HR Kwick Draw McGraw SH
One of the most common problems with the hunting retriever is "steadiness". The prevalent
philosophy of retriever training is to use a proven sequential program. Teaching skills and harnessing instincts is most efficiently accomplished by using a program developed by skilled trainers that are excellent writers/teachers. However, the most popular programs today are geared for competition. The assumption is that these programs will teach the same skills needed for a hunting retriever.

However, the idea that a skill building program's training will translate to excellent hunting is why the "wheels often fall off". For example, the "Sit....means sit." concept is often glossed over when a trainer ignores providing the depth demanded by "proofing", i.e. actual hunting (new situations).

In addition, advancing a young dog through "transition" to learn how to run cold blinds is now a well thought out process while the "transition" to hunting is all too often a "wing and a prayer approach". Hunting is more about exposure and just not the same thing as following a proven, modern retriever training program.

To be more poignant, most will agree that even advanced hunt test titles will not guarantee any dog will be instantly at home on a hunt. The problem comes down to two choices 1) learn by following a "hunting transition program" or 2) doing it "on the job". Whichever approach is selected should have a strong rationale, but what transpires is often driven by owner convenience rather than the needs of their dog. Why not make it easier for the dog by developing a seamless   process? Well, the simple explanation for that is it takes more time. Everyone is in a hurry.

It is often said that dogs are situational learners. To adhere to dealing with the previous perspective, there are two alternative training approaches. The first believes that once retrieving skills are in place,  the dog can go directly to the field. Essentially it becomes a learn by doing process (i.e. learn on the job). The second is to work with the dog while training by doing "many"  simulated hunting situations so as to create a more seamless transition. 

The problem with "learning on the job" is the unpredictability of each hunting experience. Using variable situations to develop precise expectations is very "iffy". The resultant lack of predictable repetition causes "training while hunting" to be rather inefficient. A common and seemingly simple solution is "leave your gun at home" and let your "buddies" do the shooting. Then what?

Personally, I have found that a very large number of dog owners do NOT have an abundance of places to hunt (let alone large numbers of wild ducks to use in training situations) and/or "buddies" that don't have dogs that will be more than willing to let them train a young they attempt to hunt.
  To put this page in my perspective, I hunt alone 99% of the time. This means when I take my youngest, most inexperienced retriever on their first duck or goose hunt.....they must be ready to be steady. This means they must learn "the ropes" in training and experience (as similar as  possible) the "real thing" in a very "seamless" process. These hunting skills must be introduced and become ingrained expectations prior to hitting the duck blind.  

What makes it seamless? Here's the list.

1) I use a Carr based sequential program as the foundation. What drives my present retriever training is the additional philosophy of pro trainer Julie Knutson. There are five factors to consider in training a balanced retriever - responsiveness, control, focus, "birdiness" and retrieving. The first three are abstract and often difficult to quantify. Generally, the out of balance dog is usually the result of too much focus on "birdiness" and/or retrieving laced with not enough OB. This includes "real" hunting OB. Then again, It is fairly obvious to watch a dog that has been "over drilled" on OB. Maintaining balance is often not part of the equation. Is it any wonder true steadiness in all situations often becomes an issue?

                                                      "The Awakening" (Link)

The primary rationale of any training session is to maintain balance. Many of my training setups focus on enhancing responsiveness, control and/or focus....the "stuff" that makes for an excellent hunting companion.  When a dog begins to "make mistakes" they can be "explained and isolated" within one or two of the five factors.

It is proactive to properly introduce the gun as part of training. With the exception of those that train regularly in the HRC testing format, this just does not happen often enough. That training is an excellent process when preparing a dog for hunting.

2) Sit,,,,means sit! Down.....means down! and Place.....means place! These are proofed on a regular basis in simulated, fun "hunting" setups......often.....and early on. A "steadying process" of Pat Nolan's has proven to be very useful. The "ready, set, go" and "launching pad" issues are avoided. Correction and enforcement schemes for remaining steady in all situations are established. The expectations (what to do and how it will be enforced) are well ingrained. 
                                                        Hide Steady Drill (Link)
Steady Drill Session (Link)
                                                   Place Board Training Pictorial  
Puppy "Placeboard" Imprinting
                                                       Patience "photos" (Link)  

3) Each pup is trained to sit for many different situations (early on) a) when they see a flushed bird or one in the air, b) upon hearing a short whistle, c) when I stop as they are walking beside me and d) most importantly when hearing any shot. In essence, there are four "visual or auditory cues" that mean default to sit and/or don't move. All of these are proofed profusely.
                                                     A Shot of Steadiness (Link)
  Steadiness To Flush (Link)

4) All four of my dogs were thoroughly ingrained with steadiness expectations by working many "Euro" shoots. There are unbelievable numbers of pheasants and non-stop gun fire. Each dog had their own area to retrieve. The instinct overload is amazing. Try running a blind when there are other pheasants falling, cripples flopping and running all over with multiple shots being fired. It was not unusual to make 50+ retrieves in one shoot.

