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Gundogs: Go-Pro or DIY?

gundogs training

Training Gundogs

When people ask me, “what kind of dog is that?” I usually reply, “a bad dog.”

They’re obviously not inquiring about my dog’s temperament, but wanting to know the breed.

My dog Wolfe, is an “Augie” –a hybrid of a Welsh corgi and Australian Shepherd. And while this working dog is supposedly a “designer dog”, he was immediately moved to the clearance shelf when his first owners dropped him off at a county shelter at just a couple months old. And I can see why after he ate a brand new pair of Marc Jacobs pumps, two pet beds, a fleece camo pull-over, a hand-stamped, woven bed spread from India, and his own dog dish.

While I’ve been able to teach him the usual tricks – sit, stay, lie down, roll over, hi-five, and beg – I know he’ll never be a gundog (in fact, he was scared to death the first time he heard a gun go off). And that’s ok. But as the fall hunting season approaches and my attention turns to hunting I can’t help but ask myself if it’s time I invest in a good gundog. And if so, what kind of dog?

For help with this question I turned to friend, Dave Siple, of High River Labs, whose reputable breeding and training facility produces pointing and retrieving Labradors. Labradors are one of the most versatile and widely used gundog breeds.

Kat: What kind of hunting or jobs are labs best suited for?

Dave: Waterfowl, upland game, drug sniffing [TSA] and special needs services. Our company actually donates high quality labs to Doggie Do-Good in Pismo Beach.

Kat: What got you into dog training?

Dave: I kind of fell in to it. I started with my own dog. Guys I worked with saw my dog and wanted my help in training their dog. Before long I was working with other trainers and building a reputation as a trainer myself.

Kat: What are the benefits of purchasing a fully trained dog?

Dave: You know the training has been done right with the least amount of mistakes made. When you purchase what we call a “started dog” – you know what you’re buying.

Kat: What is a “started dog”?

Dave: Any dog possessing general obedience to master level skills. Trainers typically use a dog’s skill level to determine its price. They’re either considered juniors, senior or master level based on their achievements at national AKC sanctioned events. In these events both the handler and dog are tested.

Kat: What are some questions buyers should ask of the breeder?

Dave: First, they should look for a breeder who also trains its own dogs. They should ask if the hips, elbows and eyes are certified? Ask to see the results of their EIC or CNM tests which will tell you if the bloodline is genetically clean. Because testing can cost about $1,000 per dog, reputable breeders will test; while not so reputable breeders may not.

Also, ask them what they do with their dogs. Do they hunt them? Hunt-test them? How can they prove to you that their breeding program is what you want?

Some breeders breed for color. But genetically the dogs become unsound. Yellow & brown are more desirable, but black is stronger. So ask the breeder if the litter you’re choosing from was planned and accidental.

Are they vaccinated? Micro chipped? And what dog food does that breeder feed? I feed my dogs Black Gold premium dog food. It’s rich in Omegas 3 + 6. I like to keep the fat content above 16% to keep the coat oily and healthy.

Ask about the temperament of the DAM and Sire.

What is their breeding philosophy? Are they breeding for the betterment of the breed?

Kat: Why does it matter if the breeding was planned or not?

Dave: Backyard breeding doesn’t offer any guarantees. You’ll have to wonder if the desire and drive are really there. A breeder’s job is to breed the hunting instinct into the bloodline. Some dogs love to hunt.

Kat: What breed of dog do you typically recommend for your clients?

Dave: It depends where and what they’re hunting. We train retrievers, pointers and flushers. The Bracco, an Italian-bred pointer, is an amazing breed – the future of California hunting. While its short hair is ideal for a swim in warm climates, it wouldn’t do as well as, say a lab or retriever would, in the water in cold climates.

Braccos are very intelligent. But they’re slightly more timid. So you have to be softer. More patient. They’re a little slower learner – you have to move slower in your training to match their temperament.

But the Bracco is a very family oriented dog with a calmer demeanor than your average lab. Labs want to be licking your feet, sit on your lap, and get petted – all the time.

Labs are a popular choice because they are so well insulated against cold and wet weather; they’re good at most jobs, and also make good family dogs. You could hunt yours 40% of the time, and let it be a family pet the other 60% of the time and it would be perfectly happy.

Golden retrievers are great waterfowl dogs and do well in colder climates. But their long hair means they’re higher maintenance and they’re not as hard charging. A lot of the hunting instinct has been bred out of them, makes them not as versatile.

