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Treats and training

cupcakeI've read innumerable books and magazine articles on training bird dogs. Some of them are exceptional; try Bill Tarrant's Tarrant Trains Gun Dogs if you want no-nonsense methods that work. Some of them are best used to line your pup's kennel. But one lesson that is virtually a constant among these legions of instruction is that you should avoid using food to reward your dog for doing a good job. Praise him, pet him, hug him, let him ride in the front seat of the truck, but don't feed him. Make him work from his heart, not his stomach.

Over the last four years, my Brittany has resisted every loving effort to get him to fetch. He'll run all day and hold a point past sunset, but he won't bring a bird back to me. To date, I've avoided force-breaking simply because I fear that instead of breaking him to fetch, it may break his desire to hunt. He's never responded well to strong-arm tactics, and I hate to introduce that kind of demeanor into something that he loves so much. But the rewards of a gentle hand aren't always material and I still had a dog that wouldn't fetch. Not a stick, not a dummy, not a tennis ball, and definitely not a bird.

Over the last four years, my Brittany has resisted every loving effort to get him to fetch
A wise man once said, "Open your eyes and ears and all of the answers will be there." So being out of options, yet determined to finish a job I considered incomplete, I began to watch my dog for clues to his psyche. I wanted to know what motivated him. And I didn't have to look hard to find a one-word answer: food.

Not long ago, I got in the habit of giving him a treat whenever I went out to my workshop. The treats sat on top of a refrigerator used to store beer and age birds, and whenever I opened the shop door, he scooted past my feet and sat at the refrigerator door, looking expectantly upward.

For months now, the treat box has been empty, yet every time I open the door to the shop, he scoots past me and sits at the base of that refrigerator. Like clockwork, no exceptions. Which pretty much summarizes the way I'd like him to fetch.

So I went against the grain and set about using food to teach my dog to fetch. We started at a very basic level, using a wooden buck and only working a few minutes a day, sometimes skipping a day or two. I hid a few treats in my pocket, took him in the back yard and let him chase me around a bit to get him excited, then threw the buck and yelled "Fetch!" as I pointed at it. Needless to say, this didn't work right off the bat. He'd run to the buck, even pick it up now and then, but he wouldn't bring it back. Faced with this problem, I modified my approach.

We moved the sessions to a corner of the yard, which narrowed his exit routes. Starting as close as five feet to the fence, I placed him at heel, tossed the buck, and told him to fetch. To my surprise, he bounded over, picked up the buck, and turned to face me. At this point I made a split-second decision that proved to be a good one. I quickly walked toward him, placed my hand under his mouth and told him to "drop". He did, I immediately gave him a treat, and he was hooked.

We did this only one time that day, returning the next afternoon to repeat the lesson. Again we went through the ritual only once, but this time I let him take a step or two toward me with the buck. I coaxed him with voice and arm; he stopped after a step or two and lowered his head as though he was going to drop the buck, so I stepped in and took it from him as I said "drop". And immediately rewarded him with a treat.

He began to catch on to the routine, and in successive lessons, we increased the distance between ourselves and progressed from one fetch to four. Same rules: bring the buck back, get a treat, no buck, no treat. He started seeing this as a game with food involved and accordingly got very excited when he saw me pick up the buck. At this stage, I introduced a frozen whole quail (feathers and all). After a couple of fetches with the buck, I'd throw the quail and run through exactly the same routine. Initially, he didn't want to bring the bird back, just as with the buck, but soon he acquiesced and we were again on track.

Taking treats out of the equation

Obviously, it would be quite impractical to carry enough treats into the field to reward every bird fetched. But how to wean him so that he keeps fetching even without the reward? It was much easier than I thought it would be. In progressive fashion, I went from rewarding every fetch to rewarding every other fetch, and eventually to rewarding only one fetch per session. Make sure you praise him every time, though, so he's getting something for his effort. When he was fetching consistently regardless of whether he received a treat, I began backing the treat out of the sessions altogether. Occasionally, I'll still slip a treat in there, just for good measure, but most sessions involve praise as the only reward.

Now that we've overcome that hurdle, we'll look forward to hunting season, which starts in a couple of weeks. Stay tuned for part two of this article, which will detail how well this training translates into actual field work. If anyone has had experiences related to treat training, I'd love to hear about them. E-mail me and I'll include your comments in the next installment.

Read part two of this article, Trick or Treat, which discusses how the training translated to actual field work during the season.

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