One of the most important teaching tools a gun-dog owner has is his or her awareness. Being aware of your pup, what it is doing, what its eyes and body language are saying and being able to respond immediately to the situation in a positive or constructive fashion is important. It’s called recognizing a teachable moment, and it goes a long way in not only training your pup but in also making you a better trainer.
A pup’s brain is like a sponge, so the optimal learning window is relatively brief at this time. Behavioral habits and socialization skills are built within the first four months. Once you have the basic commands down and the pup is responding to them, you can continue progressing in your training.
For the first few months, keep training sessions short. Play a lot with your pup, both inside the house and outside. Get them into as many different environments as possible and have them around as many people as you can. Getting your eight- to 10-week-old pup around a half-dozen people a day—of all ages, sizes and ethnic backgrounds—is ideal. Avoid taking pups to dog parks, since you don’t want them coming into contact with dogs that may not be up-to-date on vaccinations or that may be overly aggressive at the sight of a puppy.
While I’ll spend a few hours a day playing with a pup, my actual training time consists of only about six to eight minutes. That time is broken into three sessions. When I’m training, I want the pup’s full attention and I don’t teach it something unless I have that. Time is valuable, and so is consistency when it comes to formal training. You’re the boss and the one who should always be in control, so make sure the pup knows that.
There’s a saying among many dog trainers that a cheap dog is an expensive dog to train, so keep that in mind when investing in a pup. What this means is that quality bloodlines are best when it comes to training hunting dogs. The more diluted the bloodline, the more stubborn, resistant and reluctant a pup can be to train. A dog’s lack of performance and willingness to please will quickly show on a hunt.
A lot of trainers will also tell you that before they even start training a dog, they spend a lot of time fixing it. This is because owners don’t spend time with their pups to build bonds and properly teach them the way they should. If the basic commands are not taught early, starting at seven or eight weeks of age, then it’s going to be challenging for anyone to teach restraint and disciplined commands as your pup grows.
Persistence, patience and socialization are keys to getting your pup into a consistent learning mode. Spending time with a pup gets it bonding with you, and that’s a must in order to effectively teach it as a pup matures. The more time you spend with your pup, even playing or cuddling on the couch, the more you’ll learn about it.
Watch your pup closely and get to know its behaviors as you continue teaching it. I never attempt to teach pups anything unless their eyes are on me and their ears are back or perked up. If their head is tilted slightly forward with their ears down, they are not focused on me. They are thinking of something else, like wanting food, wanting to run, or wanting to play with something in sight that may be distracting them. It’s up to you to get the pup’s full attention before trying to teach it anything. Trust your gut and react quickly to a dog’s immediate demeanor.
Short, simple verbal commands and consistent eye contact is all it takes to get a pup to watch you closely. Stay positive with your facial expressions and voice, making the learning experience fun for the dog. Be careful not to get too negative or overbearing or the pup won’t respect you and will tune you out. That certainly won’t help it reach its optimal level of performance.
By four months of age, pups are already reading your eyes, body language, voice inflection and facial cues. They know when you furrow your brows that they’ve done something wrong and could be in trouble. They can see a smile in your eyes, and their tails will start wagging and they’ll want to please you even more. They can read a smile and raised eyebrows, and know all is good. When a dog can predict your temperament, and you treat it well, it will be eager to please you. Then, it becomes easy to train during any teachable moment that arises.
By being consistent and communicating with your dog, you’re on the way to gaining its trust and respect. Puppies are smart. They just have to be taught the basics at an early age. By maintaining a calm, positive approach, a consistent training schedule, and capitalizing on teachable moments, you’ll be shaping a hunting companion that will provide memories you’ll never forget.
Note: To watch some puppy training tips, check out Scott Haugen’s series of short videos at www.scotthaugen.com. Follow Scott’s adventures, including those with his dogs, on Instagram.