Dennis Anderson

Dennis Anderson has been a Star Tribune outdoors columnist since 1993, before which, for 13 years, he held the same position at the Pioneer Press. He enjoys casting and shooting. Dogs, too, and horses. Also kids and, occasionally, crusading in his column for improved conservation.

Retriever training is a summer-long exercise — are electric collars really needed?

Posted by: Dennis Anderson under Equipment Updated: June 9, 2009 - 10:18 AM
I was at Cabela's in Rogers over the weekend and stumbled onto the dog training section. The presence there of so many electronic dog training collars only confirmed what most people in the retrieving game already know: that most owners of field retrievers today use these collars for training.
In fact, most hunters now go into the shooting field with electronic collars on their retrievers?

Is this really necessary? Or is it a shortcut that now has become the norm — in part because "everyone is doing it'' and in part because many of the retrievers bred in America today need a collar so as to fashion some sort of control over what often are unruly and hyperactive dogs — and need a collar also because of the nature of our field trials and even hunt tests?

A distinction here: I'm not talking about pointing dogs, which for many and varied reasons are trained today, as they have been for decades, using electronic collars. The topic today is only retrievers.

The difference is important not only because retrievers and pointers (or setters) are different types of dogs used for different purposes. Additionally, retrievers and pointers (and setters) have different temperaments and the proper leverage of those temperaments by the trainer is critical to achieving a particular animal's full usefulness.

To those who would argue that an electronic collar is required to train today's retrievers, I would point them to Great Britain, and in fact all of the European countries, where the electronic collar is all but outlawed, and in any case frowned upon in knowledgeable sporting dog circles.

It's in Britain, for example, where Labradors and other retrievers are required to sit quietly for up to an hour while a driven shoot is conducted — a shoot in which hundreds of rounds might be fired (granted, most drives today are smaller than that). During this time, the dog can't so much as whimper or, during a trial, he is eliminated. Similarly, the dog can't move and in fact can't show nervousness or come up off his haunches.

"Breaking,'' or running in, during a drive (or during a walkup) is, of course, out of the question.

Additionally, when these dogs are sent for retrieves, they are required to ignore game in the field that they flush (pheasants, grouse, rabbits, hares, woodcock, snipe) while continuing to the area of the "fall,'' whereupon, if necessary, they must stop upon being whistled by their handlers and take directions to the left, right or back.

If all of this can be accomplished without an electronic collar, then why are the collars so popular here?

Three reasons, I would submit.

One is that it has become the norm, and retriever owners here now expect that a collar should be used.

A second is that American field trials (certainly) require the use of a collar, because corrections must be made at such great distances. Similarly, hunt tests today, particularly at the master level, require — because of the way they're structured — long-distance corrections.

The third reason is that in America we've been breeding so many generations of Labradors now that are capable of taking the collar in their training (particularly the harsher uses associated with the early generation collars, and particularly when collars are used by amateurs unfamiliar with their use and misuse) that we now produce dogs that often can't be trained, or controlled, without a collar — particularly in those instances in which the amateur is unwilling to put in the time necessary to train a retriever "the old way,'' meaning with a leash.

This way also means putting in time obedience-training a dog for months and months, and delaying the time that a dummy is thrown for a retriever, or other field training is begun.

Good examples of what can be accomplished can be found in seeing eye dogs and helping dogs, both of which are trained extremely well in terms of their obedience. Hunters could accomplish the same result, if only they took time to appreciate what can be accomplished without an electronic collar — assuming the same hunters have a training plan they understand, and stick to it.

Best this summer for those retriever owners who have young dogs six to 10 months of age is that they train and re-train "Sit,'' "Stay,'' "Come,'' and "Heel,'' over and over. Only when the dog has learned these lessons should he begin field training.

Keep this in mind: Commonly in Britain, a retriever is not taken into a shooting field until he is fully trained, meaning, trained to take hand and whistle signals at distances of 100 yards and more.

More on this subject in subsequent posts.


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