During each hunting season there are two times when you might come to realize your dog isn’t performing as expected. The first is during the initial hunts of the year where excitement is highest and your retriever is out-of-his-mind happy to be hunting. This is the time where you really get to see how much of your training lessons have stuck.
The second comes as duck season winds down and the attrition of good behavior that has been established during training sessions starts to show.
Why would a dog that is generally solid at home and in the blind suddenly start to show a crumbling foundation of steadiness or other aspects of obedience?
The answer is because your dog probably wasn’t at the top of his game when you were training, even though he might have been close.
Knowing how common this is, I have a general rule of thumb for training: I ask 110 percent of my dog. I know even the best trained dog is going to lose some of his compliance in the field, but I’ll take a dog that is operating at 85 percent versus 50 any day. You can’t get a dog to perform at 85 percent during a hunt if that’s his high-water mark during training. You have to aim higher, and here's how.
Why The Unraveling?
The first step is to understand where your dog is at and why. This mostly applies to obedience, and trust me, it’s important. If your dog doesn’t flawlessly comply with three basic commands (sit, stay and come) at home, he won’t do it in a duck boat.
This means that gray area commands or asking your dog to stay but not correcting him if he doesn’t, will add up to a dog that is always testing the rules. If sometimes he has to do something unnatural (stay), and sometimes he can just ignore the command (wander around and sniff stuff), guess what he’s going to choose as often as possible?
I know it's harsh, or might even sound impossible, but the reality is you can’t make exceptions. When you’re training a dog you’re giving him jobs and rules, and he needs to comply. Those lessons will help him through his entire life, and will keep him safe and happy in the field. But, he doesn’t know that.
He knows what he wants to do, and he knows what you ask of him, provided you train correctly. He knows when he has your attention, or when it’s probably OK to slip. This is so much easier to control at home while working in the backyard or the neighborhood soccer field than it is while you’re laying in the cut corn eyeballing a flock of noisy honkers.
And it’s pretty safe to assume that if you don’t do the at-home drilling, you have no chance of solid compliance in that layout blind. One does not come without the other, unfortunately.
Sneaky Rule Breakers
Maybe at this point your saying: "I’m super consistent in my training and my expectations of the dog, yet for some reason when we go hunting he only retrieves the ducks halfway to the blind and then spits them out." In that situation, and many, many others, the breakdown in behavior might stem from whoever else is handling your dog throughout the week.
Think about your spouse or your kids, and ask yourself if they hold your dog to the same standard you do every day, without question. They likely do not, and that is a problem.
This simply sets up the dog to understand that, once again, there are more sets of rules than just one. I have a good friend who has worked with his Lab a lot and she’s a solid retriever, but he also has twin seven-year-olds. When the girls work with his dog, they are simply playing and they don’t demand a retrieve to hand. His dog then learns that it’s OK to end a retrieve by spitting out a dummy or a ball and she’ll still get praise and worse, another chance to retrieve, which is what she wants most in this world. That might seem innocent, but it sets the precedent that the good behavior he trained in the dog doesn’t always have to be there, which then runs the danger of being tested in the field.
It’s not an easy thing to ask young kids, or a spouse that isn’t interested in dog training, to do what you expect, so you might just need to set the rules that playing with the dog is fine, but tossing a dummy isn’t. Instead of letting the potential bad habits slip in, cut the opportunity out completely.
That might seem harsh, but again, good manners in a dog are not only an all-or-nothing game, but they are also the best way to keep a dog in control (safe) at all times.
That’s something that is very, very important.
Pay attention to your dog during the last days of the season and be honest about the level he’s performing. If your retriever is bumping up on 80 to 90 percent compliance with sit, stay and come during your hunts then you know you don’t have too many holes in your training game.
If he’s below that, find the culprits for the discrepancy in performance and address them.