First Season Expectations of Your Sporting Dog

Featuring: Mark Fulmer | Sarahsetter Kennel

Opening Day is what we wait for all year long. It’s the start of the best time of the year. We gather with family, friends, and most importantly, our dogs. Some of us run covers and fields while others sit in boats and blinds by a pond, lake, or river. No greater joy comes from watching a pup develop in his first season. It’s important to have realistic first season expectations, and here’s what pro staffer Mark Fulmer of Sarahsetter Kennel has to say. Fulmer’s advice applies to retrievers, bird dogs, flushing dogs, and versatile dogs alike.

Every Dog is Unique
“Dogs develop differently,” Fulmer said. “Their breed and genetics play important parts, but so does their socialization and training. We all want “jam-on” dogs, especially if they are our first, but the simple fact is that some dogs come along faster than others. It’s important for handlers to watch their pup’s progress and to build it gradually. Young pups don’t have the stamina of mature dogs. They don’t have the long focus and attention of older, wiser dogs. Take your pup’s development into account. Assess his abilities and make sure what you ask of him is appropriate. For instance, asking a young retriever to make multiple blinds might be a lot. Asking him to make repetitive retrieves in cold water with strong current might be too much. Determine your dog’s abilities before you ask him to do something. The more positive results he gets, the more he’ll want to do it again.”

Less is More
“Time in the fields and water is where I see a number of young handlers make mistakes. Training time with pups and young dogs should always be short and regular. The short training time enables them to focus on the given command and to do it properly before moving on. Repetitions make the master, so frequent reps help young dogs get into a rhythm of what is expected. Those two principles should be maintained during hunting season. Young bird dogs that run too hard get tired, lose focus, and make mistakes. Young retrievers that are asked to do too many marks and blinds also get tired, lose focus, and make mistakes. Plan their daily workload based on their abilities. For young dogs, shorter duration across time is a proven winner.”

Teach Dogs to Be Under Control
“Working with young dogs can test a handler’s nerves, but it’s important to be patient with them. Young dogs are very excitable, so think about that. Isn’t it great to have an excited dog? That’s the one that can’t wait to get out of his kennel and get to work. But calming him down so he’s under control is critical. Handlers who can calm young dogs with gentle strokes and pats, who praise them when they do the right thing, and use a stern, deliberate voice for correction (no yelling, please) help young dogs calm down. If the young dog is supercharged, walk him around on a lead and heel him. Go through other basic commands like come, stay, and—especially for retrievers—sit, and praise them. Release the dog to work when he’s exhibited the kind of control and discipline he showed you during training sessions.”

Have Fun with Them
“The first year should be fun. You should expect mistakes, and you should expect performances that are less than stellar. That is part of the process that turns young dogs into seasoned veterans. A handler’s attitude is key, so help pups learn from their mistakes. Take time out of a hunt to work on the details and to make midseason corrections. Do them when the pup is young, and you’ll have an all-star for the rest of his life. Ignore them now, and you’ll be at odds with your pup for years. You’re a team, for better or worse. The handler’s job is to make worse better, and that starts with having fun.”

Dogs are only young once, and those first few years are formative. This season, set realistic expectations for your young dogs, and the rest will fall into place. It always does, and that’s the joy of sporting dogs.