Myths and Misconceptions About Retrievers - Page 2

Helping You Get the Most From Your Hunting Dogs

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Much controversy and many misconceptions surround the use of electric training collars. Many people assume that all "collar trainers" grind their dogs down to the point where they move extremely slowly and appear to be working in fear. This was indeed a common observation 25 years ago. While such results may still be seen today, a greater number of highly-skilled amateur and professional trainers have figured out how to use modern collars to teach obedience and advanced work while maintaining style, speed, and the dog's love of retrieving.

At the same time, however, "the collar" is not any kind of cure-all. Many of us have grown accustomed to push-button convenience, but a dog is still a dog and to expect instant control is to court disaster. It can't hurt to repeat that careless or uninformed use of an electric collar can ruin a dog in short order.

There are many misconceptions concerning the length of time it takes to train a retriever. The best answer to the question, "How long does it take to train a retriever?" might be, "a lifetime."

Most appropriate responses to this question are questions themselves, such as: how old is the dog? What has he learned to date? How does he respond to praise and correction? What are his natural abilities? And what would you like him to be able to do? Rough outlines of time schedules can be given, but they are just that -- rough approximations. There are too many variables. And once the formal lessons have been accomplished, a lifetime of frequent workouts of increasing difficulty is necessary to maintain and improve your working companion.

We see only a handful of truly exceptional retrievers, and no perfect ones, in a lifetime of dog work. Each individual embarks on a training career with faults that must be overcome. In most cases, making a dog into a finished retriever means identifying and developing the dog's strengths so as to compensate for its flaws--not bemoaning its weaknesses.

True, a dog with too many serious flaws is going to be more trouble to train than the product would justify. This is a call that the individual owner must make -- if the result makes you happy, and you and your dog enjoyed doing it, then it was worth doing. Sadly, many "cute" puppies fall into the sub-marginal class, and it is good to be able to identify these candidates quickly so as to reduce frustration on the part of the dog and trainer.

A commonly overlooked feature of training is that once trained, a retriever doesn't necessarily stay trained. Gradually, and often quickly, trained behavior will slip away if not maintained in a consistent manner. Your best bet is to develop the habit of working your dog regularly throughout the year. Keep in mind, too, that the transition from the training grounds to the hunting field is a dramatic step, and few dogs perform really well until they have a few days' experience hunting. Much of what a gun dog must know can only be learned afield. Be patient with your dog as he learns to generalize what you've taught him to this new situation! Eventually, your careful attention to basic training will pay off.

The nature of retrievers, particularly with respect to toughness, is often misrepresented, exaggerated, and poorly understood. Among the most colorful myths surrounding retriever work are the stories of Chesapeakes braving the icy surf retrieving hundreds of ducks in a day for the early market hunters. It is true that many Chesapeakes are very tough water dogs, as are a lot of Labs and Goldens, but none of them is immune to cold. It is a bad idea to expose a retriever to long hours of standing in, or doing an excessive number of retrieves in, extremely cold water. A simple expedient on those long, cold days in the blind is to buy one of the highly insulated coats or wetsuits that can either be worn throughout the day or slipped on and off for the retrieves. No matter how tough the books say they are, dogs get cold, and when they get cold, it hurts!

A really good retriever of any breed is endowed with an almost insatiable desire to work. Good judgment is required in order to avoid such disasters as hypothermia, heat stroke, and general fatigue, both physical and psychological. All breeds and all dogs have limits, and, especially with individuals of excess desire, the owner must know when enough is enough.

The final generally-held belief that I would like to attempt to dispel is the notion that the three breeds, Lab, Golden, and Chesapeake, have distinctive characteristics that more or less breed true. In fact, the individuals within the breeds often do not have a very high level of adherence to their publicized traits. And fads occur in which certain celebrated traits of one or another breed cause a surge in popularity--and production of many individuals lacking in those traits. Generalities concerning breed traits have only a loose application to the problem of securing a first-rate individual for your own training and use. Each dog is an individual, and will come to you with a unique set of characteristics not to be found in an identical combination in any other dog.

Picking up the Sunday paper and perusing the want ads for a puppy is probably a poor way to make a selection. It is a good idea to have a well-defined idea of what you want, based on actual observations of retrievers at work. Find individuals of the breed that adhere closely to the characteristics that you seek in a dog and wait for however long it takes to buy a puppy of that breeding. Try not to let someone else's idea of a "good dog" color your opinion of what you want. Human taste varies greatly, and what will satisfy another's taste and personality may be entirely wrong for you.

The worst errors you can make with your retriever generally proceed from applying someone else's standards to your dog. The retriever owners having the most fun are those who use their dogs within the range of the dogs' abilities, are realistic about those abilities and, when out hunting, concentrate on what the dog does right. Perpetual frustration is the lot of those who constantly seek someone else's standards to compare their dogs to. I hope this look at popular misconceptions helps you stay squarely in the former category. Happy hunting.
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