Training a Retriever - Foundations
(by Bob Pickworth)

Solomon “What has been will be again, what has
been done will be done again; there is nothing
new under the sun.

I began my adventure in NSRT (Non-Slip Retrieving Trialling) in 1982 when the husband of one of my fellow obedience club members invited me to a “working dog trial – the PhD of dog work”. After watching the All-Age dogs perform seemingly impossible retrieves, I was hooked. I began retrieving training with my Weimaraner and retired my Bull Terrier after she succeeded at CDX) and “Smoky” eventually achieved RRD, but due to his reluctance for cold water, didn’t proceed to A.A. level. I had another Wei, who was also keen to please and loved to compete, but again didn’t like cold water and I realised that to play with the “Big Boys” in this sport it was “horses for course” and my next dog would be a Lab. “Ace” (Zeefree All The Aces) was from a dual working/ show background and she was an amazingly compliant Black Lab bitch. She became competitive at A.A. and was a joy to train and live with – she taught me a lot about myself and dog behaviour. I had a long break from the sport (family, career, time commitments etc) due to the realisation that it would be quite a few years until I had the required time to invest in training to be competitive again at All-AGE, to which I have now returned with my current pal – “Rosie”.

The team work and willingness of our dogs and their desire to please and deliver to hand, is at times simply astonishing. At other times their desire to follow their instincts and ignore our
direction is perplexing and highlights the need for specific, well thought out drills and repetition in training.

The following musings are not original and merely repeating the wisdom of others, gleaned from reading, watching videos and sitting under the tutelage of experienced others who have invested their time in supporting me and to whom I am indebted and owe my thanks.

Training a Retriever Rudimentary Principles.

• Mentor. Our sport has many successful and experienced trainers/handlers who are willing to share their knowledge and experience. Without the input of others (Especially Peter Betteridge and Joe Vella, I would not have an advanced dog).
Proverbs 15: 22-24 says “Get all the advice you can, and you will succeed; without it you will fail. What a joy it is to find just the right word for the right occasion! Wise people walk the road that leads upward to life....”. One of the greatest benefits of having an experienced mentor is helping you avoid making mistakes and handling errors, that you are not aware of.

• Program, follow a systematic and methodical program with sequential steps that build on
the previous learning (Mike Lardy, Bill Hillman, Kevin Cheff, Evan Graham, Dennis Voigt, Danny Farmer etc). These are available on-line or on DVD, (unlike when I first started and books were the only available “programs”.) Spend the money, follow the program and build success. “Education is expensive, but failure is more expensive”.

• Slow and Steady. “The fastest way to train a dog is slowly”. “It’s a marathon not a sprint”.
To develop an advanced dog takes time and the help of others. Hopefully you will be training and trialling your K9 buddy for 10 years or more. There are quite a few 9-10 yr old dogs still highly competitive and running and placing (in State and National championships), so why rush?

• Respect and consideration for your dog is foremost. Our dogs rely on us for everything and for them to give us their best, we’ve got to give them our best (and this will be expensive in time, money and commitment).

• T.E.A.M. (Together Each of us Achieve More), You are the team coach of a K9 athlete. To achieve the desired goals, the coach must lead the dog and both must work together and communicate effectively.

• Mistakes, are going to happen in one of 3 ways;
1. Lack of understanding – You know what you want the dog to do, but the dog doesn’t. (More training needed, simplify the task and repeat -attrition until you get it right).

2. Lack of knowledge – the dog doesn’t consistently respond to the command. (More training needed, go back a step, repeat -attrition and reinforce correct behaviour).

3. Lack of effort / defiance – The dog knows what you want, but chooses an alternative response. (correct and repeat -attrition).

Dogs are honest animals, they respond to consistently reinforced commands and are not out “to get you”, so if they get it wrong, give them the benefit of the doubt and repeat (attrition). Only use a correction if you are sure they know the response desired and are not complying.

You want the dog to make mistakes so you can train the correct behaviour. Use attrition (repeat the drill until the dog understands). Mistakes are only an “issue” if they are continually repeated, in which case you need to reassess your training as there is probably a communication issue. If it's you, the dog continues to make mistakes – change something (“It is foolish to do the same thing the same way and expect a different result”).

• Read the dog. Learn your dogs’ behaviour: how it holds its head; sits on the whistle; where it looks; how it responds when using its nose etc. Watch lots and lots of other dogs train and compete and how experienced trainers direct their dogs and their responses.
Know the “factors” that affect your dogs’ behaviour. There are many, but the significant ones that can “push” or “pull” a dog are WIND, SLOPE, TERRAIN/STRUCTURES, WATER.

• Consistency. It’s all about consistency and communication - how you and your dog respond to each other. Non-verbal cues as well as verbal cues are important. Teaching your dog to orient its body at the line with shuffling the feet, “locking in” on the correct line, efficient use of the body / hands when casting, verbal commands when “on the spot” etc.

WHAT YOU TRAIN SHOULD BE HOW YOU COMPETE. Have experienced others watch you and give feedback (ask the judge how points were allocated / lost).

DON’T ACCEPT “LITTLE” ERRORS IN TRAINING. If you let it go and accept it in yard training it will be magnified in the excitement of the field (especially in competition). This is especially the case when at the line. Lining up for a mark or blind – take your time to get the dog’s Tail, Spine, Head, Attitude in a line and aimed in the direction you want the dog to go.

• Marks and Blinds – A well accepted training approach for Marks and Blinds is: “Hard to get to - Easy to Find - Hard to Find – Easy to get to”
Good marking is best taught by throwing LOTS of singles – even for advanced dogs.

• Fun. A happy retriever is fun to watch and all who see will know it. The mood you establish in training and competing is fundamental to success. If training and competing is about intimidation and punishment, the dog will show it and others will see it.

Richfields Rhoda B Willing; call name “Rosie”


This page is provided by Working Gundog Club Inc. (Affiliated with Dogs NSW)