Sometimes I wonder why I listened to friends, family and neighbors after many learned my old hunting dog died last July.
“Buy a dog,” they said. “It’ll be fun,” they said.
I staved off the temptation for a while, but after a full fall season of not having my own dog in the duck blind or pheasant fields, I knew something had to change. So, I listened. And, in early April I bought a dog, a 7-week-old yellow Labrador retriever pup from Luttrell Kennels in Clark, S.D.
Now, several weeks later, at just over three months of age, Gauge is in his rebellious stage. You know, the stage when all the basic obedience commands the pup had nailed the first month after we brought him home were suddenly optional in his mind.
One cool, misty day in late May pretty much sums up my frustrations to this point. We were working on retrieving, and as the tail end of the blaze-orange SportDog check cord slithered away into the shin-high brome of a training ground I’d been using just north of town, I hung my head, defeated, knowing it was time to pack it in for the day. As firm as my grip had been on the check cord, it was no match for the sudden, unexpected shot at freedom Gauge saw, causing him to bolt.
Who knows what caused him to break. It might have been a random butterfly that he felt the need to chase. Or, maybe he saw a stick. Or a blade of grass waving in the wind. Or any other sort of minute distraction that can arbitrarily grip the mind of a puppy.
Regardless, it was my mistake, letting the cord slip out of my grasp, so to the truck we went. Whip the dog once, they say, might as well whip the handler twice.
“Gauge,” I called as calmly as I could muster. “Kennel up,” I beckoned, hoping he might have one ounce of sanity left between his golden-blonde ears.
Luckily, he obliged, and after he lifted his front paws onto the tailgate, I hoisted him the rest of the way into his kennel, as it’s still quite a leap for a pup to make. A check of the time revealed the training session lasted seven minutes — seven harrowing minutes where I thought for sure this dog had lost his mind. Again.
My high hopes for Gauge might have been dashed on several training runs or occasions, but countless words from books by Dokken, Spencer, Graham, Wolters and more comforted me. Regardless of their approach, patience and hope were their mantras, and I was trying hard to buy into what they were preaching.
Through it all, the one pervasive thought I’ve used during the early training stages was to let the training happen at the dog’s pace, not mine. This is a point of contention among the dog-handling pros, as one camp believes to efficiently train a dog a handler needs to enforce his or her will, while the other camp prefers the handler work as the dog’s partner instead of as a dictator.
While I know a hunting dog — or any dog for that matter — needs to understand who the boss is, there are times when I also know nothing good can come out of a given situation if I keep pressing, like him breaking from “stay” for the umpteenth time in a row. So, at times like this, packing it in for the day is the right choice.
I’m not a professional dog trainer by any means, nor would I ever claim to be. However, I know what I want out of my dog in the field, so here is a breakdown of how I’m trying to enable Gauge’s instincts to take over so he can shine come fall when he’s old enough to get a taste of the hunt.
The Beginning — Age 7-9 Weeks
Choosing a puppy causes all sorts of consternation for potential dog owners, and being that it’s in my nature to make even the easiest choices difficult, I was relieved when the process went smoothly the day we picked out Gauge, who was one of three yellow males at the kennel from which I had first pick.
As the three gorgeous pups fiddled around in their kennel, one pup came every time I stooped over and called. In essence, he picked me. When John Luttrell, owner of Luttrell Kennels, asked me what I would name him, only one name came to mind — Gauge. I chose a one-syllable name that didn’t rhyme with any other basic obedience command such as sit, stay, whoa, heel, down, come or no. I figured less was more, that fewer syllables would lead to less confusion in the long run.
Gauge has an impeccable pedigree, as his parents have proved themselves in the fields and at hunt tests through the Hunting Retriever Club, winning ribbons all across the country. In other words, the pressure is on, because if Gauge fails in his training, it will be largely because of handler/owner error.
It’s been apparent since the day I brought him home that he has the intelligence, drive and instinct to be a great dog. It was also clear I just had to choose the best training means possible to maximize his potential and basically not get in his way.
As a brand-new pup, he excelled. I am not a fan of whistles in the pheasant fields most of the time, but I had used a whistle with some success on my first yellow Lab. So, I decided to begin the process of training him to sit on one short blast of the whistle. I carried the whistle on a lanyard around my neck, hitting it once whenever he decided to sit on his own. It was subconscious training, basically, and he caught on quickly.
By 9 weeks of age, he would sit and stay on the one-whistle command. He was also fully potty trained and knew exactly what “kennel” meant.
At the beginning, we went on at least two short walks a day. Keep in mind that good walk for a young puppy is only a couple-hundred yards, so trips around the block on a short leash became part of our daily routine.
During our walks, I intentionally worked on three other commands, which I admit are still a work in progress even now as he nears 4 months of age. Again, I tried and keep trying my best to pay close attention to his movements, saying commands that mimic what he does on his own, hoping that he makes the connection between his actions and my commands.
On our walks I kept the lead tight, saying “heel” to bring him to my side. If he lagged behind, I’d give him a gentle tug, saying “come.” Also, if he strained forward trying to chase a robin or a rabbit or some other random distraction like a mailbox (there is a white mailbox on our route that absolutely gives him fits each day), I calmly say “whoa,” teaching him that he’s gone far enough and that straining on the leash won’t get him anywhere.
