Train now or pay later

Retriever trainer Scott Carruth believes that one of the biggest sins gundogs can commit is to break early. 

Sure, I know. Waterfowl seasons just ended a month ago across much of the southern U.S.

And in the North Country, the snow is deep and the ice is thick as the groundhog's forecast proves to be all too true.

But if you were less than satisfied with your retriever's performance last fall in the duck blind, now is the time to lay a foundation for gundog success next season.

So says North Texas retriever guru Scott Carruth, owner and operator of Pin Oak Kennels in Ravenna, Texas.

With a year-round kennel filled with as many as 40 gun dogs and field trail retrievers — including 2001 National Retriever Club Championship Stake finalists FC Pin Oak Rip Curl and FC Gator — Carruth's 15-years of experience provides solid advice that can be trusted.

And while a full training program designed to teach the conditioned retrieve (force fetching), multiple retrieves, marking, and blind retrieves lies beyond the scope of this article, there are things that can be done to help lay a proper training foundation.

Starting out

Where to start? Before you go grab the retrieving dummies, first things first. Carruth advises that gun dog owners start off by fine-tuning their dog's diet to help get Fido back into shape.

"In the off-season, knock the calories down," Carruth said. "Go to a maintenance formula for less active dogs. During the hunting season, go back to a high performance diet with higher calories. Some feed high performance food all year, but dogs can get fat when you do that."

Adjusting a dog's diet is just the start however. While water training will be out of the question for several weeks in some parts of the country where winter is winding down, physical conditioning is still vitally important.

Walking can suffice for now, but as soon as the weather warms sufficiently, Carruth rates swimming as the absolute best canine conditioning regime during the off-season months.

"Don't try to do it all in a day or two," Carruth said. "It takes an average of three to four weeks for an average hunting dog to get back into shape."

Once Fido's diet is in order and a foundation of physical conditioning has been laid down, it's time to move on to basic obedience work.

Reinforce the basics

"'Sit,' 'Here,' and 'Heel' — hunters need to reinforce these three basic commands," Carruth said.

"The biggest thing I say to people to do with their dogs is to stop making a request rather than a command. When you say 'Sit, sit, sit' and do not reinforce it, it's only a request. The dog knows that."

How can you help your dog understand the difference?

"We reinforce these commands using a short lead and a choke collar," Carruth said. "Keep a high standard on everything."

How you might ask?

"When you say 'Sit' or 'Here,' make sure that the dog responds properly and promptly," Carruth said. "If not, reinforce the command by jerking up on the leash for the 'Sit' command and with a quick pull for 'Here' and 'Heel.'"

One important consideration according to the Texas trainer is to be sure that Fido understands what is actually being commanded.

"A dog must understand a command fully before you reinforce it," Carruth said.

The goal: obedience

The goal of obedience training is a properly controlled dog in the field, from the truck to the boat or blind and back again.

While some dogs have loads of retrieving potential, without proper control, they can actually turn into safety liabilities in the field according to Texas waterfowl guide Mike Bardwell.

"I've seen hunters who let their dogs put their feet up on their knees, sit too close to them, or even jump up on the side of the blind to look out," Bardwell said. "Control in a blind is not just important for enjoying a dog's presence in a blind — it's an important safety issue."

"I've seen a poorly controlled dog actually cause a gun to discharge and that's not funny," he added. "Not a bit."

For Carruth, control is not only necessary in the blind, it's also necessary when a retriever hits the water to retrieve a duck or goose.

"Letting their dogs break — that's one of the biggest problems I see with hunters," Carruth said. "That's an obedience problem."

Why? A retriever that breaks can actually cause wounded birds to be lost because a hunter can't properly dispatch the duck or goose. That's an obedience issue — and a conservation issue too.

Like most professional retriever trainers, Carruth's dogs are trained using electronic collars on a daily basis. But while he is quick to praise the collar's potential, he cautions amateur trainers in their use of such training devices.

"Electronic collars are not a quick-fix way to do anything," Carruth said. "Unless the trainer is properly educated with it, then it's an awesome tool."

"The electronic collars are probably best left to professionals who truly understand what they're doing with them."

Sure, the 2003/2004 waterfowl seasons are a long way off. But for those who put in some time now with their canine hunting companions, the results can pay off later.

Like next fall when a hunting partner mutters, "Nice retrieve" and you beam with a smile as wide as the state of Texas.