I'm truly blessed at this point in my career. I get to travel the country meeting folks at every level of the retriever training game. I get to share my love of the sport and hopefully help people in their journey to better themselves and their dog.
And while I love getting to celebrate the successes of my students, I also see the struggles. Almost every week, someone comes to me with a training problem that they’d like me to help them work through. Whether the dog is struggling with a fundamental or advanced concept, I quickly try to evaluate the dog and learn what the handler has already tried in training. Once we dive into problem-solving, I’ll start to notice little things that aren’t quite right.
I was recently teaching a workshop that had a promising young dog that was just going through basics. His handler requested that we work on 3-handed casting. The dog seemed to understand some casting, but when it would bring back the bumper, his owner would struggle to get him sitting directly in front of her. This resulted in a lot of excess movement, and time, trying to get the dog set up for the next rep. The more she fussed with him, the more animated he got. Soon, we were spending more time trying to get the dog to sit still than we were on teaching the drill!
Clearly, the pup needed a bit of an obedience refresher, so we worked diligently over the next few days to clean up the dog’s delivery, sitting, mouth issues, etc. Once we got that cleaned up, we were able to move onto casting.
But here’s where the real problem surfaced.
When the dog made a few casting mistakes in a row, he started refusing to go when given another cast. Remember, the GO, STOP and COME are non-negotiable, so we corrected the dog for the no-go and re-casted to the pile. The dog became animated and started to come back to his handler instead of going to the pile to fetch a bumper. We quickly got the dog sitting again, and re-issued the cast. He again started to come in without fetching a bumper.
We saw this behavior several times over the next couple of days, and it became obvious that the dog was not properly force fetched because he did not understand how to appropriately react to a fetch correction.
And this is the biggest problem I see! Here we were, trying to get a dog through a drill that he clearly was not ready for. He did not have the foundation in place to successfully run this drill, and therefore was receiving unfair corrections when he simply didn’t understand what we were trying to communicate.
And folks - it's not about a specific drill! Bombproof Basics is not a matter of your dog being able to run a collection of drills - but instead, does your dog understand the principles of what that drill was meant to teach them?
Currently, one of my favorite books is Raise Your Game by Alan Stein Jr. Alan is a performance coach and author, and he’s had many amazing opportunities in his career, including the chance to work with Basketball Legend Kobe Bryant. Here is one of the most impactful excerpts from his book:
I got to the gym around 3:30 a.m., so of course, it was pitch black outside. But as soon as I stepped out of the cab, I could see the gym light was already on. And I even heard a ball bouncing and sneakers squeaking. I quietly walked in the side door and Kobe was already in a full sweat. He was going through an intense warm‑up before the real workout started. I grabbed a seat, didn’t say a word to him or his trainer, and just watched.
For forty-five minutes I was shocked. For forty-five minutes I watched the best player in the world do the most basic drills. I watched the best player on the planet do basic ball-handling drills.
I watched the best player on the planet do basic footwork.
I watched the best player on the planet do basic offensive moves.
Granted, he did everything with surgical precision and superhero intensity, but the stuff he was doing was so basic. I simply couldn’t believe it.
Later that day I went over to him. “Thanks again,” I said, “I really enjoyed watching your workout this morning.”
“No problem,” Kobe replied.
Then I hesitated, not to sound rude—or worse—condescending. “You’re the best player in the world, why do such basic stuff?”
He flashed that gleaming smile of his. “Why do you think I’m the best player in the game?” he asked. “Because I never get bored with the basics.”
He knew that if his footwork was not razor-sharp, then the rest of the move would never be as good as it could be. And he knew that the only way to do that was through sheer repetition. Kobe had such an understanding of building things step by step, brick by brick; he worshipped at the altar of the basics. If someone at Kobe’s level needs to commit hours to practicing the fundamentals, then so do all of us. Kobe taught me a pivotal lesson that morning. The basics are simple, but not easy. If they were easy, everyone would do them.
The dog I mentioned that was struggling with 3-handed casting is not unique - this happens to many people. When we get in a hurry to complete a dog’s basics, or worse, fail to ensure the dog has an understanding of the true principles of the drill, we are setting him up for failure. Most of the training problems I encounter during my workshops stem from incomplete or poor fundamental training. I’ve met wildly talented dogs that are truly handicapped by their early training.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Creating resilience and mental toughness doesn’t happen by chance. It starts with baby steps early in basics and is developed over time. The outcome is a well-rounded student that is prepared for the inevitable highs and lows that lie ahead. It is a beautiful thing to see. A confident dog that doesn’t fall apart when things get tough.
In order to give your dog the best foundation possible, you must “read between the lines”. It is not nearly good enough to get your dog running through the motions of each drill. Instead, he must come away from each lesson with a thorough understanding of exactly what that drill was meant to teach him. Ask yourself: what skills does the dog need to come away with? Does the dog truly understand what that drill was meant to teach him?
Invest the time in a solid basics program. It will pay off for your dog’s entire career.
My passion is traveling the country and helping students develop their hunt test and field trial dogs. In an effort to expand my reach, I’m offering several digital learning opportunities in the next month. I hope you can join me!
FREE Mini-Course - The Wagon Wheel Lining Drill - Improve subtle communication with your dog and increase your ability to precisely and accurately maneuver him on line. The course consists of 3 modules and we’ll cover the basic through the advanced version of this drill. Registration runs from August 1-8th, and the course is live on August 9th. Don't miss out!
FREE Purina Masterclass - Pat Burns & Ray Voigt - "The Long Haul"
The biggest challenge in a dog's career is the long journey from transition-level training to becoming a competitive All-Age dog. The "rules" of training a young dog are black and white - but All-Age training is the world of grey. Ray and I will discuss this incredibly tough road - you won't want to miss this!
Join us on Tuesday, August 17th at 7:30 EST - Only on Zoom! Can’t make it? No problem! Once you register through ZOOM, you will automatically receive the recording.