Part of the pup’s training has been teaching my two young children, ages 7 and 10, to handle him using the same terminology. As a result, I’m training them, too, giving them added puppy responsibilities to their daily chores around the house.
I encourage them to give Gauge a command only once and to be consistent. Consistency is the key word here, as repetition will ultimately lead to the pup listening more intently as his focus grows in the coming months.
Also during the first two weeks, Gauge was taught that he had to be calm when it came to meal time or being let out of his kennel or crate. If he’s barking, dancing or whining, he simply does not get fed or get let out of his kennel. That’s all there is to it.
Now, when it’s time to eat, Gauge sits patiently, standing pat until his dish gets put down and he is given permission to eat. The process was slow, as this dog is extremely food motivated, but, nonetheless, he will sit and stay until we say “Gauge” and tap him on the head before he dives into his food.
On that note, I’ve been feeding him Kinetic Puppy 28K Formula. Kinetic makes high-octane fuel for high-performance dogs, and according to their website (kineticdogfood.com), their Puppy 28K is a nutrient-dense food formula intended to support healthy and controlled growth for medium- or large-breed puppies. It has elevated levels of DHA for healthy heart and brain development.
Kinetic Puppy 28K Formula has the following nutritional breakdown:
• Crude Protein, not less than 28.0 percent
• Crude Fat, not less than 15.0 percent
• Crude Fiber, not more than 3.0 percent
• Moisture, not more than 10.0 percent
• Omega-6 Fatty Acids, not less than 2.5 percent
• Omega-3 Fatty Acids, not less than 0.7 percent
Kinetic is relatively new on the performance dog-food scene, but so far I’ve been more than pleased with the results. Gauge’s coat, teeth and growth rate are all above par, and his stools have been solid and regular. He checks out at the vet and is putting on healthy weight and muscle.
Plus, he absolutely inhales the chicken-based food. In fact, I’ve considered buying a different food dish with compartments to make him work for and chew his food more than inhale it.
To recap, by the age of 9 weeks, Gauge knew to sit and stay on both whistle and voice commands, was 95 percent potty-trained, kenneled on command and was slowly learning heel, come and whoa during our walks.
Personally, I was pleased with where we were at heading into the 10-week-old stage.
Age 10-14 Weeks
At the beginning of this stage is where I began to rush things. I felt that we were off to such a good start that it was time for Gauge to start retrieving, so by using the whistle to make him sit, stay and begin to be steady, I’d toss a puppy-sized bumper from SportDog out 10-15 feet in the backyard before giving him the “back” command.
He seemed confused at first, but soon caught on to the retrieval process — well, at least half of it, anyway. He would chase anything I threw — he would go so hard he’d often overrun or tumble when he tried to pick it up — but the problem was he didn’t and still doesn’t want to bring it to hand.
To remedy this, we began training indoors in a hallway in earnest. By closing off all escape routes, it helped force him to bring the mark back to hand.
I was hesitant to use this training method, as I wanted him to understand when he’s inside he is to be a well-mannered pup where running or tearing around isn’t allowed. However, to help bring his retrieving instinct to the surface, I felt it necessary to do so.
Now, he’s automatic inside, retrieving anything and everything, including the kids’ socks, shoes, stuffed animals and even pillows. It’s still a work in process to help him understand what is OK and not OK to chew on, but so far we’re no worse for the wear. Bottom line was it seemed he was catching on.
Our training sessions were short. I purposely limited them to no more than five throws, and I even made him stay put while I slowly walked over to retrieve the dummy myself. I wanted him to learn his place and also keep his desire to retrieve strong. I did this for two whole weeks, abstaining from throwing anything outside.
However, as soon as we stepped outside, things fell apart, and that’s where we’re still at today.
He’s good for about two solid retrieves on command before the wheels come off. So, I got a check cord to help reel him in when he strays off course. The cord, itself, soon becomes a distraction, because the little devil will decide to give up retrieving all together and start chewing his cord. Or, as mentioned, he’ll take off on a dead run for parts unknown for no particular reason. Both endeavors effectively end any training session.
During this time, we continued to reinforce the sit/stay commands, along with making him wait even longer before eating his food. In those aspects, he has remained rock solid, which gives me hope that he will soon give in and start to understand retrieving is his job, not a game or an optional exercise.
He remains on the Kinetic puppy formula, and is now eating just shy of 4 cups of food each day. When I brought him home on April 9 he weighed 13 pounds. At the end of May during his last trip to the vet, he weighed 34 pounds. You can see his ribs, and his lines are striking.
Through it all there are glimmers of hope, when the dog has a singular moment of focus and performs flawlessly.
These rare instances are no accident, as they tell me he understands what’s expected of him. However, I don’t want to train the dog out of him and hope by allowing him, with guidance and light discipline, to progress at his own rate that by August he will be trained well enough to at least ride along on a hunt or two as he nears 6 months of age.
Under my breath when I’m feeling frustrated with him, I often tell him it’s a good thing he’s cute. It’s a slow process, but I’m confident in his ability — and mine — to make a hunter out of him yet.
About the Author: Andrew Johnson is the editor of Outdoor Forum. Follow him on Twitter @OutdoorForumMag.
Editor’s Note: Make sure to grab a copy of the August issue or read it online at theoutdoorforum.net to see how Gauge is doing. We’ll also be posting videos of Gauge online that detail some of the training methods described in this article.