The Ups and Downs of Retriever Training

Sep 30, 2022

Retriever Training Progress Will have its Ups and Downs

We all want our gun dogs to make progress. There is nothing like seeing your dog complete a retrieve that, just a short while ago, would not have been possible. Progress often happens quickly with a young puppy. They are so eager to work for food, and their little brains are just like sponges! Over time, though, progress will typically begin to slow down. After puppies have their adult teeth and formal retrieving work starts, progress can have its ups and downs. This is common not just for Labrador retrievers but for all retriever breeds.

Different gun dog breeds also mature at varying levels. Chesapeake bay retrievers may not be up to the same task as a Labrador retriever at six months old. Golden retrievers may seem like a Labrador with a long coat, but they also mature and train differently. Even within Labradors, the most common retriever breed, there are differences in maturity levels. Sometimes we may expect the progress of one dog to match that of a previous dog, and this pressure can also create a slump.

The sooner we, as retriever trainers, embrace this fact, the less stress we will feel through the retriever training process. Many of us will get pumped when things are going well, but when things slow down, our morale can come crashing down. When training takes a dip, and your gun dog runs into an issue to work through, frustration often sets in, and the wheels come off the tracks. If you can anticipate the valleys as much as the peaks, you will be better equipped to handle the gun dog training process.

The Mountain of Retriever Training has Many Peaks and Valleys

We tend to think of the training process as if we are climbing a mountain. We start at the base of the slope, excited and prepared for the climb. Our goal is to reach the peak an advanced gun dog with the skills to pick up birds in a variety of hunting situations. From our view, it looks like a smooth, steady climb all the way to the top. The game plan is simple, take a few steps every day until we finally get there. Once we start the journey, however, we notice that between the base and the summit, there are actually a ton of smaller peaks and valleys, drops in terrain where we have to regroup and get back going. 

We all know how it feels to drive down the highway, making great time on a road trip, only to run into a massive traffic jam. It is disappointing. Nobody wants to have to slow down. However, there is a new feature on many of our GPS systems that will alert drivers to upcoming traffic jams, giving you an alternative route. That is the goal of this blog. WARNING: Traffic Jams are ahead! Expect these drops in progress with your retriever, and you'll already be better equipped to handle them when they arrive!

The Most Important Question - "Why?"

These drops in training progress can be associated with a dog’s maturity level as he develops, the introduction of something new or a new area, or difficulty grasping a new skill. Sometimes they can come as a response to too much pressure, even if it is perceived pressure. The retriever trainer needs to take note of these drops and ask the important question, "Why?"

I was once training a Boykin spaniel who was doing fantastic up until gunfire introduction. After we introduced gunfire, his steadiness became a real challenge. It seemed like we took two steps backward on our retriever training journey. No matter the gun dog breed, gunfire noise can cause excitability that has to be worked through. We backed up, really honed in on basic obedience training, and then progress started to pick back up.

It is essential for the retriever trainer to not only expect these dips in progress along the way but to use them to improve. When we run into an issue, and our gun dog seems to be moving backward, we must try to figure out the "why." With the Boykin spaniel I mentioned earlier, the "why" was over-excitement from gunfire. When we take time to figure out why our gun dogs are not progressing as quickly or smoothly as before, we will not only have an easier path moving forward, but we will improve our own skills as retriever trainers in general.

Sometimes the "why" may have more to do with you, the retriever trainer, than the gun dog itself. Maybe you are putting too much pressure on your dog with your tone of voice or your expectations. Or perhaps you are rushing your commands or not being clear with the words you are using for commands. These are important to identify and fix along the retriever training journey. Some easy ways to identify these are to video your training sessions and watch them later or find someone else to train with and ask for feedback. (Side Note: This is a great way to use the CGA Members Group, available to our members via Facebook!)

Other times, the "why" may simply be something in the environment. Your dog may understand a skill at home, but a new environment can trigger new levels of excitement and distraction. If this happens, it is important to either take a few steps back in your expectations due to the distractions or try to find a new environment with less distractions. Even smaller environmental factors could play into how your dog performs, such as a drop in temperatures, windy conditions, or the addition of other dogs.

Making the Right Adjustments

Once we have successfully determined the reasons for a drop in progress, it is important to make the proper adjustments in order to get back on track. When I first began training dogs, I would let these dips frustrate me. Frustration from a handler is always sensed by the dog. I can remember working with a young Golden retriever who knew I was frustrated, and she would heel three feet behind me! Rather than making adjustments, I was trying to force her into the proper behavior. After working with dozens of dogs from multiple gun dog breeds over the years, I have learned that it is never good to try to force a dog through your frustration. It is so much easier to adjust what needs to be adjusted, then proceed from there!

Whether the adjustment is you and your style of handling, an environmental distraction, or even the pace at which you are pushing the dog, it is always a good idea to pivot before bad habits are made. Retriever breeds, in general, are known for being fast learners, which is helpful so long as they are learning the right things and not the wrong! Don't allow yourself to get stuck in a rut. Learn to recognize the valley, figure out the why, and make the necessary adjustments to get back on track. If you repeat these three steps along the journey, especially if you are following our step-by-step gundog training program, you will wind up with a gun dog you will be proud of in the field!


The Team at CGA!

P.S. Don't know how to train your retriever? Click Here to Learn More.