Oak Hill Kennel

Raising a Retriever

Puppy raising tips from professional trainers John and Amy Dahl

How you raise and care for your retriever puppy for the first six months will have a great impact on the quality of retriever you end up with. This is an attempt to give you the benefit of our experience to help you make the most of this vital period. Please give careful attention to the section on health care. Canine Parvovirus is abundant in parts of the country right now, and is nearly always fatal.

Frequent human contact and exposure to a variety of environments is very important. We recommend that you keep the puppy in the house or, if that is impossible, get it out at least twice a day and do something with it (take a walk or drive, play retrieves, give it attention). Play retrieves are an excellent activity but must be strictly limited in order to develop an intense desire to retrieve. We recommend 2-3 retrieves per session, twice a day. At first, try to gently guide your puppy into correct behavior without any correction. Throwing a rolled-up washcloth down a hallway is an excellent way to start developing the right habits. With any training you do, recognize that a dog, especially a puppy, has a short attention span. Frequent short sessions are best.

In handling your puppy, encourage it to be calm. You can hold it and restrain it gently, and require it to be calm in order to be petted. Supervise others when they play with the pup (especially children) to make sure they don't egg it on to high excitement. A good retriever pup is energetic and rambunctious, and you don't want to force control upon it, but if it learns that the appropriate response to human attention is to go bonkers, it will be harder to make it into a well- behaved retriever later on. Avoid roughhousing or playing tug-of-war with the pup.

If you have another dog--avoid letting your puppy bond to the other dog instead of you! House them separately and allow little or no free time together. Unrestricted play time with another dog is the surest way to render a retriever pup totalIy untrainable. (The second worst thing you could do is keep it in a kennel or yard and never get it out and work or play with it.) Use a strategy of "confine and supervise." When you cannot supervise the puppy and prevent its developing bad habits, confine it in a kennel or crate. Be sure it is not confined and ignored, however.

Puppy training: Start out gently! Your pup must develop confidence in you, and until it understands the concept of "being trained," it may see any harsh action on your part as "coming out of the blue." Repetition and consistency work wonders and are overall much more effective than either brute force or food bribes. This is especially true in housebreaking.

Around four months many puppies can withstand a correction. Unfortunately this is the time they start teething and if their mouth hurts, they may act generally sensitive. If this is the case, be patient and wait for all those baby teeth to fall out. In training, retrievers often respond to physical correction better than verbal correction. While "NO!" is extremely useful if puppy is about to bite an electrical cord or steal food off the table, when you are teaching them something (like obedience) a sharp jerk on their lead or swat with a stick gets the message across with less emotion and less effect on their confidence. If they drop the dummy and act like their mouth hurts when they are teething, stop all retrieving and wait for their mouth to feel better. A correction should be just severe enough to get the dog to respond. Repeated weak corrections are very stressful to the dog.

Sometimes desirable traits in the dog can show up as irritating behavior. An example is when your pup gets the dummy and heads off in the opposite direction (or under a vehicle) with it. This pup wants to have that dummy in its mouth. If it runs around and is hard to catch but doesn't drop the dummy, be happy and resolve to be patient. You can train it to come when called and you can teach it to respect you in general much more easily than you can train it to hold and carry the dummy well. Work on the "Here!" command totally separately from retrieving sessions (and never give the command when you can't enforce it). Find a way to prevent the dog's running off on retrieves without correcting it. You could go back to the hallway, or, if the pup goes in the water well, have it retrieve only in water until it is solid on "Here!" Almost always, the pup will swim back towards you and only head in another direction when its feet are on solid ground, so if you meet it at water's edge, you should be able to catch it. A limited amount of chasing the puppy while it carries the dummy will reinforce its tendency to hold and carry. A lot will teach it that "keep away" is a really good game (not something you want a retriever to think).

Difficulty of retrieves: After you get your dog coming back, you can start challenging it by making retrieves more difficult: giving it longer retrieves, falls in cover, etc. Be careful not to overdo the difficulty--the #1 consideration is to keep the dog's eagerness to retrieve at a peak. If it shows you a good, long hunt in the cover, reward it with an easy-to-find throw. Extend distance on land before you extend distance on water. For a youngster, a long swim can be a lot of work for the reward it gets. Try to progress but resist the temptation to show off how precocious your dog is "youngest dog ever to do ____" etc.

Water: Don't panic if your puppy is slow to learn that it can swim. If it won't swim after making a couple of retrieves in the shallows, try wading out and calling it. If this doesn't work, wait awhile and try again. When it is confident in you, you can wade out carrying it and set it down in the water. It will swim to shore, but if you call it, it may swim back.

Steadiness: Do not try to enforce this too early. We usually teach it only after force-breaking. For play retrieves, restrain your puppy until the dummy is nearly on the ground. If it leaps and struggles to get away, it will not mark the fall, so you want to try to correct this. We suggest teaching the dog to sit (in separate sessions) and then for retrieves, tell the dog to sit and do not release it until it sits and is still for a moment. After some repetition, it will learn to sit still for a throw.

Birds: It is desirable to introduce the puppy to birds before the age of 6 months.

Crates: We recommend using them. The "kennel" command is one of the most useful your dog can know, and use of a crate can make housebreaking less traumatic for you and the pup. Dogs adapt well to being confined for part of the day (or all night)--they do a lot of sleeping anyhow.

