The Solutionist: Trainers of the Wildrose Way

By Mike Stewart, Wildrose International

What are the traits of a good sporting dog trainer or handler?  What skills are important to their success?  New Wildrose trainers complete an in-depth curriculum of lecture and field activities as part of becoming a trainer at our facilities. This is one of the questions asked as part of their final evaluation. This question is also relevant for handlers that are followers of the Wildrose Way.  There are four traits we seek in our trainers which are applicable to those training and handling their own dogs.

The Trainer as a Solutionist

First, the trainer is a Mechanic.  A good trainer has many mechanical methods to

mike duck hunting

photo by Katie Behnke

develop a sporting dog: drills, exercises, procedures, lessons and techniques.  Sporting Dog and Retriever Training, theWildrose Way, Wildrose DVDs, and online videos demonstrate many mechanical drills and lessons.  Hold conditioning, pull/push, diversions, switching on doubles, TDMs, intro to gunfire… all “how to” exercises which I categorize as mechanical applications.  In development or problem solving, this is the first bucket most reach for. Necessary and effective for sure, but the trainer must consider much more to be truly effective with a wide variety of situations involving different dog breeds, skill levels, aptitude and challenges a student may present.

Trainers are solutionists. When confronted with a problem in training or hunting, while thinking of an exercise that could affect the shortcomings, also consider the important question of why.  Why the failure? Why does the problem exist? Why is the dog successful? What are the dog’s key motivators? What are the contributing factors that could be the cause in performance deficiency?  Answer the why first then seek solutions.

Secondly, the trainer/handler is a Problem Solver. To guide the process, follow the Wildrose Problem Solving Matrix, Page 45 of Sporting Dog and Retriever Training, the Wildrose Way.  Any shortcomings, challenges or problems that you confront with a dog can be categorized in this simple matrix. In the search for the “why” consider:

stay training

Photo by Will Hereford

Genetics:  Like produces like.  Gun-shy parents or those vocal in the duck blind may well pass along the fault. Shyness, aggression, hard mouth, poor scenting abilities, hyperactivity, dislike of water, etc., could well be passed on through the generations.  This is the importance of knowing bloodlines, the background and heritage of the dog. Not all shortcomings arise from genetics, though.  Let’s continue to search.

Methods:  Could it be that the wrong methods are being applied to fit the situation?

  • Pushing the dog too quickly, inconsistency
  • Not reinforcing calmness in training
  • Improper introductions: gunfire, birds, water
  • Hunting too early
  • Not enough emphasis on obedience skills, patience, steadiness
  • Too many meaningless, excitable marks (over-excitement or boredom)
  • Testing above the dog’s skill level – nothing if learned through failure

Basically the trainer looks at the problem and the methods being utilized for training or exercise to see if the drills are actually contributing to the shortcomings. Remember, when you have a problem, back up two steps in your training to the familiar, Wildrose Law #19. Repeating an exercise incorrectly is actually training through repetition to do the skill incorrectly.

Relationship: Is the trainer-handler relationship with the dog that of pack leadership and is the leader exhibiting confidence while the dog is showing respect? When a Wildrose client or workshop participant has a performance challenge with a dog, surely they will be anxious to resolve the issue quickly, but before the solutionists accept and address the dogs’ issues, they will want to see the dog and handler working together.  Here we determine if the problem could be related to the handler’s poor leadership: weak communication, instability, poor pack structure, inconsistency, impatience, negative attitude, misreading the dog. Trainers consider relationship first in the diagnostic process.

mike with bird

Photo by Will Hereford

The handler needs to be seen as a stable leader with a clarity of commands. Dogs do not respect or follow unstable, angry or emotional leaders.  Do we see consistency, structure and clear boundaries for the dog?  Do we visually see and hear confident communication? Are there realist expectations, eye contact, and a handler’s tone that reflects intention?  Does the family present a poor “pack” environment with inconsistent rules for the dog?  Such inadequacies in relationship may be contributors to the problem being experienced.

Handler’s ability: Is the handler providing clear communications to the dog such as timing of corrections and rewards? Other handler faults that contribute to failures include: inconsistency in training lessons, poor handling skills – whistle and hand signals, misreading the dog’s communication, no progressive training plan, emotional or loss of temper and loud, vocal handling.

The matrix promotes reflection to search for the “why” of a behavior or failure in performance before we address corrections or mechanical solutions. First, look at yourself.

The third trait of a good sporting dog developer is to be a behaviorist.  Know how to read a dog.  Dogs don’t talk but they are always communicating.  Too often one attempts solutions to a dog’s performance without considering what the dog is perceiving or signaling.  People turn to force methods much too quickly to resolve issues: force fetch, e-collars, and spike collars, without first getting into the dog’s mindset.   Question in depth:

  • Why is the dog behaving this way?
  • Have we simplified the exercise/command for better understanding?
  • Could contributors to the undesired performance be:
    1. Immaturity?
    2. The lesson is too complicated?
    3. Is it a “can’t” or a “won’t” issue?
    4. Is there a lack of trust of the handler?
    5. Distracted or bored?
    6. Exhibiting dominance or passive behavior?
    7. Avoidance behaviors or fear factors?

Effective training involves reading the dog and learning what is being communicated.  Learn their language.

The final trait of the solutionist is to have the mindset of a teacher.  Effective trainers are teaching the dog.  Teachers follow proven, progressive curriculums.  They understand nothing is learned through failure.  They teach through repetition and consistency but never to the point of boredom.  Learning involves lessons that are developmentally appropriate and that are continuously evaluated.  Teachers present skills in small, interconnected, progressive steps not sweeping concepts.  Trainers/handlers of the Wildrose Way are communicators who teach a point, reward each success and engage the pupil.


Photo by Will Hereford

The second part of teaching is that the trainer of the dog must transfer skills to the handler.  This requires a teacher’s mindset.  Nothing is achieved if the handler cannot direct and control the dog.  Again, the trainer becomes the teacher teaching the skills necessary for control, communication and handling.  The handler relationship is obviously vital to the dog’s performances.  Success requires that both become a team.  A mutual understanding in a nonverbal world. Once understood, the handler then becomes the teacher of others: the family members, fellow hunters, visitors to the home and people that will be encountered that have dogs.   Each must understand the boundaries, commands, expectations and the order of the pack mentality if the dog’s training and social balance is to remain sharp.

There is much more to a canine solutionist’s responsibility than just knowing drills, exercises, and commands.  Trainers are developed canine behaviorists, problem solvers with the mindset of a teacher, developing students in a progressive, logical, balanced way – The Wildrose Way.

Photos by @williamhereford and @kbehnkephotos

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