Written by Tom Keer
Everyone loves puppies. Sure they’re cute, but for hunters and field trialers puppies from good breeding represent hope and the possibility of a great career. Experienced pros focus their attention on the puppy’s first 12 months because they know how hard it is to teach an old dog new tricks. Puppy training should be a lot of fun, so here’s some savvy advice from industry pros on how to best conduct business during that first year.
Brains Before Brawn
Russ Kelley from Eukanuba’s Pet Health and Nutrition Center says a puppy’s brain is fully developed by the time they’re 10 weeks old. Their bodies need a while to catch up, with that time being about a year.
“Puppies are incredibly fast learners, at that’s partly due to the rapid growth of their neurons,” Kelley said. “Neurons are cells that transmit information to other nerve cells. They are at the center of the nervous system, and basically are the basic working part of the brain. There are three parts to neurons: cell bodies, axons and dendrites. The dendrites are the connection between the brain and the body and are like an information highway. As scientists, we focus a lot of our attention on dendrites. The rate and thickness in which they mature is critical for puppy development. We look at four phases of growth:
- Whelping to seven days.
- Eight to 13 days.
- 14 days to four weeks.
- Five weeks through 10 weeks.
Significant changes rapidly occur during those four short timeframes. According to Kelly, “from whelping to seven days of age, neurons exist as cells that are closely packed together. During that week, puppies mostly eat, sleep and excrete. Big changes start to happen from eight-to-13 days which is when the dendrites begin to grow and lengthen. Dendrites thicken into much more complex patterns, and they connect with more and more nerve cells every day. This time is when you’ll see enormous increases in puppy functionality. Their eyes open, they learn to stand, and pups acquire fundamental motor skills like walking and wagging their tails. From between two and four weeks of age you’ll see another spike in activity. There is a tremendous reduction in cell density, part of which comes from the increase in the pup’s brain size. All the while, dendrites continue to lengthen and thicken, and reveal the formation of the nervous system that will last with the puppy his whole life. Learning increases at a rapid pace.
“From five and 10 weeks, the puppy’s brain is fully developed with a full complement of dendrites. Training time is impactful between 10 weeks and one year as a puppy’s mind is like a sponge. As puppies learn quickly, their learning does slow down with age. I suppose that’s why the adage ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ came into existence.
“Nutrition can impact the growth and health of the central nervous system for both dams and puppies alike. Foods for both should include docosahexaenoic acid which is abbreviated as DHA. DHA is an omega-3 fatty acid supportive of brain and neuron development during both a dam’s pregnancy and in early puppy development. DHA also is linked to improved health in the heart, better vision, and reduced inflammatory responses. That’s why you’ll see it included in performance foods.”
Learn Now, Run Later: How Dogs and Puppies Learn
For nearly a half century, Robert Milner has focused his attention on understanding puppies, gun dogs and training. His deep understanding started first with American Labs and continued when he introduced British Labs to America. Milner has been a pioneer of positive training, and continues his work at his Duckhill Kennels in Somerville, Tennessee.
“In my long career of working with puppies and adult dogs I’ve found that both learn best through short, focused training sessions,” he said. “Over a decade ago, I discovered a research program that supported my personal findings. In 2010, scientists at the University of Copenhagen studied the frequency and duration of canine training sessions. This study involved 44 dogs that were divided into four groups. The groups were:
- W1 - Trained weekly, one session per day, one day per week.
- W3 - Trained weekly, three sessions per day, one day per week.
- D1 - Trained daily, one session per day, five days per week.
- D3 - Trained daily, three sessions per day, five days per week.
Shorter, focused sessions worked best as the W1 group learned the fastest. The dogs arrived at their sessions very focused and ready to learn. D3 learned the slowest of the groups. Overtraining had a negative impact on the dogs’ learning because the dogs viewed training as punishment. Dogs think anything that causes discomfort is punishment. Continuous, repetitive work bores and tires them. W3 and D1 had learning speeds that were similar.
Milner trains his retrievers for five essential behaviors:
- The first is recall, for the dog must come when called.
- The second is delivery to hand, which is first a bumper and later a bird.
- The third is to sit and stay. Gun dogs must be obedient and remain calm, especially when they are surrounded by a lot of commotion.
- The fourth is memory retrieve, which is knowing where a bumper or a bird fell without being able to see it. That is a blind retrieve.
- The fifth is a whistle stop. I don’t require my British labs to sit at the whistle, but instead to look for a command.
Milner recommends that retriever trainers focus on those five points in short, focused sessions. That focus helps puppies develop into outstanding gun dog in a short period of time.
But sometimes it’s the handler…and not the puppy…that first needs to be trained. “Using simple, easy to understand commands that are delivered properly and enforced correctly is key,” Milner said. “Consistency in behavior is key, too. Take for instance that your puppy wants to give you a $400 Ferragamo shoe that he fetched from you’re your wife’s closet. If you say ‘no’ and then whack him on the muzzle, then you just taught him that retrieving is bad. Instead, turn the mistake into a lesson. Have the puppy deliver to hand, praise him, pet him all over, and have him release the shoe. Then, run to find some shoe polish so you can clean up the bite marks, and put that shoe under lock and key. You’d do well to get some soft, paint-roller slips for him to sink his puppy teeth into when learning to fetch.”
