I received an interesting question today over on the Labrador Site.
A commenter had just read Keith Erlandson’s book ‘Gundog Training’ published in 1976.
He notes that Keith includes a warning to never begin gundog training before six months of age, and suggests eight months as the right time to begin.
This gundog owner was quite naturally worried that he may have started his own puppy off too young and done some harm in the process
Starting at eight months
Keith Erlandson was of course a brilliant gundog trainer and a good writer. I and many others learned a great deal from his books.
I stuck to the practice of leaving my puppies untouched until around eight months of age right up until around ten years ago, when I started experimenting with some aversive free training techniques.
This article is about why I changed the age at which I start training puppies, and why I believe it is ok for you to start training your young puppy too if you want to. With certain provisos.
Spaniels and hunting drive
Keith Erlandson was a distinguished and successful spaniel trainer. Like most successful gundog trainers he trained many breeds of dog, but spaniels were his thing. Keith’s forte was to produce spaniels that would be successful in competition. A competitive spaniel is not just judged on his steadiness and retrieving ability. He is also judged on his hunting speed and style.
Hunting game in order to flush rather than to retrieve is of course the spaniel’s primary role, and for many years it was believed that early discipline would inhibit a spaniel’s will to hunt.
However, it is becoming increasingly clear that this is not such a great risk as was once thought.
You can read more about this issue in this article: Hunting versus heelwork for spaniels. The essence of the article is that provided the young puppy is also given plenty of opportunity to explore and hunt in different types of terrain, he is most unlikely to abandon hunting just because you teach him to walk to heel at five months old.
Retrieving drive and desire
It is my belief that the desire to retrieve is more precarious than the desire to hunt.
Working strain gundogs have been bred for many generations with retrieving desire in mind and most working retrievers and spaniels come pre-packaged with some desire to chase and pick up a thrown or moving object.
But, this desire varies greatly in strength from one dog to another and is often vulnerable.
I think of retrieving desire as resembling a little flame. Nurtured with tiny twigs and kindling it soon grows into a full grown blaze, but throw a log on this little flame before it is a proper fire, and the flame will be extinguished.
The concern of professional gundog trainers both in Keith’s time and today, is that too much repetitive retrieving practice with young puppies, especially too much steadiness, will snuff out the desire to retrieve.
And this is still a valid concern.
However, it needn’t stop you training your puppy at a young age, provided that you arm yourself with the right information.
There are articles on this website about the importance of building retrieving desire carefully and not instilling steadiness too young. You can find out more on this page: Building and maintaining retrieving desire in your gundog
Changing methods in gundog training
There is no doubt that gundog training methods have changed a lot since the 1970s. When I first began spaniel training thirty-five years ago, slapping, scruff-shaking and worse, were common practice.
The training process was a tough one for the young dog. Advice to hold off on this process until the puppy was mature, was sound. Using a lot of physical punishment and intimidation on a young puppy was quite rightly considered inappropriate.
And so puppies were not started on their training until they were mentally tough enough to be able to cope with the ‘corrections’ that were inherent in the process.
Nowadays things are different. Especially with retrievers. It is quite possible to train a retriever to a very high standard indeed with an absolute minimum of aversives.
Many trainers are benefitting from an increasingly widespread understanding of how dogs learn, and how to train using predominantly rewards rather than corrections. Spaniel work can be more challenging in this respect, but even here, many trainers have changed their methods somewhat over the years.
Taking it slowly
In some cases these modern techniques take longer to get results. In 1970 a trainer might start his spaniel at eight months and be shooting over him within six months. This would be difficult to achieve without using much in the way of corrections.
A professional gundog trainer even today, is often under pressure to produce results quickly. But many ordinary gundog owners are happy to take a bit longer over their training and to use less punishment. And one of the key advantages of these more gentle techniques is that there is no real minimum age limit when training can or should begin, provided that care is taken to maintain a happy attitude in the puppy and to avoid crushing his drive to retrieve.
Just because you can
Of course just because you can, does not necessarily mean you ‘should’. A three month old puppy can be taught to sit, lie down, and many other ‘tricks’ in a basic way.
But he is still a puppy and easily distracted. Just because it is possible to do so, does not necessarily mean you should feel under any obligation to begin training at this early stage.
Puppies’ attention span
And bear in mind that the earlier you start, the more slowly you must progress. A three month old puppy may be able to sit in your kitchen for ten seconds, but it will be a long time before she can sit quietly in a field whilst other dogs race around fetching dummies.
A puppy’s attention span is very short and if you push on too fast (as will be the temptation if you start very young) you will set your puppy up to fail. Which would be a great shame.
If you follow my blog about my new labrador puppy Rachael, who is three months old this week, you will see that I have taught her very little, except to love the sound of the recall whistle and to associate it with the act of running towards me. I have done a little bit of retrieving with her too, and made progress with housetraining. But that is it.
I could have done a lot more, but I am in no hurry.
So whilst I no longer put off training a dog until it is eight months old, neither do I carry out much formal training before four or five months of age.
Your situation is unique
What you decide to do will depend on your personal circumstances. I am guessing that Keith Erlandson did not have to walk the kids to school with a six month old spaniel in tow. If your dog lives in the home with you, rather than in a kennel, you are going to have to do a certain amount of training in order for your dog to fit into the rhythm of family life.
If your dogs are kennelled like my spaniels are, then you don’t have to worry so much about making a start in training because your dogs will not be influenced by other members of the family, or by having to lead walk outside of training sessions.
If you want to ‘trial’ your dogs then you need to take care to maintain hunting drive and speed. If you want to shoot over your dogs or pick up with them, then you will need to cherish and nurture that retrieving desire. Go easy on the steadiness and don’t introduce it until your puppy is retrieving with panache!
Teaching your puppy to sit, and even to walk to heel at four or five months old, using modern and positive methods is not likely to be in conflict with those aims. Just remember to keep it fun, upbeat, and to enjoy yourselves.
How about you
Do you start training your pups at an early age or are you a bit more traditional in approach? Share your views in the comments box below.