It doesn’t matter if you’re training a retriever, hound, pointer, spaniel, or a doodle dog whose only job will be to not chew your slippers and make it outside to go to the bathroom. All dogs learn the same, and all dogs have inherited drives to perform certain tasks. As a trainer, it’s your job to make the most of the dog you have, and these tips will help you do just that.

1. Begin training with the end in mind.

No matter what you want a dog to do, you always need to keep the ultimate goal in mind. And then do everything possible to shape his behaviors to meet those needs. That means encouraging natural instincts and extinguishing counterproductive behaviors. If you keep the end goal in mind, and follow a progressive training program (while limiting your behaviors that un-train the dog) that dovetails with those goals, you’ll be just fine.

2. Keep training segments short and simple.

Several short, positive training sessions will go further in ingraining your puppy with the desired behaviors than long, boring, punishment-laden sessions—and the longer you go, the more likely the dog (or you) will make a mistake.

3. Build small pieces into the big picture.

In your short, positive training sessions, teach small pieces of a larger concept. Don’t try to teach a puppy or dog to go from A to Z in one fell swoop. Teach him each and every smaller step that gets him there, and then chain each step together until you reach the end. First A, then teach B, and link A and B together before teaching C, and so on. Not doing so will result in a puppy with holes in his training and that will eventually catch up with you and him, and undoubtedly you’ll blame the dog. And that’s not fair; he was just doing what you trained him to do.

4. Stop training while the dog still wants more.

A well-bred dog will be excited to work. She’ll want to chase game, will have a desire to please, and will enjoy doing the small thing in training sessions that all link to a larger concept. But don’t work the puppy, or even an adult dog, to exhaustion or boredom. End while she’s still happy and wanting to do more. Doing so sets the stage for a dog that’s eager to train and work.

5. Always end on a positive note.

Finish your training sessions on a positive note. The dog wants to please you and if you end while he still wants more and was successful, he learns faster and has the desire to keep carrying out that task. Some trainers believe the first and last tasks you perform in a session stick with the dog best.

6. Set the dog up for success.

When you’re carrying out training sessions, set the dog up for success. Make it simple for him to accomplish goals in the beginning. Use the dog’s natural instincts and sense of sight and smell to your advantage and make it easy for him to succeed, which will allow him to retain the concept much faster and for longer. Use the wind to your advantage, light cover, bright bumpers, target prey with lots of scent, live prey; anything to help make the learning curve easier and more exciting.

7. Train, don’t test.

Even after your dog advances past the stage of needing a learning-crutch, you don’t need to test the dog at every turn. Teach the concepts and then train them over and over in different settings so the dog understands. Just because the dog was successful once or twice doesn’t mean he will be after that—especially in different or new locations. Teach, train, and then enter a trial, test, or the field and let the dog’s foundation of successful learning and instincts guide it through the process.

8. Focus on the basics.

A solid foundation of the basics always gives you a place to go back to should the wheels come off and your dog starts acting as if he’s never had a day of training in his life. If your dog suddenly doesn’t behave how you want, you can look at the foundation and logical progression of your program to figure out what tasks he is still solid at performing. And if you have the basics down pat, odds are you can at least hunt the dog with a measure of control.

9. Harness natural abilities.

When you buy a dog, you’re mostly paying for natural ability. Period. Nurture and harness those natural abilities. Reward the dog that follows his instincts—even if that means he chases the chickens, gingerly carries your shoes around, or eats the kid’s cat. That’s instinct. That’s what you will need to rely on in training and the field. Use it to the best of your ability in both applications.

10. Train harder on weaknesses.

For some reason, people find what their dog does well, and they repeat it, likely because it makes them feel good. But what your dog naturally does well, isn’t what you need to spend the majority of your time training for. You just need to spend enough time to keep those skills sharp. Where you should spend more of your time, is on the areas of your dog’s game that are weak. Those are the spots that will cause you the most frustration and embarrassment at a trial, hunt test, or in front of your buddies while hunting in the field.

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Three Things to Know Before Buying a Dog

Before taking the plunge into owning a hunting dog, it’s important to know what to look for. You’ll want to set yourself and your dog up for success, and the best way to do that is to get a good dog in the first place. Here are a few things to keep in mind when talking to breeders or doing your research.

1. Buy the best dog you can afford.

Yeah, I know. Your uncle bought a puppy in a Wal-Mart parking lot for $50 and he was the best hunting dog he had ever seen. That doesn’t mean your uncle knows what a good hunting dog is, and even if he was a great hunting dog, the only thing that proves is your uncle is lucky. Well-bred dogs cost money. They come from a bloodline predisposed to accomplishing a specific task, the trainability and smarts to learn the necessary job, and the disposition to take the pressure of high-level training. Additionally, well-bred dogs usually come with health screenings, which cost the breeder money but help ensure your pup will live a healthier life. The upfront cost of a puppy will be the least amount of money you spend on that dog. Food, shelter, vet visits, boarding, training (if you go that route), and the like will all pile up over the next 10 to 15 years you own that dog. A thousand dollars upfront might save you $5,000 in vet bills later in life.

2. Buy a dog from a pedigree you want.

If you want a hunting dog, buy a puppy with a field pedigree. Field-trial and hunt-test dogs have been objectively tested against other dogs or a hunting standard—you know they have the natural instincts to find game, the trainability, and the smarts. If you don’t want or find a dog from test or trial lines, go with a dog that comes from hunting stock. Ideally, you will see the parents hunt (both of them). The danger here is that the evaluation, especially coming from the seller, is completely subjective. One man’s best hunting dog is another man’s boot licker.

3. Buy a dog with genetic testing.

A puppy that comes from parents that have been genetically tested before breeding will cost more money, but will also eliminate a myriad of known genetic mutations that cause diseases. In the case of some mutations, the disease—blindness, kidney failure, neurological disorders—won’t appear until the puppy is 2 or 3 years old. Genetic testing saves you time, money, and heartache. Research the known mutations your favorite breed is susceptible to online before talking to a breeder.