For further training information you have several options. There are some good books, although books are of limited usefulness because they cannot interpret your dog's behavior. Any book which claims there is a foolproof method which works with all retrievers should be regarded with suspicion. Four books from which you can learn a lot (although far from all you need to know) are:

Be wary of other books. There are many books which, while possibly popular, are extremely poor guides for training. It is regrettable, but several authors whose lack of dog knowledge is abundantly evident have won acclaim, sold books, and led honest retriever owners into confusion and frustration.

There are a couple of good videos, one by Mike Lardy and one by Rex Carr and Dave Rorem. These were intended for an audience with experience but could still be valuable to a beginner.

In an obedience class, a knowledgeable instructor will help you establish a relationship of authority and teach your dog manners. Your dog will have the opportunity to practice self-restraint around people and other dogs. These are excellent benefits, but be forewarned that most obedience instructors are not specifically familiar with retriever work (and will, for example, criticize you for not teaching steadiness before retrieving). Watch out for instructors who advertise "positive-reinforcement" methods. Experience suggests these methods do not provide a good foundation for retrieving work.

Labradors as a breed respond very well to physical correction methods. Some Goldens, especially bitches, can take less correction. If you are getting a response, don't overdo it. This is also particularly important with Chesapeakes. Work to avoid correcting a Chesapeake at any time it is putting in an effort or does not understand. Chesapeakes also thrive on lavish praise, while praise must be very restrained for most Goidens and Labradors.

Puppy classes often incorporate activities which may not be ideal for a future retriever. See also the section on health care, below.

Working with an experienced retriever trainer (professional or otherwise) is by far the best way to learn to train your dog. Someone who has trained half a dozen or more dogs has seen a variety of behavior, knows what behavior needs to be squashed instantly and what will go away if ignored, etc. A dog in training will do a lot of things that look bad to the uninitiated, and an experienced trainer will reassure you that most of those are a natural part of the training process, and have suggestions to deal with those that aren't.

Use of the electric collar should be under the guidance of someone experienced in its use and who has obtained demonstrably good results with it.

Professional training: if you choose to have your dog trained, CHOOSE YOUR TRAINER CAREFULLY! In the retriever world, "professional" means only that someone gets paid for working with dogs. It does not mean that the trainer cares for dogs the way you would like, nor does it imply any standard of qualification. You are responsible for choosing the care and training your dog will receive.

Considerations, in order of importance, are:

1. How do the trainer's dogs work? Watch him or her train for a day. Is that how you want your dog to work?

Don't write off a trainer who gets rough with a dog--if the dogs are spirited and work well in general, they aren't suffering abuse. Avoid the trainer whose dogs are all out of control or else cringing and slow. Also avoid the trainer who repeatedly sets tests that none of the dogs can do. Dogs will lose confidence after frequent failures.

#2. How are the dogs kept? Be sure to see, or at least ask about, the facilities. The standard is an indoor/outdoor run, usually not heated. Dogs should have fresh water at all times and runs should be clean. Note the condition of the dogs in training (allow 2-3 exceptions as some dogs are difficult to keep well).

#3. Does the trainer have a record? You may not want a trial dog, but you can bank on the fact that anyone who has made multiple Field Champions can get the best out of a dog. If they also have significant hunting experience, they know what a gun dog needs to know. While there are some good trainers who exclusively run Hunting Tests (AKC, UKC, and NAHRA), success in Hunting Tests means less. Although Master Hunter tests are often difficult for novice trainers, Master Hunters can be and are made by training methods which take a lot more out of the dog than necessary.

#4. Beware of slick promises. Progress depends on the dog's abilities and how you have raised it. An honest trainer won't make rash commitments, but will say things like, "usually this takes about two months." Does the trainer ask what your goals are for the dog, and listen to the answer?

A good time to start professional training is around 6-8 months of age. Five months of training is usually enough to establish a firm foundation, although we recommend that you continue to work your dog occasionally to maintain its abilities.

Health care: We recommend vaccinating puppies at 6 and 9 weeks, with a Combination including Parvo but without Leptospirosis, followed by a combination including Lepto at 12 and 16 weeks, 5 months, and 6 months. The last two are for protection against Parvo--studies have shown that some dogs are unable to develop immunity to that disease until they are 6 months old. Because there have been a lot of cases of Parvo in the Southeast recently, and because it is almost always fatal, we recommend that you not take chances. Vaccines can be obtained inexpensively at feed stores or through catalogues. Use a name brand (we use Fort Dodge). Keep it in the refrigerator.

A rabies shot can be given (by a vet) at 16 weeks, possibly earlier. Keep the certificate as there is a lot of rabies in some parts of the country. If your dog is bitten by an animal that might be rabid, wash the wound with plenty of soap and get a rabies booster immediately. Don't forget annual booster shots.

Consider your pup at risk from Parvo until it is vaccinated at six months. Why not be conservative when you have already invested so much? Avoid contact with strange dogs and their droppings. Risk the temptation to show off your pup to other dog owners in places where strange dogs are or have been. Avoid puppy- training classes and puppy retriever trials.

Food: we recommend any good-quality dry dog food. Premium brands which usually require a trip to the feed store ensure lower stool volume and enable most dogs to keep condition even when working. Don't add a lot of supplements! Commercial dog food should be nutritionally balanced and destroying the balance can have bad consequences. In particular, do not supplement with calcium, as too much calcium has been shown to cause skeletal problems. We recommend feeding an amount that the dog will eat in five or ten minutes. Allow constant access to water but not to food. Start with at least three feedings daily and reduce to two then one as the puppy appears able to go longer without food.

Be sure to maintain your dog on heartworm preventative.

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Oak Hill Kennel, Pinehurst, NC (910) 295-6710
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