If you haven't noticed, my dog Chester is a big part of my outdoor life. Dogs – not unlike humans - require regular reinforcement and training to operate at their optimum performance level.
Wow, how the years fly by. Chester is now five and a year from his prime. He has always been a great dog, easy to train, and eager to please. Even though he is fully trained, for conditioning sake and reinforcement purposes, I get him back into a work routine by mid July.
A working dog’s routine is a combination of obedience training, retrieving, and signaling audible and visual. Most new handlers make the mistake of only focusing on retrieving. The byproduct of such one-sided education tends to create a disobedient dog that is only able to retrieve a bird if it is seen going down. A disobedient dog can be extremely dangerous in the field in that they may be unable to hold his position at the moment of truth. By running into a hunter with his finger on the trigger and the safety off, the dog can cause a shooter to tip over and discharge his weapon on accident. The results could be fatal to the dog or another hunter. For this reason, a hunting dog’s training must start with obedience, and only progress once it has mastered the skill.
Nearly all trainers work their dogs a bit differently. Unless you are training a dog to run trials, it's not important how it performs a task, just that it is done safely and quickly. The use of a leash to restrain and coach the dog is needed until it obeys and returns flawlessly. My obedience routine consist of three basic commands: Sit, stay, and heel. I recommend using a whistle and hand signals to give commands, even in the earliest stages of training. This is done because as the dog gets further away, it may become unable to hear your verbal commands.
The sit command should be taught first. I give one toot of the whistle and lift the dog’s leash while gently pushing down on its haunches. When it sits, I give praise, and repeat the process until the dog sits without any stimuli but the whistle. I have found that most dogs I train learn to sit within minutes. Repeat the sit command for several days, inside and out. Once the dog performs the routine immediately, you may move on to the stay command.
The stay command is a hand signal for the most part, but in the early stages I also use a verbal command. I start by having the dog sit, I then put my hand in front of its face and say stay. I back up a few feet while continuing to hold my hand out. If the dog breaks, return it to the sit position and repeat until it gets the point. Once this is mastered, I switch from a walking leash to a long rope leash to extend the distance, but still have control of the pup.
The heel command is integrated into the stay command as a way to get the dog to return to your side. I give three quick toots of the whistle and gesture for the dog to return. It's not important in the early stages that the dog return to your side and sit. Once it returns immediately, begin to coach it with the rope to your side and give the sit command. The dog learns to return on the triple toot, and will automatically sit without command after a few days...