By Alan Newton, owner of Wildrose Shadow
Following the end of a long and happy fourteen-year relationship with an outstanding Chesapeake Bay Retriever, I made the decision to search for reputable Labrador Retriever breeders (no offense to the Chessie, as indeed they are awesome canines). Google immediately directed me to Wildrose Kennels. I thoroughly read each page of the Wildrose website acquiring the knowledge needed to make an informed decision, and my search clearly pinpointed Wildrose as the breeder of choice.
That same search led me to Deke, the DU mascot dog, whom we all know. As Area Chairman of the Davidson County NC Chapter of Ducks Unlimited, a Deke puppy quickly ascended to be my first choice. A phone call to Cathy Stewart, followed by a discussion of the qualities I desired in a gun dog, landed me on a waiting list for a Deke x Heather black female. In July 2014, I picked up Shadow in Oxford bringing her to my NC home for backgrounding.
Mike Stewart’s book, Sporting Dog and Retriever Training The Wildrose Way, coupled with my commitment to attendance at workshops and a deep desire to own a great gun dog, helped me to successfully complete Shadow’s backgrounding (with a hearty dose of luck tossed in). Shadow returned to Wildrose in January 2015 for gun dog training under the leadership of Steven Lucius. Since completing gun dog training, Shadow has made return trips to Oxford for advanced workshops, become a regular visitor to Wildrose Carolinas to train on new ground, and we’ve hunted together extensively throughout the Southeast. Today, Shadow is a Wildrose British Lab with great scenting ability, capable of finding any downed bird with little handler direction, and a true Gentleman’s Gun Dog in possession of both fine points and flaws, as indeed no perfect dog exists. If we are so fortunate, we all own a Shadow!
During the past year, I backgrounded a group of puppies, volunteered during the summer at Wildrose Carolinas, and presently have the opportunity to train my first Wildrose gun dog during 2020, an Archer x Kate black female. The journey from Wildrose dog owner, to dog handler, to presently trying my hand at gun dog trainer, has been thrilling considering just a short time ago I simply desired another black lab.
I’ve learned some lessons along the way I kindly want to share with you, my fellow Wildrose handlers. In many cases, these lessons simply reinforce the material in Mike’s book, and in other instances a few lessons represent my own experience.
- Be able to clearly articulate the traits you desire in your Wildrose dog while having a specific end in mind. Are you a hardcore hunter in search of a high-drive dog for the field, or seeking a much calmer dog for companionship, travel, and spending time on the town? Share openly and honestly with the Wildrose staff the personality of the dog you choose to own, and what the dog will primarily be doing throughout its lifetime. As you begin to train your dog, or have it professionally trained, be sure to retain a mental picture of the dog you desire to own two to three years down the road. Frequently refresh your trainer’s memory in regards to the finished product when making visits to check on the progress of your dog (Stewart, 2012, pg. 18).
- Attend as many workshops as possible, listen intently to the shared knowledge and experience of both trainers and other handlers, watch your dog, and focus on becoming an excellent handler. There is a great deal of knowledge and learning to be had at the various workshops. Often workshop attendees are on their phones, socializing, engaging in distractions, and not paying attention to their dogs or other handlers as they work their dogs. All this equates to missed opportunities to improve as a handler. Engaging in behaviors at workshops other than improving as a handler is unfair to your dog – and remember your dog is always watching you!
- Socialize your puppy as often as possible in the right places. Walks through the forest, fields, high grass, riversides, park trails, and town squares are appropriate places to socialize your dog. Stay away from dog parks and places filled with folks wanting to pet your dog as this leads to instilling unwanted behaviors. Determine where you regularly desire to travel with your dog for outings and begin to acclimate them early to these venues.
- Without fail, promote and insist on steadiness at EVERY opportunity! Steadiness is the key to being re-invited to that great duck blind, your friend’s house for dinner,or being allowed to bring your Wildrose companion to work. No one enjoys or appreciates the bull in the china shop. Tie outs, place training, remote sits, denials, sitting prior to climbing stairs or entering through doorways or being fed all reinforce steadiness. If your dog moves when told to sit or stay, creeps or cheats, stop what you are doing and return the dog to its original place. Doing so pays huge dividends down the road. In the spring and fall, I make Shadow sit in her Gunner or on the truck tailgate and watch me mow the entire yard.
