The Mid-Season Meltdown – Trainin’ Dogs with Rick Smith

It always seems to start this way: You’ve spent the summer training, and your dog is fit and ready to go. The first few hunts are wonderful, with your dog working to the level of the training you’ve done, and you’re busting your buttons with pride. And then the wheels fall off. Your dog starts making mistakes. It may be a few minor infractions, or it may be something big, like breaking and chasing as you walk in to flush. No matter the reason, it is frustrating for sure, particularly with the seasoned dog that should know better. And now, with bird season in full swing, you’re worried. Will other things fall apart? Why, all of a sudden, is your dog making mistakes?

It’s important to realize that all dogs make mistakes. Every single one of them will at some point, and they will make them throughout their lives. And the really high drive, ambitious dogs may make more than the average dog, just by virtue of their over-the-top desire. It can be easy for a dog to let their instincts override their training, and they temporarily forget who they work for. So, for starters, don’t be quick to judge your dog for screwing up, because they all do it. What we do need to do is evaluate the situation, figure out the reason for the infraction, and then fix it.

It’s important to recognize that there is no way – in a training situation – that we can replicate the excitement of hunting. And it doesn’t take dogs long to figure out when you’re just training versus the real thing. They will react to training situations with a calmer, more workmanlike attitude because it’s just a drill and they know it. Remember having fire drills in grade school? We knew what they were and what we had to do. Now imagine the difference in the excitement level had there been a real fire! At that point, hopefully, all the practice drills will keep things relatively in order, but it’s also likely that a few people would panic.

If most of your hunting has been just you and your dog, and then you meet up with some friends and their dogs, be prepared to make corrections. Much will depend on the level of training the other dogs in the group have had as well. Hunting a well-trained dog with dogs that have little or no training is difficult at best. If other dogs are flash-pointing and then busting birds – or worse yet, blowing past your dog while it’s on point and flushing the birds – it’s hard to hold your dog accountable for its training, but it’s also necessary that you do so.

At that point, put your dog back in the truck. Allowing your dog to constantly be subjected to out of control dogs doing all the things your dog is trained not to do is the quickest way for a seasoned dog to spiral out of control (even worse for the youngster). It’s a lot like letting your children play with other children who have no real rules of behavior; pretty soon, your kids are misbehaving, too.

Hunting with a friend with a trained dog is by far the better idea, but even then there can be some competitiveness between the dogs. Make sure to hold your dog accountable for the level of training it has received. In an honor situation, make sure that if your dog is the honor dog, it stays put; and if your dog has the point and the other dog should break, enforce the steadiness in your dog.

Taking other hunters and dogs out of the equation still leaves a lot that can go wrong. Wild birds are far more exciting than training birds, whether pigeons or pen-raised gamebirds. Because we never know how many there are in a given area, the sheer numbers (should you be so lucky!) can be overwhelming. Sometimes even the most veteran hunter will lose it when 40 pheasants fly up out of a fencerow at the end of a field, or a large covey of quail burst from the cover like popcorn. While situations like that don’t happen as often as we would like these days, the can and do occur. The good news from a training standpoint is that it’s not too likely to happen over and over, so while your dog may be pretty excited and you may need to give a gentle reminder on the next find, it shouldn’t cause too much trouble in the long run.

Another problem that can crop up is dogs wanting to self-hunt once they’ve found a few birds and excitement escalates. That is, they want to go off in their own direction, and you are welcome to follow them if you can keep up. Again, if you’ve done your homework during the off-season and your dog understands the e-collar cues, it doesn’t take too much to get the dog “going with you” again.

Often, this can be headed off altogether by following the same routine at your hunting spot that you do at home during training. For us, it’s the chain gang while we’re getting our gear on, then a short walk on the lead to make sure the dog is paying attention and acknowledging us rather than pulling ahead and being distracted. A couple of minutes of “pay attention to me” time at the start can save you a lot of frustration as the day goes on. Allowing a dog to run around loose and on its own right before we start hunting lets the dog think they are somewhat in charge of things. As explained by our counterparts in the rookie-mistakes article, this “free-wheeling,” as they call it, at the beginning of the hunt is one of the most common mistakes for first timers. But the old dogs aren’t immune, either. Many times, they think they know better anyway.

Retrieving is another thing that can fall apart as the season progresses. If you’re working with a dog that is retrieving naturally with no formal training, some will stay consistent and others will often get so excited about finding birds that they either drop the bird halfway to you, or run to it as it falls and then ignore it if it’s dead, preferring to go find more live birds rather than retrieving. For these dogs, put a good trained retrieve, or force-fetch, program on your to-do list when hunting is done for the season.

For the dog that has been through a formal retrieve training regimen, be sure to be consistent in your expectations and uphold the standard to which the dog has been trained. If you let little things slide, they can quickly turn into bad habits.

One example of this is the dog that doesn’t hold the birds until you have your hand on it and give the release command. Instead, the dog drops the bird as you reach for it. Stop right there, use the “fetch” command, and make the dog pick it up and hold it. To reinforce this, have the dog walk at heel for a few steps while holding the bird. Stop, reach for the bird, and take your hand back before you touch it. Make the dog continue to hold until you reach back again and have a grip on the bird. Then allow the dog to release it.

The flip side is a dog that brings you the bird but doesn’t want to give it up – or worse yet, decides halfway back that it wants to have a snack. Again, a good trained retrieve program fixes this and gives you the tools to correct it. But what if you haven’t gotten that far in your training? For the dog that wants to stop and pull feathers or munch on the bird, the “here” command is your best fix. If you can catch the dog as it starts to slow down on the recall and instead make it come to you faster, it can’t stop and rip up your bird.

The dog that won’t let go needs to learn that it has no choice. If the dog is on your left, run your left hand down the dog’s left shoulder and back to the flank area. Grab the flap of skin where the hind leg attaches to the belly, and lift the dog’s hindquarters by that skin. Your dog will drop the bird, mainly because it wants to bite whatever just pinched its skin, so watch your hand.

Most of the mid-season problems are easily fixed by giving your dog gentle reminders and holding it accountable for the level of training you’ve done. Don’t let little things slide because you’re in a hurry, since little infractions can become big ones in a heartbeat. Keep your standards high and expect no less from your dog. You’ll be rewarded with a lot better performance on those crisp fall days in the filed with your canine partner.

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Originally appeared in The Pointing Dog Journal. Written by Sharon Potter