Back To (Old) School

Back to school season is upon us for all of the students in our household. The human kids are anxiously awaiting their class schedules and teacher assignments to compare notes. This year we have a second child heading to junior high, leaving just one in elementary school.

Our puppylove is also advancing in his education. After several obedience classes and tons of home schooling it is time get serious about retriever training. Although my husband has worked considerably on getting him started, and he does a beautiful retrieve in the yard with his rope toy and his frisbee, there is so much important work to do that we decided to consult a professional.

I find myself in an odd place as a dog owner. Compared to some of my friends and other dog owners I am hands down a dog expert and could start a consulting business to help them raise their companions. But compared to serious dog trainers, hunters, breeders and other professionals I realize I have a lot of gaps to fill with knowledge.

It took awhile, but online searches yielded a professional retriever trainer located not too far from our house. As we are on the edge of the Chicago suburbs it becomes rural quickly, and I know both my husband I feel like we are at home again, back to our roots, as the strip malls and four lane roads of the suburbs change to tree-lined rural roads lined with corn fields and horse farms.

We arrived at the trainer’s home and found him training a young black labrador female on water retrieves. She was one of many young labs that were staying with him for training, which was familiar to me as my father had sent a few of his dogs away for special training.Ithink of it as doggie boarding school. Watching her felt like home, her beautiful head bobbing up and down as she worked her way through the water, grabbing the white dummy, turning around, and heading back to shore.

We took Jackson from his travel crate and the trainer’s first words were “oh, he’s a conformation bred lab”. We explained his lineage and that he was the pup of a conformation bred father and a field bred mother. After a discussion about weight and his stockiness (in which we explained that he had plumped up over the summer and we were working on reducing his girth) I got the impression that he was being judged as a pretty boy instead of a retriever ready to spend a day in a duck blind or flushing pheasants. In all honesty, I am not sure that judgement was wrong.

We worked on some basic obedience, talking about the positive reinforcement training we have done for the last year at our obedience school. The trainer confirmed what I’ve known deep down all along. Jax knows what to do when we say a command, but he does not really understand the command. He understands he will get a treat for doing what we ask, but he is only performing the command for the treat, not because he really truly gets it. I have felt this deep down the whole time we have been training and it felt good to actually admit it to myself and to my husband.

Jax had also never been exposed to live birds as a pup. The trainer removed a dead pigeon from his freezer and tossed it several feet away. Jax ran over excitedly, sniffed the bird with great interest, his thick otter tail wagging wildly. After a short time he walked away, no longer interested in the bird. “Well,” I thought, “he is a fine figure of a conformation lab.”

After receiving incredible pointers and what was essentially a homework assignment we mentioned that Jax had very little exposure to water. A few minutes later we stood at the edge of their pond, long lead in one hand, dummy in the other. The trainer tossed the dummy into his lake, Jax ran into the water, reached the section where his feet no longer touched, and came right back to shore. My mind went to visions of Jax in a show ring with a woman in an evening gown peering at his teeth and ears.

Eventually we found a way to get Jax to swim from a small island in the lake to the shore, back and forth about ten times. Still attached to the long lead and with three adults ready to leap in case he got into trouble, he was uncertain about the experience but he did it. By the last few times he entered without hesitation. As an overly protective dog momma I nearly jumped in to his rescue during his very first swim when his entire head went under water for a brief part of a second. I’m sure I did not breathe until he popped up and started swimming for shore.

We brought home a soaking wet, muddy, fishy smelling worn out labrador. My heart was full of joy as I recalled those moments watching him in his breed’s element. Each time Jax reached the shore my husband, kids, the trainer and I cheered with joy and praise, exclaiming “good boy, good Jax, yaye, good dog” while Jax’s tail wagged furiously.

We have a lot of homework, going back to the basics on obedience, making slight adjustments to our methods, and trying to increase Jax’s interest in birds. Trying to train a hunting dog with obedience training that is geared for regular companion dogs could only get us so far.

There is more inside of this dog’s heart, mind, and soul than to only be our companion. He gives us love and happiness, and we want to give him what he needs to make him happy, besides love, petting, playtime, fetch in our yard, walks, toys, treats, boneys, bully sticks, and all of the things we have done to ensure that he is happy and healthy both mentally and physically. We owe it to him to do more. Whether it is hunting, hunt tests, conformation shows, agility, or perhaps even being a therapy dog who visits and comforts sick humans, we will find his niche, find something to work that incredible mind that we see when we look into his beautiful almond labrador eyes.

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