The Avoidables

by Mike Stewart, Wildrose International


Often it seems that the list of things not to do with a young sporting dog pup is much longer than the things listed to do.  No doubt, it is important to properly “Background” any puppy to instill desirable foundational skills and behaviors while avoiding mistakes that could produce undesirable behaviors, fear factors or even injury.  The early-start months in puppy development can be categorized in three timeframes (See Wildrose Law #3 as a reference):

Birth to 8/10 weeks

8/10 weeks to 3.5 months

3.5 months to 6 months

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The importance of the first 16 weeks in a pup’s life cannot be undervalued.  What is established through repeated exposures, stimulated learning and socialization experiences easily becomes imprinted behaviors or habits. It is the way nature intends – the order of the pack.  This vital period in the developmental processes cannot be ignored or mishandled. Undesirable, entrenched behaviors at these early ages will endure.  They will prove beneficial in training and value-added to compatibility of the pup or dysfunctional habits will prove to be challenging to suppress. Undesirable, entrenched behaviors may be modified or suppressed through training but likely never totally eliminated.  They may lie dormant in the young dog only to re-appear at the most annoying and inappropriate times.


What to do? Basically, early puppy development begins with the end in mind.  If you do not want to see a particular behavior two years from now in the duck blind, on trail, or with the family at home, don’t allow the undesirable behavior to continue.  Remember: repetition + consistency – boredom = habit.

Realize that the pup is always learning.  One must be careful what they are allowing to be trained (conditioned) in with their youngster either intentionally or unintentionally.


Bolting                         Tug-of-war

Free Running                Barking for Attention

Chase                           Whining

Chewing                       Jumping on People



Patience                      Returning When Called

Leading                        Housebroken

Quiet in Crate               Socialization Experiences

Place Trained

If a behavior becomes entrenched in these early “backgrounding” periods, you better like it. Just get it right from the start by never violating Wildrose Law #4, “Don’t condition in a problem that must be trained out later.”

Avoiding the Undesirables

Let’s look at a short list of examples that perhaps we have not mentioned in our materials previously. They may seem harmless initially, but they can easily turn into difficult troubles to rectify later in training and afield.


The Sniffer

Hunting breeds are known for their amazing scenting abilities.  Their nose knows and the pups love to put them to use.  In training lessons, the ground sniffing is often mistaken as hunting or at least the desire to do so.  Not the case.  Sniffing is avoidance, inattention and a distraction.  Do not let sniffing the ground while training become a habit with a pup.

We work our pups on low-impact exercises such as heel, sit, stay, recall on paved or hard-packed dirt surfaces that offer little distractive scent to pre-occupy the pup. This practice has resulted in drastically reducing the pup’s inattention during training.  Once a solid pattern is established without ground sniffing, move on to other areas.

Avoid working in heavily scented areas like dog parks, dog relief areas, areas with birds present, wooded areas with plentiful wildlife, any location that harbors heavy ground scent.  Avoid the sniffing habit in your pup’s early starts.

The Bolter

This is the most common problem we experience when a youngster returns to basic training at our Wildrose facilities.  Bolting, scurrying off on independent frolics, possessiveness with the bumper, free running, free swimming, chasing other dogs – all independent behaviors that are in no way conducive to a sporting dog’s field performance.  Most of these habits began early in the pup’s life:

  • Playing chase with kids
  • Playing with other dogs
  • Chasing wildlife in the yard
  • Provided chew toys that created possessiveness
  • Allowing free run in open areas too often for exercise
  • Allowing continuous free swimming in a lake or swimming pool


These and similar activities create independence, possessiveness, avoidance, self-employment – all unproductive behaviors that must be trained out before desirable behaviors can take root such as:

  • Delivery to hand
  • Steadiness
  • Honoring other working dogs
  • Recall, despite distractions
  • Ignoring diversions

Again, think, do not put in a problem.


The Jumping Jack

British Labs love to jump.  They are active, agile and love a challenge.  Although we often post on social media and the Wildrose Way training page scenes of young pups performing activities involving running and jumping, we want everyone to know that such impact exercises are engaged in at a minimum and always with caution.  Warning: High impact activities such as running on hard surfaces, jumping from vehicles or platforms, sliding on slick floors, negotiating slick stairways can and often do cause injury to the pup’s joints (hips, elbows, knees, spine).

Although a sporting dog pup will gladly engage in such strenuous activities, be cautious.  No high jumps, no long runs, no jumping from ATVs, vehicles, etc., no sliding on slick surfaces, no long distance running such as jogging, biking, rollerblades, etc. None of these activities prior to 14 months of age.

In training we do involve some low-level jumps like from a water stand or working on our ramps but be confident that we engage in these seldomly and with caution.  The romping and jumping activities are enjoyable for the pup and if repeated become a habit that can result in injury or wear on joints when you least expect it and are not prepared.

puppy on ramp

The Termite

Retriever breeds have an oral fixation.  They love to use their mouth and love to have things in it often.  I think somewhere over the generations the termite was bred to the Labrador lines!  Here it is all about avoidance, not allowing the dysfunctional behavior of chewing objects or your person to become an ingrained habit.

Chew toys and generic chew objects do nothing to relieve the pup’s tendency to chew things from their bedding to furniture. Never allow a pup to chew on a bumper with the misplaced thinking that will encourage retrieve drive.  Chew elimination is about avoidance.  No opportunity to do so and the pup simply outgrows the tendency rather than allowing the behavior to turn into a dysfunctional habit.  Encourage delivery to hand of any item the pup should collect.  Don’t provide anything to the pup to chew with exception of an object that can be consumed like a dental care product such as Zuke’s Bones.  Never allow a pup to chew on anyone’s body parts or garments.

The Pitcher

Here we are talking about the creation of a dysfunctional habit that is clearly the product of the handler and perhaps the family … throwing bumpers/objects indiscriminately for retrieves.  This practice, if repeated, is the path to unsteadiness, impatience, and whining all from throwing things from the handler’s hands.  You are not building drive or providing beneficial training lessons. You are entrenching a difficult habit to correct.  You throw the “mark,” the pup quickly scurries off for the recovery and is therefore rewarded.  Impatience, a negative behavior, is rewarded.

puppy in water

There are only a few times you, the handler, should throw anything for a pup to retrieve:

  1. First retrieves, introductions
  2. To teach a new skill foreign to the pup (under a fence, crossing a barrier, etc.)

Then, immediately convert lessons to memories.  Also, forget fun bumpers as a reward.  Never! They are an immediate reward for unsteadiness.

Parting Thoughts

To avoid conditioning in undesirable behaviors we too often encounter in sporting dog pups:

  1. Avoid repeating or allowing the re-occurrence of dysfunctional behaviors which are rewarded or self-rewarding as they are destined to become habits.
  2. Establish clear boundaries, routines and structure for the pup. Avoid inconsistency.
  3. Reward patience in all things which include food, affection, and retrieves.

Take the puppy pledge:  Wildrose Law #4 rules:  Don’t condition in a behavior that must be trained out later.


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