Beginning formal training


When he's at work your dog should have his full attention on the job in hand, so before you commence training let him relieve himself. You don't want a working dog that is in the habit of taking a pee when he should be marking a fall. (It's considered a serious fault in a British Trial dog.)

Obviously, after patiently waiting through the young puppy months you will be anxious to get to the exciting retrieving training — and that is precisely where serious problems begin. Imagine taking a gifted first year medical student and placing them in charge of an ER Department. Some days they may do reasonably well but eventually the complexity, pace and responsibilities of the job will unhinge them. This is precisely what happens when young dogs do too much too soon.

Whenever I hear an owner tell me that his eight-month-old retriever can perform 200-yard triples I know there is trouble ahead. I want to respond with, "Yes, but what will he be doing in two years time?" Unfortunately I already know the answer. I have seen far too many smart young pups develop into unsteady, self employed, headstrong adults not to predict the outcome.

Teaching a well-bred retriever to bring back bumpers is kid's stuff. Training him to be steady and obedient under extreme temptation is not. If you are aiming for exemplary behavior then the fundamental building blocks have to be firmly in place. Your dog must walk perfectly to heel regardless of outside influences. Sit silently while guns fire and dogs run around him. He should recall immediately when he hears the whistle. In short, his basic obedience must be bomb proof.

One of the major differences between British and American training is in the time scale. When 10-month-old American retrievers are running triples, British dogs are still going through basic obedience. Many top English Field Trial Champions did nothing but sit, stay and walk to heel at 14 months old. Believe me, compared to training your dog to be steady; retrieving is a walk in the park. Remember what it was like teaching your kids to tidy their room, be polite at the dinner table and not scream at each other? Now, how much difficulty did you have training them to eat ice cream? It's the same scenario.

No one ever called me and said, "Vic, I have a well bred retriever who is steady, obedient, walks to heel, doesn't whine or whimper; recalls on command, only problem is he won't retrieve." It's never happened, not once.

Mostly, owners complain that while their dog can bring back the birds their steadiness and obedience leaves a lot to be desired. Too many retrievers break, whine or chase. Very few will stop reliably on the whistle at distance or obey a recall when they fail to find a bird.

Lets look at how we can correct this.


If your young dog shows little interest in retrieving you must build up his desire by encouraging him to rush out unchecked for fun bumpers. Very few well-bred working retrievers require much of this stimulation.

Show/ Breed dogs are often reluctant retrievers and although they can be taught to fulfill a role it is a long and laborious process. Forcing a dog through months of training for a job in which he has little natural inclination is both unrewarding and unnecessary. With so many well-bred working pups available it makes little sense to persevere with a dog clearly unsuited to the task. My advice to any owner in this situation is to accept your dog's limitations; make him the family pet and find a more suitable working partner.

I find it strange that so many new owners spend as little as $200 on a pup of dubious breeding then pay twice as much for an e-collar to make it perform. Buying a pup more suitable for the job would produce far better results. Once your dog will dash out with enthusiasm for a bumper you can begin the steadying process.

Slip the leash on your dog and walk him around a bumper left lying on the kitchen floor. The moment he goes to grab it yell, ' No…leave it' and prevent him from reaching the dummy by snapping the lead. When he walks past and ignores the bumper tell him 'Good boy.' Repeat this several times in a five-minute session. You can do this drill three times a day until your dog understands that he receives a 'Good boy' for leaving it and a firm, 'No' for making a grab. At the end of each session tell him to 'Fetch it' and allow him to deliver the bumper to you. Eventually you will be able to walk him off lead around a bumper and have him ignore it until you say, 'Fetch it'. When he understands the meaning of 'leave it' you can move on to the next drill.

Sit your dog in front of you and flip a bumper backwards over your shoulder. As soon as he moves towards you holler, 'No…leave it' and place him back on the same spot. As you are standing between him and the bumper it should be impossible for him to make it to the dummy before you. The moment he settles down and stops trying to break whenever you throw the bumper tell him, 'Good boy' to confirm that this is what you want.

After several sessions your dog will begin to understand that unless he has been sent for the bumper he is to remain seated but don't become over confident. If you allow him to beat you to the bumper you will have reinforced his belief that everything on the ground is his by right.

Working with an assistant you can eventually start throwing bumpers to the side or over your dog's head. Having someone to help will enable the bumpers to be collected quickly should your dog break. When this happens give him a firm, 'No' and drag him back to his original spot and start again. Try always to finish on a positive note so that he feels confident rather than dejected.

Slowly you can increase the level of distraction by moving to different locations and firing a blank pistol (away from your dog) whilst flinging bumpers or rolling tennis balls past him. If you have a training group you can sit all the dogs in a circle and throw a dummy around always watching for signs of breaking. If your dog is doing well do not make a big fuss, this will only encourage him to get excited, simply say, 'Good boy' and keep him settled.
Don't forget to give him a retrieve at the end of the session to let him see the difference between sending him for a dummy and breaking.

As soon as he makes his retrieve take the bumper from him and drop it in your game bag out of the way. Do not under any circumstances carry bumpers in your hands or pockets where they can be clearly seen. It's most unfair to have bumpers on open display and expect a young dog to walk quietly at heel.

Dogs are great readers of body language therefore it's important when teaching steadiness that you walk slowly and speak quietly. Flinging your arms around like a maniac and yelling at the top of your voice is not conducive to the calm demeanor you are trying to encourage.

Training with other handlers and their dogs provides a great opportunity to teach steadiness. Make your dog honor quietly while shots are fired and others are sent to retrieve. Ensure that you are in a position to intervene if he attempts to break. I quite often use a second 'leash' made out of fine twine that I loop around his collar and my belt. I take off his normal lead and let him believe he is unrestrained. If he tries to break I'm on him like a ton of bricks yelling, 'No' and shaking him by the scruff. When you employ such devious tactics your dog starts to show real respect.

This column was excerpted from Vic Barlow's book, "British Training for American Retrievers."
Click here to purchase a copy.