Year One: Take Your Time
When it comes to pointing dogs, Jerry Havel of Pineridge Grouse Camp says the first year needs to be fun and exciting for pups. The Eukanuba pro trainer says, “the more time owners put in during this critical time the better handling and hunting they’ll have for the future. Just remember that puppies are puppies. Take your time, don’t put too much pressure on them, and keep the sessions short. Training puppies is a process, so don’t try to fast-track it. Watch for boldness, confidence and consistency in performance. Those are indicators that the pup is ready for the next steps. Pups that are soft and tentative need more time before they’re moved through the training process. A short cut now creates future problems.”
Connection between handler and pup is why Havel focuses on developing a strong bond with his new recruits. He lets puppies have fun while knocking around through their first 20 weeks. “I want puppies to learn about everything they’ll encounter in their lives,” he said, “and I want them to have positive first experiences. Those positive encounters with the woods, fields, waters, birds, other handlers, you name it, all builds bold, confident dogs. I let them run through seeps, then through small puddles, and then let them cross streams. When it comes to bird contacts, I let them find pigeons and run ‘em up. If they have fun running and finding birds as puppies they’ll love doing it as adult dogs. Mix in some basic yard work with commands of come, heel and woah and they get an education while having fun.
“After they’ve knocked a bunch of birds, I’ll get a check cord to begin the breaking process. I’ll put them on a check cord and let them find and point some birds. If they get edgy, I’ll say woah, pull the check cord, and stack and style them up. I don’t put much pressure on them in the first year, but I do want to get them focused. I reward good behavior with a lot of praise, pats and belly rubs.
“Later on, we’ll work on quartering drills. I’ll let the pups drag the check cord through the woods, change directions, and teach them to pivot on my command. I want my dogs to run with a smile, and that means to enjoy what they’re doing. I want to see cracking tails when running and staunch points when they’ve located game. Puppies will make mistakes, and mistakes are important. It’s how they learn. Be calm, patient, and have a positive training attitude. You’ll set a strong foundation that will make future finish work a breeze.”
Getting Pups to Do the Right Thing
Georgia’s Todd Agnew of Craney Hill Kennel loves flushing dogs. He grew up with springers and started his pro training career over two decades ago. During that time, he guided hunters for Ruffed grouse, wild Bobwhite quail, pheasant and Hungarian partridge from the Northeast to the West. But then Agnew had a field trial itch that had to be scratched, and he began competing. With his spaniels, Agnew won the National Open High Point in 2017 and the National Open Championship in 2018. His client won the Canadian National Amateur in 2019 with a Craney Hill Kennel dog.
“Developing a well-bred spaniel pup is more like teaching them to learn,” the Eukanuba Pro Trainer said. “Strong genetics are invaluable, so a handler works more as a coach who focuses on getting pups to do more of the right things. I want to develop dogs that know how to respond to situations and be able to solve problems. By developing a problem-solver, I am shaping behaviors that I am going to want later on. Dogs that are problem solvers also are less likely to quit.
“I use clickers and treats and introduce both on a training table. My table is between 15-20 feet long, and I’ll introduce pups to the table when they’re between 7 and 8 weeks old. I’ll first hook them up to a cable and then spread out treats for them to find. Later on I’ll walk around the table, and when they follow me I hand them a treat and click. When a puppy sits on his own, I will click and treat. A week or two later I only give clicks and treats to pups that sit on their own and look up at me.
“When the puppy is consistent, I’ll take him off the table and repeat the same commands on the ground. Verbal commands come when they’re ready, and I focus on recall and walk around and stop and look up at me. Building a bond through engagement is key, so I’ll repeat these commands until the pups are 9 months old. During that time, I’ll introduce the pups to environmental conditions like water, field and woods.
“Once the pups are comfortable with the fields and the woods, I’ll introduce them to quail. After they find and flush that first bird, they’ll look for another, and that means they’ll run away from me. That’s what I want because it sets them up for future hunting. While finding and flushing birds is fun for them it really teaches them to work. Learning to work is important for spaniels are bred to find, flush and retrieve birds. Work is taught, and if teaching them to enjoy working is a big part of my process.
“Properly developing a spaniel is different from physical conditioning. Save the hard running and roading until after the pup’s grown plates are fully developed which is when they’re two-years old. Focus on foundational skills when they’re young and you’ll have a top-flight gun dog for life.”
Working with puppies is a tremendous amount of fun. Put your time in when they’re young and you’ll reap future rewards when they’re adults. Proper training is a process, so take your time. It’ll be more than worth it in the end.
Tom Keer is an award-winning writer and regular contributor to over a dozen magazines and blogs. His favorite time of year is in October and November where you can find him in woodcock and grouse coverts or quail fields with his wife, two kids and three English setters. Visit him at www.tomkeer.com or at www.thekeergroup.com.