How to Get Your Moneys Worth Out of Professional Trainingby Amy Dahl, Ph.D.
Amy Dahl is also the co-author, with her husband, John, of The 10-Minute Retriever - How to Make an Obedient and Enthusiastic Sporting Dog in 10 Minutes a Day.
One thing is clear about having your retriever professionally trained--it is expensive. From the trainer's point of view, at present-day training rates, he is providing a lot of service for his monthly fee. From the dog owner's viewpoint, however, it may be difficult to justify putting thousands of dollars into training a dog to be used only during a brief hunting season. Both of these viewpoints have merit. If the owner decides he can afford to have his dog trained and is interested in maintaining the dog's training as a sport and recreational activity throughout the dog's life, however, then pro training is a wonderful investment, and often a great buy in services. It should also be remembered that, for a person working full-time at a profession or business, the investments in time, equipment, transportation, and help in the training field are going to cost several times the cost of professional training. Each owner must make the decision whether pro training is worth the fee--but once this decision is made, there is a great deal the owner can do to make sure it is money well spent.
Probably the first and most important step in making training dollars spent pay off is to begin with a good dog! Get a good, well-bred puppy, ideally from a repeat breeding which has produced dogs you know you would like. Raise your puppy well. Teach it manners, basic obedience, take it places with you, and in general develop a close relationship that will serve as the basis for future training. Human contact makes the difference between an eager learner and a dog which is very difficult to teach. Exposure to different situations develops confidence, while lack of exposure usually results in a shy dog which spooks at anything and everything new.
Failure either to select a good prospect or to bring it up well usually results in a dog which after many months of training is mediocre at best, perhaps able to find the easy falls in the decoys but not much more. If you have two puppies (which is rarely advisable) and you're in a quandary as to which one to have professionally trained, try to avoid the pitfall of reasoning that you should send the worse pup to be trained because he is more in need of the training. Send the good pup. You'll get more for your money.
Raise your puppy with plenty of human contact.
Preliminary training that can well be done at home before sending your youngster out for professional training includes: basic manners, "No" for anything you don't want the puppy to do--don't jump on people, bite at hands, etc., housebreaking, learning its name and to come when called, heel, sit, stay, basic retrieving at the play level, and introduction to birds--most likely freshly killed pigeons. If you cover these basics and do not expose your pup to an undue level of harsh training correction, your young prospect should arrive at the trainer's in good shape, ready to train, and ahead of the rest of the class by a couple of months. Your trainer will undoubtedly recognize the quality of your puppy and the effort you have put into it, and compliment you on your work. Often this head start will give your trainer a more positive attitude toward you and your puppy, which could result in better and faster results in his/her training program.
It is of utmost importance, when selecting a trainer, to get one who suits you and your dog's needs. If you make a visit to a trainer's establishment and find that you can have a harmonious relationship with the trainer, the dogs look and act good and appear to be well-trained for the stage they are in, and that the most advanced dogs can smoothly demonstrate a level of working expertise that meets your expectations, then that trainer is probably competent to do your work. Of course the facilities, kennel compound, general cleanliness, etc. must be satisfactory. Most retriever trainers we know are strong in the area of dog care. This includes feeding--usually the trainer knows through experience what brand of feed will keep the dogs healthy and fit through the rigors of training, so it is not generally a good idea to ask that your dog be fed a special diet (which is apt to be less beneficial).
Once you have decided on a trainer, and this may involve some travel, several interviews, and possibly recommendations from various clients, you are ready to commit yourself, and your young dog, to his services. This is a big step, but one that we believe must be made in order to achieve the best results. You should in no way suspect your trainer of dishonesty, erratic training habits, bill padding, etc. If these questions are in your mind you should probably still be shopping. If you cannot find it in yourself to place your trust in a trainer, then professional training may not be for you. The vast majority of trainers work hard and conscientiously for their monthly fee, so your chances of being ripped-off are fairly small.
Trust is particularly important when the trainer says something you don't want to hear. Some dogs, for example, will be severely set back if taken hunting early in their training. Their ability to learn, and in particular to transfer their responsiveness from trainer to owner and to the hunting environment, may be irreparably damaged, or they may need several months to make up what they have lost. Based on evaluation, over weeks or months of work with your dog, the trainer may recommend against such an interruption. This may be a big disappointment, but trusting your trainer's judgment will pay off in subsequent hunting seasons. There are many situations where the trainer's professional judgment could appear to the distrustful client as self-interest, so the issues of trust and commitment must be resolved ahead of time.
Make sure the facilities meet your requirements.
The time a retriever must stay in training to achieve a satisfactory result is extremely variable, so you should not expect your trainer to say, "This can be done in 6 weeks; that in 12 weeks," etc. Dogs have greatly different learning rates, and the time needed to transfer learned behavior into habitual behavior also varies depending on their breeding and upbringing. Until the trained routines, such as force fetching, delivery, steadiness, and many other areas of schooling become habitual, they are likely to disappear quickly if not attended to through daily drills.
So, since no one can predict how long a particular goal will take, you must be willing to work with your trainer within general time frameworks, with monthly reports as to your dog's progress. It is easier for a trainer to make time-in-training predictions as the dog's training progresses, but even after several months of work, the trainer will usually say something to the effect that "the job isn't done until its done, and it isn't done until...." you know the rest. This is particularly true of force fetching, force on back, stopping on the whistle, and so forth. Areas such as quality of marking and development of momentum are much less tangible, tending to improve with experience (although not steadily).
As your trainer works through the training program it will become evident that your dog is ahead or behind the average schedule. If it takes somewhat longer you're probably making a wise choice to go with the extended period of training. If your pup is way ahead of schedule, feel blessed as you may be able to have it trained to a level you had not planned on within your budget and time framework.
Training a retriever is definitely a step by step procedure, so believe your trainer when he says your dog needs another week, or month, of a particular phase of his training to make him solid. The value of succeeding steps depends largely on preceding steps. Shortcuts in training are rarely beneficial and will ultimately cost you more than they save.