Kat: What kind of additional time or money should I expect to invest in my dog?

Dave: The best dogs get lots of birds – lots of field time. What you want out of your dog, will determine how much time you put into him.

Kat: So how many clams are we talking about here to get a started gundog?

Dave: You should be able to get a basic retriever in 6 months for around $3,000.

Dave also added “A good hunting dog can be a great family dog. It’s what you make of it.”

Certainly the benefit to obtaining a starter gun dog is that you know what you’re getting and many of them come with a limited guarantee. But if the $3,000 price tag has you a little gun shy, let me suggest an alternative.

My brother Nate, who I introduced you to briefly in my last article, took the DIY approach with his Weimaraner-Lab mix, obtained from the San Luis Obispo County Animal Shelter. Even though she didn’t receive any gun training until four years of age, Kirra is now 9 years old (63 in dog years), and a seasoned veteran with five years of retrieving under her collar and more than 300 birds.

In a short interview I asked my brother to give DIY gundog trainers some insight into training your own. Here’s what he had to say:

Kat: What was your approach to training?

Nate: Since we didn’t start birding until she was four, my approach was simple: I made retrieving birds an enjoyable game from the start and didn’t reprimand her in the field. Every time she did what was expected of her, I rewarded her with praise. For Kirra, praise was enough of a motivating factor, because it was a reward system we had established early on in her basic training and at home.

Kat: What was the best advice you got regarding the training of your dog?

Nate: You’re not hunting waterfowl for subsistence; so don’t take it too seriously.

Enjoy the time training and hunting with your little buddy, and make sure he/she enjoys the time as well.

Kat: What kind of tools did you use to train your dog?

Nate: Dummy dead birds (foam)…so that she would learn to recognize a dead bird’s silhouette on the water or in the field.

Kat: How did you train your dog to respond to voice and/or hand commands?

Nate: I would throw the dummy into tall grass, and when Kirra struggled to find the dummy, I would call her name, and hold up a left or right hand to pointer her in the right direction. I only ever gave her one command at a time so as not to cause confusion. By keeping the commands simple, and by practicing consistency and patience, it was very easy for Kirra to catch on. As a result, she has only ever lost 4 birds.

Kat: What was the biggest challenge in training your own dog?

Nate: Being consistent and calm on the hunt. When there is live action and you’re surrounded by other people also yelling, or giving hand commands, it can be easy to get caught up in the moment – and I had to constantly remind myself not to deviate from what we practiced.

Kat: What was the most rewarding part of training your own dog?

Nate: Having the satisfaction of being able to say that I trained her myself – and that she’s just as good of a retriever, if not better, than many of the papered pooches we’ve hunted with over the years. Plus the added bonus of having gotten to spend time along with someone as devoted to the sport as I am.

Kat: What are some tips/advice you would give others about training your own gundog?

Nate: #1 – If you’re picking from a litter, pick the one that’s sleeping in the back – when the others are running up to lick your face – he will be easier to train.

#2 – Strive for consistency in everything you do – including your tone of voice. If you are consistent at letting your dog ignore commands that is what he will learn if you are consistent in giving your dog praise when he retrieves, that is what he will expect if you find yourself consistently yelling you’ve screwed up.

#3 – Once you train one, help it to train the next prodigy.

#4 – Establish basic training (sit, stay, come, quiet) and build on that.

#5 – Set low expectations. Breeders invest a lot of time and money and expertise into their animals to create bloodlines that have a certain level of expectations attached. Rescues and accidental offspring may be genetically far removed from their hunting instincts. If you’re going to do it yourself, expect to have a lovely family pet, and hope to have a really great gun dog.

So there you have it. Whether you go the professional route or do-it-yourself – you better have one of two things – money or time. And with a 4 month old at home, I’m running short on both. So I guess the real question is…Nate…Dave…when are we going hunting?

Have Snausages, will travel.

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Kathy Dumalski lives in Southern California where she works as a marketing public relations professional and freelance writer. Kat is an avid outdoor enthusiast, saltwater angler, and huntress. Known to her friends as Kat, she is an active member of the National Wild Turkey Federation (San Diego Chapter), Pro-Staff member for Lucky Duck Premium Decoys and elected officer of the Lynwood Rod & Gun Club. She is only the 3rd female member of the 75-year old organization dedicated to trap, skeet and pot shooting. Kat specializes in long-distance shooting and manufactures her own ammunition to help her break clays at more than 100 yards away. Kat enjoys varmint, duck, goose, turkey and pheasant hunting.