Q&A with a professional dog trainer

Editor's note: Mike Stewart has nearly 30 years of experience breeding and training sporting dogs and is currently training Drake, the official Labrador retriever of Ducks Unlimited. To learn more about Wildrose Kennels and the training methodology used by Mike, visit www.uklabs.com. If you have a training question, email Mike and he may answer your question in an upcoming column.

Hand signals

What training steps are needed to get my lab to recognize hand signals on blind retrieves?

Mike M. Etheredge

Hand signals are really extension of obedience control. First ensure your retriever's obedience skills and whistle commands (stop/recall) are thoroughly entrenched. Next, along a straight edge (fence), begin with the back command. The dog is at a remote sit with bumpers laddered (not piled) 180 degrees behind. Once the dog understand the back cast, we begin calling the dog toward us and stop them on a traffic-cop style "stop" hand signal along with a single whistle blast. Freeze momentarily to hold focus and reinforce patience, then cast back. This is called the pull/push exercise. Next, we begin to stop our retriever going out on a retrieve in the same manner at the same location.

The pull/push and stop/back cast must be run in several locations repeatedly to ensure the skill is understood before going on to casting left/right. Again, begin on a straight barrier to encourage clean lines. Start with single obvious bumpers at 90 degree angles to the dog.

Once basic casts are understood, it becomes necessary to extend the distance of the cast and to include a variety of terrain including obstacles and water. Basically, teaching hand signals is a progressive task. Start simple and at short distances on land and achieve total results before progressing to graduated distances, multiple casts and water.

Marking skills

We rescued a black lab female from a previous owner who could not care for her anymore, so I wasn't able to "pick the parents" or other evaluations recommended. She is 5 1/2 months old now and doing well in obedience training. I know a great deal of this is genetic, but I was wondering if it is possible and if so, how (?) to train your dog to track an object in flight when it is thrown? She loves to fetch (as do all Labs), but loses track of things and
starts running in the initial direction of the throw.

Mike Heinen

You are correct. Marking skills are definitely a factor of genetics but any dog's marking skills can be improved through training — more on this in upcoming articles. For now, let's address your issue of flight tracking of a mark. Five and a half months is a very young age to expect proficiency in marking. At that age be more concerned about obedience, memory development and keeping the pup patient. I only use simple, obvious marking at this age and only about 2 to 4 marks per week. Begin the process of slowly steadying the pup and setting up sight and trailing memories at very short distances.

Later we can improve weak marking by using hidden bird throwers, throwing large bumpers at a high arch. Large deadfowl ducks and white bumpers with attached streamers are great for this purpose. Over water the landing mark will make a splash which is a bonus. I teach a "watch" cue just as a bumper is about to appear in the air and your dog catches on very quickly. Still one problem remains. Until we get them in the field on live game, a dog believes that all retrieves originate from the ground. There are tricks to help minimize this in training but nothing beats hunting experience — no birds, no bird dog.

Finally, your pup is young. Don't expect him to track all but the simplest marks. Try small bumpers with flags attached and don't give too many marks to a young dog. With age his abilities will likely mature. Be watching for our upcoming series on Marking Enhancement.

Suburban training areas

I have an average-sized yard (20 yards by 20 yards, maybe) in the suburbs. How much retriever training can I realistically do in this situation? The only access to larger, "wild" land I have is public hunting land or down at Corps lakes 45 minutes or so out of town. Is it possible to work on some things in a backyard and then a couple of times a month head to the lake or other larger area for training activities?

Tony Stout

You can train the basics of a nice shooting dog in an urban environment. Even in your confined yard you can begin obedience commands, steadiness, hold conditioning, how to walk water ramps (a board and your picnic table), hunting cover (a tennis ball in your shrubbery) honor (if you have two dogs), and even simple hand signals. Just use your imagination. Additionally, you can reinforce patient behavior by having the pup sit quietly as you perform yard work or sit beside you as you work on a project... same as you will in the duck blind.

Now expand your thinking. What other skills can you work on? Neighbors and other dogs provide excellent distractions for the pup as you work on obedience skills like heel and sit around the neighborhood. Keep the focus on you; not the distraction.

You have other opportunity grounds including school yards (open ground and fields), public parks (lots of distractions), industrial parks (large, empty parking areas to teach lining), athletic fields (loads of nice, straight fences to begin casting drills), construction areas where ground work is just beginning (rough cover and lots of loose dirt). You get the picture. Look about. Training in the urban area is a challenge but some resources are there.

Save weekends to get to those desired fields and water sources. Yard work and basic field work can be achieved in all but core city areas with a little imagination.

Force fetch

I have a 7 1/2 month old male chesapeake bay retriever and we are currently stuck on one point of force fetch. He will pick up the bumper off the ground when you pinch his ear, but won't do it on command. How do I get him to get through this?

Thank you very much,
Larry Vrtiska

My first question is did your pup retrieve naturally? Secondly, did you attempt to develop natural delivery to hand through positive reinforcement hold conditioning before beginning force fetch?

Force fetch in my book, is a training methodology of last resort. Force fetch disguises natural retrieving traits. How do we know if we are mating parents with natural delivery skills if these skills were man-made through force?

That's why we often see some dogs from retriever breeds like labs, chessies and goldens with very little desire to deliver to hand with a soft mouth. Natural delivery is not a trait in many breeds because the skill has been or will be man-made through force. Gradually the gene pool is diluted of natural retrievers. When natural delivery and soft mouth traits are not specifically bred for, slowly the trait is deselected. Force fetch disguises natural ability and develops dogs which stand up under the pressure of this unnatural training method. The result? In just a few generations we see dogs which are progressively difficult to develop natural delivery to hand and those who have become more difficult to train without force.

Let's go back to the basics to discover what steps were skipped in your pup's development. Did you attempt to develop retrieve desire naturally prior to going to force fetch? Secondly, did you totally complete a comprehensive delivery to hand series prior to force fetch. This may take 3 weeks to complete. Your pup is only 7.5 months and you are well into force fetch so I can assume that inadequate time was spent in these areas.

For now, cease all retrieves and force. No more testing. Go back to deliver to hand-hold training. Do not resume retrieving or force fetch until you complete all the steps of the Wildrose Delivery to Hand Conditioning Part I and II.

Then, if necessary, polish with your force fetch conditioning.

That should do it.

Best of luck!
Mike Stewart