Recently I had the unique opportunity to ask Geoff English a few questions about training hunting dogs for waterfowl and upland bird hunting. We also talked about hunt tests, and what role they play in the hunting dog world. Having known Geoff personally for quite a few years now, I knew that he would have some great perspective to share with all of us about training dogs for the field. Geoff is a world class hunting dog trainer, and runs one of the premier Labrador Retriever and English Springer Spaniel kennels in the country. Geoff is also the Founder of Gundogs Online (www.gundogsonline.com).
- As a professional trainer; do you train a dog differently when a client says they want their dog to purely hunt upland birds? What changes (if anything) in your program? What are some focuses that change based on this information?
We offer client the ability to choose between upland and/or waterfowl training for their hunting dogs. With that said all dogs go through the same obedience training program, which is the foundation for both programs. Once a dog has completed the obedience phase of training we start working on concepts relative to the type of hunting the dog will be used. For example, if the dog is going to be an upland hunting dog we start dog young on their pattern, while waterfowl dogs start learning to run straight lines.
If a client is looking to have a dual purpose hunting dog (upland and waterfowl) we like to start them on nonslip retriever (waterfowl) work first. I find that if a dog learns to quarter before they are taught to run straight lines (necessary for marks and blind retrieves) it becomes difficult to teach them to hold their line in spite of factors — especially wind and cover change. With that said, I believe most dogs are better suited for one discipline or the other and the challenge, as a trainer, becomes teaching a dog that has been selectively breed for one discipline to do the other. For example, this spring I had a Chesapeake Bay Retriever (known for Waterfowl Hunting) in for upland pheasant hunting. We brought him through the obedience program as normal, and then we proceeded to train him like we do Springer Spaniels. We were able to successfully turn her into a very good upland dog, but it took lots of patience and persistence.
- One misconception we have heard from several of our customers (mostly retriever owners) is that a dog hunting upland birds only does not need to be force fetched, put through pile and lining drills or the “T” drill / “TT” Drill. Personally I disagree, but i’m curious on your response to this?
Personally I don’t care for the term force fetching. To me “Force Fetching” is a process I learned many years ago. The trainer would apply pressure to the dog and ask them to fetch an object to relieve the pressure. Since that time, our process of teaching a dog to retrieve on command has changed significantly — in fact, it continues to evolve as we bring 40-50 dogs a year through the process. The term we use instead of “Force Fetching” is the “Trained Retrieve”. Now it may sound like semantics, but it’s not. The “Trained Retrieve” process, as we implement it, involves first TEACHING the dog what we expect, then through lots and lots of repetitions we TRAIN the dog to be reliable and finally we TEST the dog by changing the implement we are asking them to retrieve or the location we the retrieve is being done — for example moving from the training table to the floor. The distinction between “Force Fetch” and “Trained Retrieve” process is that we only apply pressure after the dog has learned what the command means. This ensures that we spend less time forcing the dog and more time training the dog.
With that said, all dogs that are going to be competition dogs or are going to be trained to an advanced level go through our “Trained Retrieve” process. The last thing I want to worry about as we head into advance concepts is that a dog lacks compulsions to retrieve. Sure most well-bred dogs will show a strong inclination to retrieve objects they have seen fall and some will even take running blinds fairly naturally. But when you ask a dog to fight factors like terrain, wind, etc dogs that have been through the “Trained Retrieve” process advance much quicker and more reliably. This applies to many advance level concepts as well.
- What are some key items to focus on with a young puppy knowing that hunting upland birds will be a primary goal with the dog?
Our training program focuses on giving a young dog (under 20 weeks old) a taste of everything they will be expected to do as an all age dog. This allows us to see a dog’s strengths and weaknesses. Then we can customize a training program for that dog. I can’t tell you how important it is to treat each dog as an individual and not just push dogs through a standardize program. Sometimes you get a dog that is slower to mature and if you push them too quickly you will never see their true potential. I often get dogs in from the same litter and one client will ask how his/her dog is doing compared to their littermates. I understand the thought process clients are going through but often times how quickly a dog goes through a program has little impact on how good the dog will be– as a trainer it’s important to bring these skills out of a dog at a pace that will foster a good working attitude.
- How important are hunt test titles in your program?
I am assuming you are referring to my breeding program.
Titles are only as good as the dog itself and the judges who awarded the title. I have seen dogs with Master Hunter (MH) and Field Championship (FC) titles that I was thoroughly unimpressed with. When it comes to breeding too many people are title chasing and not selectively breeding – which is a HUGE mistake. Let me explain. When field trails first started the primary purpose of the field trail was to demonstrate a dog’s ability in the field and evaluate their strengths and weaknesses so breeders could make sound decisions about breeding and in the process improve on the performance of the breed in general. Looking strictly at titles in a pedigree does little or nothing to help a breeder make a determination on a suitable mate. It is imperative that a breeder knows the strengths, weaknesses and dominant performance traits of a suitable mate before making a decision on whom to breed to.
A dominant trait is a trait that is thrown by a sire or dam no matter whom he/she is bred to. A field trial is a great place where breeders can determine dominant traits of a particular sire or dam. Carefully evaluating offspring of a particular dog (sire or dam) will reveal common physical and performance characteristics – these are the dominant traits that a dog throws when bred to.
All this research is important when a breeder is effectively trying to improve on a weakness in a bloodline. In contrast, by doubling up on a dominant trait that is a fault will inevitably cause undesirable results.
A recessive trait is one that is not readily apparent in either the sire or dam of a litter but is present in the offspring. Recessive traits can hide themselves for generations and only reappear when bred to a dog that shares the fault. For this reason, it becomes important for a breeder to critically evaluate each dog in the pedigree.
A competent breeder understands the virtues and faults in both the sire and dam and looks to improve the breed through selective breeding.
- Overall, what are your thoughts on hunt tests? What needs to improve and what do you see for the future of hunt tests generally speaking?
Overall, I think AKC Hunt Tests are great for our sport. But like with anything, it all depends on the people organizing and running the test. The committee and judges can make or break the event.
Ten years ago, it was easy to find a double header (where you can run two tests) JH (Junior Hunter) or SH (Senior Hunter) Test on the same weekend with Master Hunter Test starting on Saturday and ending on Sunday. Now you would be hard pressed to find a single double header on the east coast or a MH test that doesn’t start on Friday. These types of changes make it difficult for the single dog owner who works a 9-5 job to participate, never mind help out at these events. The future success of the AKC Hunt Test program is not in the Master Level it’s at the lower levels — JH and SH. It’s at these levels where you will attract and retain new people to the sport. I would encourage clubs and members to do what is necessary to structure events so it’s easier to justify attended or helping out at these events, not harder.