How important is Obedience?
by Joe Law
12 December 2011

It is sometimes said that basic obedience training is not all that important when teaching your dog about retrieving.  Nothing could be further from the truth! The instinct to retrieve is a natural attribute in many gundogs and while it is desirable to foster retrieving drive in a young dog, care should be taken not to do this at the expense of basic obedience training. If obedience is neglected it will soon result in the breakdown of control, sloppy responses and the formation of bad habits all of which will jeopardise further training.

The best natural attributes that a good gundog can show you is a desire to please and a willingness to accept you as its leader.  Treasure this in your dog and don’t disappoint by not holding up your side of the deal. Dogs and humans have been able to enjoy a connection from day one so your whole approach should be to enjoy the journey. Obviously, your young dog does not arrive with knowledge of what is expected of him and much of his future behaviour will need to be learnt. Your job is to teach your dog what your expectations are and to be consistent in maintaining these standards. There should be absolutely no need for a trainer to adopt a martinetish and uncompromising approach when in most cases this attitude will only result in a dog becoming fearful and untrusting. Dogs respond well to praise and reward when these methods are combined with good judgement and timing ensuring that only desirable responses are rewarded. A good trainer will be able to maintain an even and consistent approach. Kindness, patience and perseverance are the trademarks of a successful trainer while harshness and punitive measures rarely result in a good outcome. It is most important that as a trainer you get your attitude and approach in order right from the start.

For a retriever, a foremost behaviour to be learnt is to come when called and to do this directly and without hesitation. Unless a dog can be recalled promptly and reliably there is little a trainer can do to remedy problems as they occur. The “HERE” or “COME” command must first be taught and consistently enforced. Begin with your dog on lead and only give the command “Here” when you can follow through and make it happen. When you get a good response it is important to remember to reward your dog. A good response would be when the dog comes immediately without having to enforce the response with the lead. Gradually increase the length of lead or rope and use various terrain as your dog improves his response. Several other commands are going to combine with your recall in general usefulness the most obvious being “Sit” and “Stay”. In the early stages of your dog’s training it is important to maintain these basic obedience commands with your dog on a lead until each command is understood and the right response has become habitual. It is a common mistake of inexperienced trainers to want to test the dog’s response off lead when there is little chance of success and the training immediately goes backwards. Another experience that can hinder a good recall response occurs when a dog has committed an indiscretion such as chewing on a child’s toy or piece of furniture and is immediately called and then reprimanded or punished. This reaction is likely to confuse the dog and his next response may well be to not come when called. Unfortunately, this same mistake can be carried on in more advanced  training situations and should be considered poor training technique.
 Using praise and reward inappropriately can also be counter-productive resulting in the dog tuning out to the trainer in the belief that nothing matters and anything goes! These dogs can then appear hard-headed and defiant when really the trainer has caused the problem with his or her own inappropriate and badly timed actions. It is of paramount importance that basic obedience commands are understood and an immediate correct response is maintained. Get this right and disobedience will not stand in the way of other more advanced training.

A good trainer also knows how to make good things that a dog desires contingent on a proper response. Many have taught their dogs to sit and wait before allowing them eat their dinner making the dinner the reward for sitting and waiting. These dogs learn quickly and none starve to death. If we assume that a dog desires to retrieve then in the same way the retrieve becomes the reward for being steady and waiting to be sent. This is good training but only when any unsteadiness results in the dog not being allowed to retrieve. Before a dog is allowed to retrieve a dog showing any inclination to retrieve without being sent should be kept on a short lead and led away without any opportunity to retrieve. This whole exercise can then be repeated until Bozo shows the required steadiness. Dogs can learn quickly from these situations yet we continue to see chronic breakers being entered in trials.

Points are awarded for specific obedience requirements in both Retrieving Trials and Retrieving Ability Tests for gundogs. Furthermore, when dogs run into trouble completing a retrieve in trials the root cause of the problem is often a failure to meet a basic obedience command. A dog that runs out of control when hunting is threat to its own safety and the safety of others. We should never underestimate the importance of basic obedience when training a gundog.

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in the March 2012 issue of Dogs NSW magazine.

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