The most frequently asked question regarding dog training is undoubtedly, "At what age do I start training my pup?" The easy response, and correct answer, is from the first day you acquire the new protégé. The more difficult question to answer is at what age does the trainer teach this or that? What commands should the dog be taught at any given age, and what level of performance should be expected?
Just so you know where I am coming from, the basis of my training philosophy is that I am not a proponent of developing the youngest dog to ever be introduced to the gun, hunt in control, retrieve to hand, to hold point, or be steady to wing and shot. I preach a building block program -- a program that develops a happy and confident hunting companion who responds with enthusiastic and stylish excellence. If I wanted my child to be a chemist, I would not give the youngster a chemistry set on his first birthday.
It is imperative to understand that it is impossible to train a dog to perform a command with excellence without correcting non-compliance. The danger of discipline administered incorrectly, inconsistently, or with too big a dose is that it may result in irreparable damage to the canine student's outlook on going to school. A dog that is bold and confident will respond to proper correction with an "Okay, I get it. I screwed up. Let's shake hands and go have a beer" attitude. A youngster lacking confidence may sulk, fight, or attempt to avoid training altogether. The insecure student may view any training as too stressful. Trying to get such a resistant student to hold point, for example, may lead to outright blinking (the purposeful avoidance of game.)
Once the trainer recognizes how much more successful the training will be with a bold and confident pup than a shy and reticent prospect, the answer to "What should I be teaching my new buddy?" will be more apparent. Get the pup off to the right start by developing a youngster who is confident and bold -- a somewhat cocky individual who says "Life is good. Life is fun. I am great!"
What I am trying to convey to you is that your job with a pup in his first six months is not to line steady the youngster or teach the hopeful to back the point of a brace mate. Your job is to create a dog that will be a good student when the time comes for the dog to go to school -- a student who will respond enthusiastically and successfully to proper training methods applied at the right time. And the right time is not necessarily chronologically dictated. The right time is more a question of the developed maturity of the dog.
The most important ingredient necessary to molding a bold, confident, and trainable pup is genetics. Genetics is the mortar that will cement all the trained building blocks together. Don't try to save a buck when selecting your future gunning companion. Purchase your pup from a heritage of proven ancestors, remembering the dam and sire are more important than lineage four or five generations back. The quality of the family tree dictates the potential of the pup more than any other factor. Genetics + training + nutrition, in that order, are the key variables determining the success of your bird dog. You cannot make a silk purse from a sow's ear.
The first six months of the dog's life are the most critical. It is my experience that a dog's personality is formed in the first half year. A dog can be taught to respond to commands such as here, sit, whoa, heel, etc at any age, but the socialization process must commence early. The training will progress more quickly and with less negative side effects if the trainer spends the formative first months creating boldness and confidence rather than enforcing compliance to commands. Overtraining in the early stages is a mistake far too many owners succumb to in their zealous rush to push the student too fast. Be patient and take your time. Give the pup the first year of being a puppy. You will be rewarded for years to come.
So what are some of the do's and don’ts in working with the pup in the early stages? Those of you who have spent any time with me have heard me hammer the importance of birds. Nothing will create a bold, happy, and confident bird dog more effectively than exposure to birds, assuming the pup has inherited strong genetics. Hunting and finding birds is what the pup was bred to do. Exposure to birds will fine hone the hunting instinct. Do not wait for the pup to be "old enough to train" before introducing him to hunting and birds. This does not mean shooting over the youngster. Let the pup learn to use his nose. The pup needs to acquire the savvy to find birds. He will not acquire this questing expertise by learning to sit or by curling up at your feet while you are watching TV.
Take the pup to the woods and the fields. Let him learn about the world. The pup needs to be exposed to a variety of new grounds early on. If the pup is not exposed to the world outside his backyard in the formative stages, there is a risk he may never be confident in strange surroundings.
Most people do not live in an area rich in wild birds. Buy some pigeons, chukkers, or quail and seed an area with enough birds to insure the youngster will have success in finding a few birds. In no time at all your future bragging rights gun dog will be searching for game. Let him run and chase. This is not a training exercise in teaching here or hunt close. The purpose is to teach your pup to learn to hunt. Don't hack at the pup. Just let him go in the initial training hunts. Both you and your pup will have more fun.
A dog must understand implicitly what a command means before being corrected. Two bible rules regarding discipline are (1) the dog understands absolutely the command, and (2) the dog must be corrected at the place of the infraction within close proximity of time to the undesired behavior. These two rules are mandatory for owners to understand if they are to be successful trainers. I have heard dog owners say something like, "My dog knew he did bad. When I got home, the dog had that look on his face. He knew that he wasn't supposed to piddle on the floor. I stuck his nose in the urine and told him, 'Bad, bad boy.' "
This is a misperception on the owner's part. Prior to the owner arriving home, the dog was probably curled up snoozing. The owner put the key in the front door and the dog's apprehension and stress level was triggered. Why? Because DOGS ASSOCIATE! In the past, when the sound of the door unlocking was heard the pup was sometimes petted and at other times, he had his nose stuck in pee and was disciplined. The dog associated the sound of the lock with possible correction. This is no different than the Pavlovian theory that we learned in high school. Pavlov rang a bell and then immediately offered the dog food. After enough consistent repetition, the dog salivated in anticipation of eating upon hearing the bell ring. Because the correction did not take place at the time of the occurrence of the undesired behavior the dog could not make a connection between the act of urinating on the floor and the discipline. For the correction to be meaningful the owner would have had to catch the dog in the act. Disciplining the dog a few hours later results in nothing more than creating distrust and uncertainty in the dog.
The first six months is the ideal time to start "Show Pup" training. In show pup training, the trainer's job is to show the pup what the command means. In show pup training, repeat the command over and over while showing the youngster what the command means. If I were showing the pup what "here" means, I would snap a check cord to the pup's collar and gently pull him to me while repeating, "here, here, here." This is not the time to correct the dog for non-compliance. That comes down the road. Only after hundreds of show pups with the here command will I start demanding the pup complies the first time that I give the command. The more repetitions of show pups the less discipline necessary, both in harshness and number of corrective sessions. The less discipline used, the more stylish your dog will be.
In the beginning months, do not expect your youngster to comply with excellence to your commands. His attention is limited, as is his maturity. His PhD will come much later. Do not be in a rush to introduce the pup to the sound of gunshot. Develop the youngster's boldness and confidence in new surroundings, with different people, and in the field with birds first.
Be consistent. It is confusing to the dog if the trainer sometimes commands "here," while at other times commands "come" or "come on over here to me." Let your pup be a pup. There is plenty of time for advanced training. Keep your training sessions short and frequent. Three hours of training on Saturday is not as effective as ten minutes each day. And have fun!