Sporting Dog and Retriever Training the Wildrose Way, Part II: Start Early


By teaching Murph when his brain was still developing,
the author was able to “hard wire” the “sit” instinct.

photo by Tim Bronson

This is the second in a series of blogs looking at Sporting Dog and Retriever Training—The Wildrose Way, a book I worked on with Mike Stewart of Wildrose Kennels. It’s a remarkable book, and each week I’m going to touch on one aspect of the training. Last week, we introduced the blog and talked briefly about finding the right breeding. This week it’s about the first critical weeks.

People often ask me, “When should I start training my dog?” My answer is always, the second you acquire the pup. – Mike Stewart

The best book I’ve ever read on how dogs develop is Dogs: A New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior and Evolution by Raymond and Lorna Coppinger. In my humble opinion, this should be required reading for anyone who aspires to train a dog. While I learned a great deal from this book, the most important thing I came away with was the simple fact that a dog’s brain is fully developed by 16 weeks. It is during that first eight weeks from the time you get a puppy to the time it is 16 weeks old that offers the greatest opportunity to lay a foundation in that puppy for everything you want it to accomplish in life. This is your opportunity to actually shape its brain.

It’s remarkable how many people simply let a puppy do what it wants assuming when it gets older it will then be mature enough to train. In truth, by that time, you have lost the most beneficial time to train a dog—the time where you can make a desired behavior a built-in lifelong habit. Mike’s best analogy is, would you leave a child to its own devices with no discipline until it as old enough to go to school, and then simply send it to school and expect excellent results? A dog is no different.

In order to survive in the wild, wolf pups have to learn their life lessons almost immediately. While dogs don’t need this to survive as they have you, the owner, they are still wired to learn early, and here’s where it get’s tricky. As Mike states early and often, “A dog is always learning. Be careful what is taught.” Leave a puppy to its own devices and chances are you will get a rather independent dog with a mind of its own. Structure the learning early, and you can shape its behavior for life in a manner that is mutually beneficial.


All that early training paid off the first time Murph was exposed to live birds.

photo by Chip Laughton

A perfect example of this was my desire from the outset for Murphy to learn to sit to the flush and be steady to wing and shot (among many other things). Ordinarily, not an easy thing to teach. The day I got him, we began working on sit using the slip lead. A simple pull upwards, the “sit” command, and within a few days he was doing this well. (He was seven weeks old.) I soon added a tossed bumper to the sit command. Every time a bumper flew, he had to sit. I never let him retrieve it. That was not the point.

Eventually, over a two-year period, this advanced to sitting to the whistle with a flying bumper on lead, then sitting to the whistle to a flying bumper off lead, and eventually to just walking and throwing a bumper—or even better, a Frisbee—at which point he would sit automatically, no whistle needed. We did this hundreds of times, literally every time we were walking out to the field for training, and he never once got to retrieve it. More on that at a later date.

The moral of the story is the first time I did an actual walk-up hunt and he flushed a bird, he immediately sat until the bird was shot and looked to me waiting to hear his name, “Murph,” which is his command to go. It was an extraordinary moment simply because what many people consider a very tough thing to teach actually wasn’t. He had never been allowed to think differently. Something goes up, his butt hits the ground. The most important part is that I knew what I wanted him to learn and had a plan which was applied consistently and without exception. This method applied to other behaviors, as well.

The point is that these behaviors are not something he learned through trial and error, but behavior that was ingrained from the start, so that he knew no other. I’ve never used an e-collar to train Murphy, and this is the essence of training the Wildrose Way.

Next week we’ll look at one of the biggest mistakes people (myself included) make with retrievers and the best way to avoid it.

Paul Fersen is the Senior Managing Writer for the Orvis Company and worked with Mike Stewart as co-writer and editor for Sporting Dog and Retriever Training—The Wildrose Way.

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