Laying down the groundwork – From 8 weeks to 6 months
In the second of this five-part series, champion trainer Ben Randall offers advice for establishing a good working relationship with your puppy.
All puppies are naturally programmed to follow a pack leader. Embracing this natural trait is crucial to developing a solid working relationship with your pup. Pack leaders in the wild would be strong, authoritative and consistent. Many of my clients fail to maintain this relationship with their puppy to the detriment of the dog's behaviour. Despite being successful businessmen and women and having to be confident and strong leaders in their professions, as soon as they get home they melt when they see their pup. And then they wonder why their dog will not behave!
This pack leader relationship with your dog must begin when it is between 8-10 weeks old, not at 6 months old when it may have already started to develop problems. And because it is in a dog's nature to challenge your authority and status as pack leader, consistency is key.
Setting the boundaries
This approach doesn't mean that you should not play with your pup. On the contrary, play is an important process that aids muscle development and co-ordination. But the key is for you to dictate when this takes place. It must always be on your terms, not the other way around.
Space awareness is very important too. The puppy can play and interact with you and others, but only when it is invited to do so. A very high percentage of my training methods are based on wild wolf behaviour, and this dynamic between puppy and people replicates the relationship that a young dog would have with senior pack members in the wild.
If the pup jumps up and nips, then a command needs to be created. Use the “No!” command with your fingers out and prod the puppy down and away from you. You must stand your ground, and if required, move towards the pup until it becomes submissive and moves away. Then when you say so, you can invite the puppy into your space. If you observe a bitch with her young, you will notice this is how she behaves when she needs space. This interaction reminds the puppy of its place in the pecking order.
Once I have established the space awareness training, I reaffirm my status as the pack leader with the feeding routine. I also find that this helps to teach the commands that make up the foundations of all gundog training.
All of my puppy training is 100 per cent food motivated. I begin by putting the food on the floor and sit the pup against a wall so that it can't run around me. I then teach it to sit and remain sitting until a further command is given.
This may take five or it may take 55 attempts, but only once the pup is steady, should you progress to the second command: “Get out” with a left or right hand signal. This signals to the pup that it may go to its food. This process is repeated three times daily with each feed.
Once I am satisfied that the pup understands these two commands, I position myself between it and the food, so that I can intervene if it does not react to my commands. I then try stopping the pup midway to the food using the “sit” command, moving into his space to stop the pup if necessary. This is followed by the “get out” command and hand signal, allowing the pup to have its reward.
I find that with this training, if I can achieve perfect control using these two commands with such a high temptation present, I can be confident that the foundations are starting to fall into place and the pup will be ready to deal with further distractions.
I will now move outside where, importantly, the pup will be exposed to new distractions. I will then focus on increasing the distance at which the commands are given. But be aware that your pup will know that you can't just intervene anymore! If this does not work, then the first part of the commands have not been established correctly.
Again, stop the dog with the usual “sit” command, followed by a short blast on the whistle as the pup's bottom touches the floor. Next, give the hand signal “get out” or “back” for the pup to continue on towards the food. Again, as it approaches the food, stop it once more and introduce the “leave” command, indicating that the food should be left alone.
Now recall the pup (away from the food) using the command “leave”, its name followed by continuous pips on the whistle. Once it has done this, it is rewarded with the “get out” command and hand signal to go and get its reward.
At this stage, you will now have great control over such a young pup and because it is getting such a positive from doing as you ask (food), it does it with great enthusiasm and drive.
It is important to allow your puppy to develop its natural hunting and retrieving abilities, so I encourage my pups to retrieve as soon as possible.
Once they have grasped the basic commands, it is time to put all the above together with a dummy. I find that I very rarely have to teach a dog to be steady to a dummy if the foundations have been thoroughly established.
The delivery and presentation of the dummy also normally comes very naturally to the pup. As the dog gets to within a few yards of me, I tend to move towards it, into its space and then issue the “sit” command and hand signal. This is followed by the delivery which is accompanied by the “leave” command to release the dummy.
Socialising is very important for a pup. This is where my wife and two boys, Joe and Jack, come into play! They spend a lot of time walking the dogs on the lead, tapping their left leg saying “heel” as they change direction. They also take them for trips in the car as much as possible, familiarising the pup with the vehicle and/or transit box.
I would advise using one command i.e. “kennel” when the pup gets into the transit box, its bed or its kennel.
I also take my pups into pet-friendly places such as Countrywide Farm stores. The customers and staff get to say hello and this really helps. Visits to the vet also help as they are usually positive experiences for the dog, normally entailing being weighed and then getting a treat before they leave.
I continually advance these foundations through “patience training”. I sit the pup and allow other dogs to eat first before allowing the pup to have their food. This really does get the pup to focus on you as the pack leader.
In order to prevent boredom from setting in, it is important to offer the pup some variety in its training routine at this crucial age. On this note, I also teach my spaniels (not labs at this age) to jump small nets, ditches, small streams, grass, woodland etc. and I use every different type of retrieving tool I can.
Have you seen our new bookazine – The Fieldsports Guide to Gundogs?
By the time the pup reaches six months, I have established the following commands: “Sit”; “Get out” or “Back” either for food or a retrieve (combined with left, right and back hand signals); “Heel” (tap your left leg); Name (for recall); “Kennel” (for bed, car or transit box).
Importantly, if these commands can be taught with the high distraction of food, then everything else tends to fall into place. I find that my dogs often self-correct themselves, which suggests to me that this system/routine really does work. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, never give a command unless you are prepared to enforce it.