We often get the question, “How long should my training session be?” It is beyond difficult to honestly answer this question, because it is different for every dog! Some dogs thrive in short, to-the-point, training session that take place at least once a day, sometimes more. Other dogs do really well with a long, forty-five minute session two or three days a week. The rare dog can train all day long, every day. Others need very little work throughout the week to make progress. The trick is to develop an ability to read and understand your gun dog. This skill of reading your dog begins from the moment you learn how to potty train a puppy and continues through your dog's entire life.
I remember when I would load up my gear, one dog in the kennel, and drive twenty minutes to the outskirts of town for a training session. It would take another fifteen or so minutes to get my plan together, set up the gear, and get started. Twenty minutes later, often times, my Labrador retriever, "Maggie," was done learning for that session, and I had no idea. I would push and push for just a little bit more gun dog training, and that almost never ended well.
I just couldn’t stand the idea of spending forty minutes in the truck plus forty minutes setting up and packing up for only twenty minutes of training! That seemed like such a waste of my time. However, that is exactly what needed to happen… most of the time!
Fast forward to the future, I have now trained enough dogs that the signs of when to “shut it down” are much more obvious. I was oblivious to how my desire to have a “full” training session was affecting the progress of my dog. Whether it was a lack of fluency showing up by training in a new location or just an “off day” (yes, dogs have those, too!), there were so many times that I needed to shut down early or find a way to end with a success and call it a day.
Now, after much more experience, I am quick to call it a day once I realize the session is about to go off the rails. Or, if things are going really well, I love to end on the highest of high notes and let my water dog walk back to the truck on top of the world.
It is important to look at your retriever's body language and disposition throughout the session. Is he excited to continue working? Or is he showing signs of being bored or “over it?" such as avoiding delivery to hand, sniffing around the area while at heel, or flat out walking away? Is she showing signs of a dog overheating, such as having a large swollen tongue and a lot of saliva? If your gundog starts to show signs of avoiding the work or general boredom, it may be time to work on something more exciting to get a solid win and then call it a day. If your dog is showing signs of overheating, it is always best to stop then and work on getting your dog cooled down. You can always add on a little bit of obedience later, though, just to end the training session on a high note!
If enthusiasm is high, tail is wagging and attention is at alert, it is probably okay to keep pushing forward. I once trained a Boykin spaniel who had absolutely zero quit. She would retrieve all day long with no regard to temperature or the task at hand! A few months later, I trained a Chesapeake bay retriever who was incredibly talented and smart, but he would not do the same drill for over five minutes. Three or four reps, and we had to go on to something different. Then, after about twenty minutes of training, he would just lay down. That was my queue that Badger was done for the day!
While each of the retriever breeds brings something a little different to the table, there can also be a ton of variance between dogs of the same breed. I'm often asked about the differences in training a Labrador retriever vs a golden retriever, and the truth is that it really depends on each particular dog! These differences in attention span and ability to endure longer training sessions can vary both throughout and within different gun dog breeds.
The ability to go longer during a training session can also depend on the type of drills you are doing. Handling drills can be monotonous while marking drills are usually much more exciting. Let’s take the T drill as an example. Some dogs can make it twenty plus reps in a T drill without issue. Some hunting dogs will start lacking enthusiasm after three or four reps, and you will need to add in something more exciting, such as a handheld mark, to keep them going. And while there are definitely ways to change things up and keep your dog excited and engaged, you still need to be paying close attention to the signs of boredom, distraction, or a change in enthusiasm.
All of this is especially true with young puppies. Adding too much structure and expecting them to pay attention at a young age can be detrimental to their training in the long run. Puppies need to understand that training time is the best time of the day. Make it fun and engaging, keep it short, and end on a win every time. In my experience, it would be better to do five or six short training sessions in a day than one hour-long marathon with a young pup. Every time you take your puppy out for a potty break, you have a training opportunity!
The bottom line is this - your dog will tell you when he or she is ready to be done. You just have to pay attention to the signs! Ideally, you will learn the ideal timing of each type of training scenario for your dog and plan accordingly. Be willing to adjust for the “off” days, and remember that there is always tomorrow to continue building on those skills!
PS - the Lesson Planner within Cornerstone Gundog Academy can be a great help in learning how to properly plan your training sessions to get the absolute most out of your time in the field, whether short or long!
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