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.

Live-game scares

I have a one-year-old Weimaraner and when a bird flushes she runs back to me. I probably traumatized her at 9 months when I took her out on a pheasant hunt and two roosters flushed very close to her in high CRP grass.

After a short time she is out in front of me again but never really seems to get her nose down looking for birds. She will follow my 7-year-old Weimaraner around but will always retreat toward me whenever a bird flushes. I have had two Weimaraners and both dogs had a strong desire to chase feathers and hunt at an early age. What is interesting is that this pup will chase rabbits but is very wary of birds.

I have bought pen-raised quail and let them out for her to find. When she sees them she becomes very leery and seems reluctant to pursue them. However, the last time I tried the quail she seemed less concerned with them but would not chase or get close to them. During that same session she retrieved (which she wouldn't do before) a dead bird that I tossed out for her.

My plan was to get her comfortable with smaller game birds by putting quail in a fenced in area and letting her chase and catch them and then move to planting quail outside. My fear is that she just doesn't like to hunt and no amount of training will change her attitude. However, she keeps giving me hints that if I am patient she may come around.

Any advise?

Dan Deines

Let's begin by taking her off live game for a while. Do a simple walk up with your dog at heel. Have an assistant toss first a feathered bumper then cold game as a mark as you walk, much like a remote flush. Fire a shot and send for the retrieve. We are associating a flush/flier with something fun& a retrieve.

Next, if available, move to a remote launcher which will release a live bird. Shoot the live flier that is released at a distance from the dog still at heel. Next dizzy a pigeon as you walk through cover. Toe up the bird and shoot. In both exercises, the focus is on a flush with a shot flier being associated with a retrieve.

Use smaller birds such as quail and pigeon at first as they are less intimidating at the flush. Finally, dizzy a single pigeon and allow her to flush it without shot. As the bird flushes, go out to her quickly with a vocal reward, "good dog!" Use lots of positive excitement. Do not allow her the chance to come in toward you. Focus on the dog and your reaction, not the shot or bird. If she catches it or chases it, no problem. Give a reward. We want to build confidence.

Have an assistant placed in the field where your dog is hunting. As she works the clover, have him make a noise to get her attention, toss out a flying pigeon and shoot the bird at a distance out. This way she is not close to the flush itself, but gets the effects of the same as in a retrieve. Don't return to the hunt until you see progress.

Quitting the retrieve

I have a 6 month old pup who is showing great signs. Although we haven't gotten into any intense training he has always retrieved to hand without any problems. I took about 2 weeks off retrieving with him as I was working on some obedience and when I went back to it last week he wouldn't even chase his bumper.

I tried tying a wing to it to entice him, but it did no good. If I run out to the bumper with him he will pick it up and readily follow me back and give it to me.

He had never been introduced to live birds until yesterday. I got a few Tibetan quail (some funny bird that only flies about 10-15 feet) out of desperation hoping the action would kick him back into gear. After a bit of hesitation on the first few birds he did very well and retrieved the rest of them without fail, but still will not chase his bumper.

I even froze a couple of dead birds and tried them today with no luck. I'm not sure what else to try, any advice would be appreciated.

Troy Cross

Let's back off a while. Your pup is still young and had displayed retrieving desire. A couple of causes might be the problem.

Perhaps too much pressure was applied when you abruptly started obedience. I begin obedience training quite young along with a few fun retrieves with no serious corrections. That keeps the attitude positive.

Another source could be that the pup became bored with simple retrieves.

In either case a pup can quit on you occasionally. It's sometimes hard to restart hem but there is always a reason.

In either case, stop what you are doing for a couple of weeks. Just back off. Come back after about 2 weeks of the pup being in his pen with little attention. After the isolation, begin with a couple of quick, fun retrieves. You may just need a brief time out and to come back with less pressure and fun retrieves.

Switch the type bumper you were using, perhaps to a fun object like a tennis ball and change the area from the place you were doing obedience training. There might be negative associations.

E-collar training

I have a 7-month-old Vizsla and I bought an e/beeper collar for him. I've used the stimulation for some very, very basic obedience work (kennel, heal) and I've been following local advice to get him accustomed to the beeping noise (turn it on when he's napping in his kennel).

Is it too early to start using the stimulation when we're walking in the field when he's disobeying and ranging — obviously only for commands he knows but is choosing not to follow?

When using the stimulation for commands such as kennel he begins to sulk and pout. He's extremely confident — especially in the field — and I don't want him to loose that, but I also know that old habits are hard to break and we're in a critical time of building trust and establishing who is alpha.

I had planned on starting force fetch at about a year and a half of age.

Any advice on e-collar conditioning is appreciated.

Thank you,
Matt Wagner

Sounds as though you may well be headed for trouble. Collar conditioning takes an experienced trainer. Timing is essential to reinforce known commands. You are not getting the desired results you wish with the stimulation (which it is not stimulation —it's a shock, call it what it is) and likely your dog is not interpreting the discomfort as a motivator. Collars are avoidance conditioning and nothing more.

First train your dog, which you have not done until commands are virtually habits. If, later a bit of reinforcement is needed, i.e. to enforce stop to the whistle, steady to flush or keeping the dog within gun range, fine. But train your pup first with patience, consistency and repetition.

You don't need a collar to establish yourself as a pack leader. It's been done by dogs and wolves for thousands of years without the benefit of e-collars. Don't establish old habits if they are to be bad ones. Condition in good ones by setting the dog up to win. As for trust, you'll not get it from a young, 7-month old prospect by training with a collar.

Here is the rule. Take your time and train commands and skills thoroughly first. Then, much later polish with an electric collar if necessary. Collars are not training tools. They are tools of conditioning avoidance. Use them as such. And before force fetch, see my previous comments on the subject before you start the process, if at all.

Best in sport,
Mike Stewart