Hunting Dogs photo

Today I’m pulling a letter from the Man’s Best Friend reader mailbag. It’s a question I hear often and a problem I’ve experienced myself. Here’s the letter:

I have a 4-month-old yellow lab. The question I have is how do you command the dog once the check cord is off. When we are outside training with the check cord on, Ginger is pretty good with sit, stay, come. When we take her outside to go to the bathroom she doesn’t listen at all. It’s like she knows the check cord is off and does whatever she wants. Sometimes she won’t acknowledge her name. I know the answer to my question is when we take her outside we should always have the check cord on. I just want to know how to break her of this.

To get an answer I spoke with Mike Stewart of Wildrose Kennels in Oxford, Miss. Stewart practices positive conditioning (no e-collar, etc.) and is known to produce some of the finest trained Labradors in the field. With the young dogs, he spends an enormous amount of time building patience, discipline, focus, and recall while instilling a relationship that fosters a biddable nature. Stewart normally gives a pup only three or four retrieves a week! You’ll notice his training philosophy runs counter to much of the typical advice given on the subject. Here’s just a snippet of what he had to say:

Don’t set your expectations too high for a 4-month old pup. Their attention span is short and they always opt for whatever is most interesting. Keep your distances for recall short, enthusiastic and always have a reward ready for proper behavior.

I don’t use check cords. It’s a crutch and dogs learn, as your dog has, to behave one way when the check cord is attached and quite another when free. I would be totally focused on teaching the pup his name, developing eye contact, and developing patient behavior before a reward is received such as food or a retrieve.

Begin by getting your pup accustomed to coming to the whistle for a small treat. Condition this behavior to the point of habit, anytime, anywhere. Detach the check cord and replace it with a steady tab, a short lead about 8 inches long that can be used when necessary. Really, I don’t ever have my pups at 4 months old off lead very often, only for airing, a short retrieve, and maybe to hunt a bit of cover for a tennis ball. Otherwise the pup is on lead with me all the time. Soon my pup realizes everything good occurs with me –affection, treat, a retrieve.

Start over with your pup practicing recalls for treats. Introduce the whistle. Provide lots of exercise for your puppy before the training session and do not put your pup in the situation where he can be out of control. Get him off the crutch of a check cord as soon as possible.

I’ll admit that I had never heard a check cord called a crutch, but if I’ve learned one thing from the training process it’s that you must find what works for you and use it. And if you’ve ever seen one of Stewart’s dogs, you know his training methods work.

As always, I’m curious of your thoughts on the subject.