Recently I traveled to Oxford, Miss., and met with EO.com's training columnist, Mike Stewart. The point of the trip was, in addition to putting a face with the phone and email communications, to watch and photograph a simulation of a British field trial test that Mike puts on every year.
Those were the two reasons I gave my boss for sneaking out of the office a day early. The other reasons were that I wanted to witness Mike's breeding and training operation first hand, see the sire and dam of my soon-to-be hunting partner and to meet two of the field trial judges.
You see, as I mentioned, I'm soon expecting a pup from Wildrose Kennels. And, like many frequent readers of EO.com's Sporting Dogs page, I thoroughly enjoy Mike's training columns, tips and advice. So when the man made a recommendation for reading material, I listened and read the books of two men closely associated with Wildrose — Robert Milner and Vic Barlow.
Being the bibliophile that I am (read: book geek), I was excited to make the seven-hour drive into the land of Dixie to meet the two authors/judges that had written such entertaining, useful and educational books about a subject that is dear to many hunters yet often very problematic.
And meet them I did! In fact, after dinner, a few cocktails and several follow-up emails, Vic Barlow has agreed to become a regular contributor to the ESPNOutdoors.com Sporting Dogs section!
Vic's columns will mostly be comprised of excerpts from his book, "British Training for American Retrievers," as well as a training Q&A similar to Mike's regular columns. To learn more about our newest training columnist, visit Vic's website by clicking here.
As an introduction to EO.com readers, here are a few warm-up questions I had for Vic. If you have a question you'd like answered, email Vic here.
And so, without further hesitation …
Introducing Vic Barlow
EO: Because you live in England and have spent quite a bit of time living and traveling the U.S., you have a unique perspective on the differences and similarities of the two hunting communities in general and of the sporting dog community in particular. What differences or similarities between the two countries strike you the most?
VB: I like the informality of hunting in the U.S. and I love rural America. With 60 million people living on an island the size of Florida there's very little of 'rural' Britain left. However, sporting dog enthusiasts are remarkably similar: dedicated to their sport and often spending more time with their dogs than their families.
EO: In your book, "British Training for American Retrievers," you make the statement:
"Year after year the line up for the British Retriever Championship is approximately forty-five black Labs, four yellow Labs and a golden retriever. No chocolate Lab has ever made it to the final. Those statistics have to tell you something, but if performance is not your most important criteria, then it need not concern you."
Now, to the average waterfowl or upland bird hunter in the U.S., does color really matter? Or are chocolate Labs somehow genetically inferior? Or does the lack of representation at the Championship have to do with the rarity of the color in English breeding lines?
VB: All chocolate Labs have show dogs in their lineage, that's where the chocolate color came from. These show dogs lack the genetic desire of working dogs and are much harder to train to the top level. Every so often a chocolate will appear that has inherited all the genetic make up of its working ancestors. These are the ones that make the grade but they are few and far between.
EO: As a professional trainer and author of a very useful training book, what do you think is the one most important training step people overlook?
VB: Without doubt, basic obedience. Handlers are so eager to progress to the 'interesting' stuff. That's why so many dogs whine in the blind. They have never been taught patience and steadiness to any significant degree. I never introduce young dogs to the hunting field until they have completed ALL their training and are rock steady. Typically this is around 14 months old.
EO: Is there a training step people tend to "over train," to the detriment of another skill set?
VB: Marked retrieves are by far the easiest part of the training process and most handlers give far too many to the detriment of more difficult areas. Everyone wants to do marking drills, no one likes steadying drills.
Next season count how many dogs you see in the field that cannot retrieve a mark then compare it to the number of dogs that cannot remain silent and steady. Then ask yourself which aspect of training needs more attention.
EO: In England, steadiness obviously plays a major role in field trials and hunting, and in your book you discuss the importance of having a steady dog in the field. Many other trainers promote the same philosophy and adhere to the rule that a dog should only retriever 25-percent of the marks he sees fall. What is the best way for the lone, weekend hunter that has one dog to promote steadiness during the season when the dog may see — and be expected to retrieve — piles of birds?
VB: First of all the handler should pick up all the easy marks himself and never send his dog for a bird laying in open view, particularly if it is flapping around. This is the easiest way to unsteady a young dog. The handler should plant a few blinds and teach his dog to move off the simple mark and line to the unseen bird. Done progressively this will produce a dog that understands the meaning of teamwork rather than one that simply races out for whatever he sees.
EO: When training, there is a tendency to begin training with bumpers and wings before moving to cold game and, ultimately, live game. Is this best done in a progressive, regimented way, or is it better to vary the retrieved objects?
VB: I always do it progressively but I never take a dog on a hunt unless we have trained on live birds on a simulated hunt with lots of gunfire. I don't want the excitement of the hunt to undermine his training.
EO: Are there any problems that could occur in training by introducing wings, cold game or live game too early?
VB: Before introducing live game I like to have all the basics in place. I want my dog to be making a perfect delivery with bumpers and for him to understand the 'hold' command. Then if he has any problem with live game I can help him. Personally I don't use frozen birds, they are either rock hard or mushy. I train with freshly shot birds and never use the same bird for more than 3 or 4 retrieves. I don't want my dog to start chewing or spitting out damaged birds. It just creates another problem to solve.