Nobody takes on a new puppy without the highest expectations. But for too many amateur trainers, dreams begin to fade once the real work begins. Sometimes things happen. Whatever the reason, when people give up on a dog, or never bother to begin training in the first place, the dog is ultimately the loser.
Hunting dogs are working dogs with intensity, intelligence and drive. If not utilized in the field through training and hunting, these traits are often manifested in other, generally more destructive, ways.
Consequently, every year thousands of hunting dogs are labeled incorrigible by their owners then sold or given away.
But many of these hunting dogs can be "saved." And many go on, under the right tutelage, to become fine hunters.
Rebel Without A Cause
Just ask Tom Dokken: professional retriever trainer, inventor of the Dokken Deadfowl Trainer
, and owner of Oak Ridge Kennel in Northfield, Minnesota.
"These days, we see a lot fewer dogs coming in for training that have had little or no early training," says Dokken. "Hunting dogs used to be kenneled more than they are today. Now, most dogs live in the house with their people, so they notice bad habits and discipline problems earlier than those who keep a dog that goes forgotten in a kennel."
Anyone who makes the commitment to take on one of these incorrigibles needs to understand that it takes diligence and time to overcome all of their learned bad habits.
"First, to retrain a dog that's been "let go," you have to be sure that it has lots of natural ability," advises Dokken. "A dog should come from good lines and seem to be open to the learning process. If a dog has lived in the house amongst a family, say for a year-and-a-half, its probably had some very, very basic training. Kennel dogs are harder to retrain, but not hopeless, because their interaction with people has been less."
Back To The Basics
Although a dog looks physically mature, a dog that has received no early, formal training has the mentality of a puppy. According to Dokken, basic obedience can be taught to a dog at any age. The real work comes first in having to erase any bad habits before you try imprinting new ones.
"But, as long as the dog has that natural ability and has not been introduced to the gun improperly," says Dokken, "You have a pretty good chance of turning the dog around."
"Generally, a person can expect it to take three to four months of regular manual training to start seeing results and to get the dog heading down the right track," says Dokken.
The Money Trail
Even competent amateur trainers will find some difficulty in re-programming a dog. Puppies are not as physically strong or as willful as older dogs. In the end, as a trainer the only thing in your corner is the dog's willingness to please and learn. And sometimes even that is gone.
If you decide to take on a dog that has received very little or no early training, you should assess the dog's potential, its pedigree, and your competency as a trainer. But you should also be able to recognize if and when the scope of the problem is beyond your abilities.
That's when you might have to throw a little money at the problem by hiring a competent professional. According to Dokken, the older the dog the more likely it will become a situation where you have to hire a pro. Dokken has turned dozens of dogs around and transforming them into serviceable hunters.
Trail of The Underdog
Butch Goodwin -- owner of Northern Flight Retrievers, breeder, and trainer of top-notch Chesapeake Bay retrievers -- is another individual who knows well the difficulties and the rewards retraining a dog somebody else has abandoned.
Goodwin found his first Chessie, a male named Bomber, chained up to a tree, in somebody's Colorado backyard. Bomber is the dog that inspired Goodwin to learn about retriever training and, later, the science of responsible dog breeding.
"A well-bred dog, Bomber was purchased by someone whose interest was more toward hounds," say Goodwin. "They soon found out that a retriever needed training where hounds just needed to be turned loose to do their thing."
Goodwin was looking for a tough retriever that could handle the subzero temperatures typical of hunting ducks and geese in a frigid Colorado River in winter.
"Bomber didn't know anything when I got him," says Goodwin. "He crapped in my Blazer on the way home." But the dog had instinct and was willing to learn. Goodwin took him down to the river to see if he had any interest in retrieving. Not only did Bomber retrieve, he began showing a knack for understanding river currents - as Goodwin remembers, "the understanding of the trajectory of a river and the float of birds."
Impressed by the tenacity, instinct, and willful nature of the Chesapeake breed, Goodwin has become one of their most eloquent and thoughtful proponents. Goodwin also became one of the top breeders and trainers of Chesapeakes in the country. And he owes it all to "The Bomb Dog," which you can read more about on his website at www.northernflight.com
To The Rescue
Naturally, Goodwin is a proponent of hunting dog rescue programs. Most sporting breeds have them.
"The [Chesapeake] rescue program is outstanding," according to Goodwin, "since there are lots of people who fail their dogs. I don't think most realize what they are getting themselves into - the kind of commitment to training they must undertake - when they bring a retriever into their lives."
Rescue dogs go on to become fine hunters and companions, while some even have what it takes to become personal assistance dogs for helping physically challenged individuals.
But, finally, there's this simple reality:
"I sure wouldn't want people to believe that if they rescue some Lab or golden or Chesapeake from the pound that he is going to be a champion," says Goodwin. "There are also some damn miserable dogs that end up in rescue. Not every dog is salvageable. Some - because of breeding or maybe personality problems - are there for good reason."
The challenges are many, but when it all comes together, the rewards are far greater than the effort expended.
Click here for more information on the Dokken Deadfowl Trainers
Before turning to freelancing fulltime, Bob Butz was the managing editor for The Pointing Dog Journal and The Retriever Journal. He writes lifestyle, interview, and sporting articles for numerous publications. Just recently, his by-line has appeared in such publications as Sports Afield, GQ, New York Times, BOOK Magazine, and Land Rover Journal. He teamed up with photographer Lee Kjos to complete the book -- Season's Belle: A Labrador Retriever's First Year -- due out in May 2002 from Silver Quill Press.
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