring it out. “A mixed-breed mutt that comes up and drops a ball by your foot has shown an instinct to retrieve,” he said. “Though the dog may not have a pedigree he has proven that he has intelligence and instinct. The handler’s job is to take the next step when the mutt brings a ball, and that’s to get him to deliver to hand. Then, the handler needs to focus on getting the mutt to deliver in other situations, such as when he is asked to do so. Most of the failures in a dog’s steadiness don’t come from genetics, it comes from training. That’s something within our control, and that means it’s up to us to get after it.”  

The key part is arriving at a dog that is steady no matter the task. Al Arthur and Robert Milner have successfully proven that their different methods work. Use whichever one suits your training style, for all that matters in the end is that you have a steady dog that is calm and under control. They’ll sit quietly in the blind when ducks are in the air and when you and your buddies are calling and shooting.

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