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.

Labs, kids and hunting

Mr. Stewart,
I recently purchased a Lab primarily for a pet for my six-year-old son
and secondly as a retriever for me. We tried to pick the least aggressive
pup in the litter in hopes of having a fairly calm dog. The pup is 11 weeks
old now and continues to exhibit the problem of jumping up and "nipping"
at hands, legs, etc.

This appears to be in play (or is it her attempt to assert dominance?) and there is no growling associated with it. I have disciplined her enough that she doesn't do it much with me; however, she continues to do it with my wife and children to the point that they are afraid of this pup. I would greatly appreciate any suggestions on how to
better deal with this.

Thank you,
Steve Nifong


A couple of issues you need to consider first if you really want a splendid hunting dog in the field —you will have a difficult time of it if you make your pup a six-year old's pet first. Kids are likely to excite the pup and your family is not enforcing the basic pre-training puppy rules. Disaster awaits you. Your pup will likely become more dominate and less responsive to the other members of the pack (which is your family).

You must understand how pups think and develop. All pups are looking for a leader (your pup sees you as such, therefore, the different behavior between you and your wife and son). He sees the rest of your pack as siblings and the play will likely get rougher. She will later begin to challenge the authority of the other members. A pup treated strictly as a pet without some controls will develop into a dog you will not enjoy in the field.

Secondly, I hope you bought a pup from the type of parents with proven genetics … predisposition of what you want. If not, you may have far more dog than you bargained for or one that does not have the temperament or biddable nature you seek.

What to do:

1. On the second point … sorry, too late on that one for me to help.

2. Quickly buy Robert Milner's book, Retriever Training, A Back to the Basics Approach. Read it and implement it. Follow that book by reading Vic Barlow's book, British Training for the American Retriever. Their books reflect our training methodology here at Wildrose. Read both quickly!

3.Forget "pet" for the kids and a hunting dog. It won't work. Think family companion and change the family rules for associating with the pup.

4. Eleven weeks is young. She is just a pup so you're okay. Her negative habits are not fully entrenched. Now it's time for some light obedience work and later, at about 4 months, it's off to obedience class. You need to begin now with:

  • Teach the meaning of the word "no"

  • Familiarity with a lead

  • Tie-out quietly

  • No jumping

  • Sit

  • Keep pup quiet

    5. Read my articles, "What Not to Do" and "The 10 Pitfalls in Retriever Training." Print the articles and get total buy in from the family.

    6. Establish clear family rules for the dog. Write them out and put them on the refrigerator.

    7. Re-visit #5

    You still have time to regain control of your new family member. If you don't, you won't have the hunter you desire and your family won't enjoy this dog when its 70 pounds. The youngster will likely attempt to dominate the whole pack and do everything around the house except pay the property tax!

    Time for action!

    Best of luck!

    Slow and steady training

    Hey Mike,
    Great Q&A session on ESPN. com; I just had a couple quick questions.

    My Lab turns 12 months next week and is doing surprisingly well in his training. I've been keeping it slow and steady. In fact, I only let him do 2-5
    retrieves a week depending on what we're working on. Now I'm trying to
    work with his handling technique and steadiness using your "Delievery to Hand" article, it's going slow but I think he's catching on (by the way
    he is not retrieving this month because of the handling work).

    I have two questions. My first question is about the basics (i.e. come (whistle),
    sit (whistle), stay, down) is it okay to work these skills during the handling stages?

    Second, with the duck hunt right around the corner here in Utah (October
    4th) should I allow the pup to go with us or leave him at home? He has
    been introduced to gunfire and I can successfully shoot over him without
    any trouble (thanks to a great book that suggested starting at 100 feet
    away with a . 22 and work closer while the dog eats). I don't want to rush
    things, but at the same time I want to get him out in the field so he can
    see what he's working for.

    Thanks for your help Mike,
    Tyler Christensen

    Thanks! I am pleased you enjoy the tips and I hope you find them useful. I am also pleased you are subscribing to our training philosophy of taking things slowly. Actually, it's the quickest approach to training a well-mannered shooting companion. As we say, "make haste slowly."

    For your first question, I don't stop training non-retrieving skills during the delivery to hand process. Retrieves are suspended but obedience on land and water, honoring, being familiar with boats, water blinds, whistle stops, diversion during recall, negotiating barriers, riding on ATVs, etc. are all good skills to concentrate on simultaneously while polishing delivery.

    Forget hunting your dog until he completes a basic gundog course and is at least 12 to 14 months old. Hunting too early will contribute nothing to your training success. All foundation skills must be entrenched or everything you have worked on so patiently can come unglued.

    Once again you must be patient. Complete all basic gundog skills before the first hunt including:

  • Obedience

  • Steady/honor

  • Introduction to gunfire and birds

  • Delivery to hand (game)

  • Lining (doubles)

  • Handling (whistle and hand signals)

  • Marking

  • Hunting cover on command

    Remember, if you field your dog too early, there will be no correlation between your training sessions and the field hunting. He won't "see what he's working for."

    Best of luck!

    Literature for training older dogs

    I have 1-1/2 yr black Lab that I am interested in training for duck and
    goose hunting. Up until this time, she has had very little training. I
    wondering if you know of any training literature that focuses on
    older dogs. I know there are many obstacles that we must overcome, but I
    feel the reward far exceeds the hard work. Any help would be greatly

    Mike Righter

    There is little or no difference in the training curriculum or methodology when training a retriever beyond 8 months old. There are no shortcuts; no steps may be omitted. In an upcoming training article I will give you a brief training outline applicable to the training of any retriever, British or American, for the purpose of hunting, despite the dog's age.

    That said, as we have pointed out in earlier answers on this forum, training the older dog may prove more challenging and time consuming than expected. You are facing the condition of "old dog new tricks," and even worse "old dogs that know old tricks." To effectively train the older dog, you will likely first have to train out old habits. The lack of focus and concentration may also be problematic.

    Recommendations: See the reading list I endorse at www.wildrosetradingcompany. com and in my "Required Reading" column. Then become a free subscriber to the Wildrose training newsletter. There are a lot of my past articles archived there and here on the ESPNOutdoors.com website as well for your use.

    Best of luck!
    Mike Stewart