                                                           Daisy's Blonhaven "Euro" Shoot "Link)
Kooly's "Euro" Shoot (Link)

5) Training setups are designed to reproduce the "pace" (lots of doing nothing) of an actual hunt......often.                        The Long Wait Drill (YouTube (Link)

6) My pups do not go hunting until they are well into transition (can handle). This is probably the most significant choice. I can do this easily because of having older dogs which eliminates the need to "rush things". Pups don't go until they are truly ready which includes being able to run cold blinds (they are more mature).
                                                  Gunny's First Duck Hunt (Link)

                                                                       Gunny's First Ducks (link)
7) The pup is trained often (lots of reps) with walk-ups beside a shooting gunner.
                                    Gunny's "Kwick Walk About" Drill - YouTube (Link)
                                     Gunny's Spring Training Session - YouTube (Link)

8) The pup is trained often (lots of reps) beside a stationary gunner and/or in a hide at various distances using an HRC "line" with a popper gun, real ducks, calling and bucket. They see "live flyers", too. It is a common training ploy. Many, many pups rarely see a gunner working from their side.....until it is too late.
                                                    "marking off the gun" (Link)

9) The pup is completely comfortable (responsible) for being steady in remote positions (including honoring with other dogs). Refer back to point number #5.     

       Gunny's Demanding "Training Alone" Steadiness Prep for his 1st AKC Senior Test (YouTube)

Gunny's hunt test progression began earlier. For example, Gunny was run in two Started HRC tests for two reasons. The first was it would provide ten HRC hunt test points. He would need forty points for an HRC Seasoned title which three Seasoned passes would supply. And finally, four Finished passes would give him another sixty more points for the one hundred needed for an HRCH title. However, the critical reason for training in this manner was to closely simulated hunting/testing over a longer period of time. Ingrained hunting expectations are not a two week drill and testing is a lengthy process.  

I decided to run his last HRC Started test gunning at the line. The rationale was to test hunting steadiness early on in his training. There was quite a bit of flack from the other entrants. The rules state the dog can be held by the collar to steady. The general murmur was "It's your money. Why waste it when you don't have to?" The judge was not all that thrilled either because he had to run through the entire gun safety lecture.

I would have been very surprised if he had broke because he was "ready to be steady". The judge was complimentary and no one else said a thing. The concept of "He was ready" should be the driving force behind training....if hunting is to be a final focus. In my opinion, when it is time to go hunting the dog should be ready.....NOT staked out with the idea of "Let's see how things go from here" because we are not prepared.     

In another vein, it is not unusual to observe huge swings in training philosophies. Years ago, it was generally considered "poor form" to steady a pup too early. The belief was it stifled drive. Now it is the "new cool thing"......if you do it correctly and have skills.

This next link demonstrates the abilities of a skilled hunting retriever to adjust in new situations. Distance often erodes control, but because distance (from the handler to the dog) is vastly different in training alone situations, the negatives of distance are often reduced. Dogs that train remotely are at ease and responsive following directions from afar. It is one thing to ask your dog to be steady/responsive when they are sitting right next to you and another entirely "different ballgame" when in a remote hide 125 yards away hunting in unfamiliar terrain.
                                                          "The Retrieve" (Link)

In conclusion, there are considerations to be made when using this approach.....especially if having a hunting retriever is an early, primary priority. Getting a dog ready to run a derby or prepare for field trials is probably way too much of a compromise. Putting an MH on the dog
at two years old may be a bit ambitious. In reality, there are no shortcuts in developing the
steady skills required for a hunting or competitive retriever......but there are choices.   

"Plan Ahead" is an excellent motto......................and being proactive requires awareness. 

                    update: Below is a recently "discovered" and very pertinent video link.
                                The copy write is 2011 and I have permission to post it.

           My High Drive Dog Will Never Settle and Be Calm, What Can I Do? by Michael Ellis

                                                                                                      updated 01/04/14