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Guest Blog Post - Pat Nolan on Training Retriever Puppies

The following blog post was written by my friend, Pat Nolan. I'll be hosting Pat during my next Expert Insights Forum webinar on August 17th at 7:30pm Eastern. Pat will be sharing his experience in raising retriever puppies and preparing them for a career of campaigning at the highest level of retriever competition. I hope you enjoy this post as much as I did!

- Pat Burns


Imagine you are running an indented triple at a Master hunt test or All Age field trial. The long flyer shot first, followed by a short retired bird in the middle of the test, and then another long bird, deep and to the right, is thrown left. The instructions are that after you retrieve one mark you must run a blind that is deep and wide of the flyer.

Think about the demands on the running dogs. They need;

  • Self-Control

    • to wait off leash on-line while the birds are shot and thrown,

    • to shift attention from the flyer, the most exciting bird in the field, to the less exciting dead bird throws.

  • Good Working Memory

    • to remember the location of the throws,

    • to deliver the blind retrieve and then to turn their attention back to the marks, remember their location, and retrieve them one at a time,

  • Mental Flexibility

    • to focus on each bird as it is thrown and then to shift attention to the next mark,

    • to switch gears from independently retrieving the marks on their own and willingly taking direction to the distant unseen fall of the blind retrieve.

No matter how much your dog wants to retrieve, no matter how talented he is, to be successful the dog must have good working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control. Collectively, these traits are referred to as the executive functions of the brain.

Why Start Training Your Young Puppy? In humans, evidence shows that having well developed executive function is a better predictor of success in life than possessing high IQ. Puppies, like humans, are not born with these skills fully functional but they are born with the potential to develop them. The work you do to develop these skills in your puppy will pay dividends the rest of her life in training and competition.

I raised one or two puppies a year during my 30 years as a professional retriever trainer. I have learned from each pup. Over the years I studied successful retriever trainers, European dog sport trainers, horse trainers and wild animal trainers. I am not a scientist, but I have studied research on learning and animal/human cognition.

The following three videos are examples of how my training has developed to emphasize these skills.


In this video, I am helping this 9-week-old puppy learn self-control. By the end of this training session Blaze is doing a sit stay, 5 feet from me, off leash, near a food distraction.

Learning to be steady, teaching selection, resisting poison birds, and staying in the water are all easier to teach a puppy that has previously learned a high degree of self-control.


In this video, this puppy is lining to three targets. Learning to remember multiple destinations is a powerful skill for a hunt test or field trial competitor.

MENTAL FLEXIBILTY This pup can shift his focus from a thrown mark to lining to an objective. He is learning to perform a mark and blind combination and learning the relationships those retrieves have to one another.

By 12-weeks of age, puppies can have a good start on many of the skills they will use as a competitive retriever, but most importantly, a great start on developing the mental skills of self-control, working memory, and mental flexibility. These skills will benefit your puppy for the rest of his life.

Seven Benefits of Early Puppy Training Early training and exposure is much more than “starting sooner and getting in more repetitions.” It is opening up the pathways in the brain that make your puppy a more engaged training partner.

Following is a partial list of the benefits from properly structured early training. Experience working with numerous puppies, over the last 40 years, has proven this to me. Scientific research on puppies, rats, and other mammals supports these findings.

  1. Your pup will have an improved memory later in life.

  2. Early training opens pathways in the brain for later experience to build on.

  3. Exposure to specific tasks during early development has proven to be beneficial in performing similar tasks later in life.

  4. Puppies that are exposed to early training have an increased capacity to learn new information later in life.

  5. Your pup will love to train and learn new skills.

  6. Your pup will be better prepared to handle stress in training and in life.

  7. Your pup will be a better problem solver later in life.


Pat Burns and Pat Nolan will be discussing early puppy training at a

webinar on August 17. Although the live webinar is sold out,

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