- NEVER lose your temper with your dog! Your Wildrose dog is the result of well-planned breeding, but will still test you, and on more than one occasion I might add. Remember to exhibit neutral responses and apply negative reinforcement only if the dog places itself in danger. Should your dog infuriate you, have the dog remotely sit, and then walk away as you collect your emotions. Never continue to train the dog when you are out of control. The handler who loses his or her temper on full display for the dog is destroying previously established trust and severely damaging the dog’s confidence in their handler. Be a great leader, one who is calm, confident, controlled, and consistent (Stewart, 2012, pg. 44).
- Be willing to take two steps back. Should your dog begin to exhibit sloppy behavior say perhaps refusing whistle commands, stop and regroup. Determine where the dog is failing (the problem) and return to more elementary training methods such as whistle stops or hunt commands in tall grass to reinforce the skills needed to successfully perform the more complex skill.
- Learn to become a dog whisperer. Avoid giving repetitive verbal commands or becoming whistle happy. Give a command once, whether verbal or with a whistle, and set the expectation for compliance. Great handlers are quiet handlers. As your dog ages and matures, it is possible at times to work your dog with hand signals alone.
- Read your dog. Learn to be fully observant and keenly aware of your dog during training. When you position your dog for a retrieve, you should know and be able to express what the dog is going to do prior to the release. While handling the dog toward a lost bird, make sure you have predetermined the correct hand signal and verbal command to be given prior to stopping the dog. Failure to do so lessens your dog’s confidence in you the handler. Focus on learning to read your dog and effective handling to build your dog’s trust and confidence in your handling ability. And once more remember, if you are not observing your dog, he or she is still observing you!
- Have a training plan for the day. Prior to taking the dog out of his or her kennel, have a plan for the dog you wish to accomplish in that day’s training session. Always include obedience in every training session along with yard or field work. Well-planned training sessions hold the dog’s attention, build trust and confidence, and accomplish a great deal in a short period of time. Finish the training session with a win and evaluate the training session as you feed and care for your dog back at the kennel. Make haste slowly, and do so with a plan (Stewart, 2012, pg. 57).
- Never hunt your dog until he or she has completed a basic gun dog training program and has been appropriately and progressively introduced to increasing levels of gunfire. There is good reason this is the FIRST deadly error! I suggest a minimum of four to six months of transition work (along with continued obedience and field training) following basic gun dog training prior to hunting a dog, which translates into the dog being about 18 to 20 months old. At that point, I would determine if the dog is ready for exposure to excessive gunfire, and if not, I would hold off another four to six months until the dog is at or slightly above two years of age. This may appear excessive to most, particularly the hardcore hunter. As justification for my suggestion, I experienced the following scenario with Shadow in Hyde County, NC. At 18 months of age, we duck hunted a small impoundment with four blinds, four hunters per blind, most carrying 12-gauge semi-automatics, with each hunter unleashing three rounds at every flight of ducks. That equates to 48 rounds being fired in just a matter of a few seconds with your Wildrose gun dog in the center of the mix. Experience dictates that indeed is a recipe for disaster. Remember, the prize is what lies down the road. Don’t trade that end you have in mind for the first day’s hunt in the field, as the price is too high (Stewart, 2012, pg. 50)!
Shadow and I survived that experience to go on and successfully duck hunt together throughout the South, upland hunt at preserves, complete the first level of Adventure Dog Training in Arkansas, and embark on numerous individual and group adventures that involve kayaks, tents, hiking, fly rods, mountain bikes, and campfires. All that would not have been possible without the genuine efforts of many folks to breed and train a true Wildrose Gentleman’s Gun Dog. My sincere hope is that my experience may be in harmony with yours, and possibly offer you an idea or two that will serve to improve your training and handling ability as we live the sporting lifestyle.
Reference:Stewart, M. with Fersen, P. (2012). Sporting Dog and Retriever Training The Wildrose Way, Raising a Gentleman’s Gundog for Home and Field. New York: Universe Publishing.