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Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks

Buck was a beautiful, close to two year old German Wirehaired Pointer that was brought to me for retriever training. The pointing breeds are some of the prettiest dogs out there, and Buck was no exception. Tall, athletic, and one of the best personalities you could ask for in a dog. He was eager to please!

The biggest problem with Buck was that he had practically no retriever training. And when you have a dog that old, that can be an issue. The best thing you can do for a retriever is to make retrieving fun for him when he is a pup. Hallway retrieves or backyard tennis ball throws will help to make the dog love retrieving and build his desire for it.

When that young pup brings back that short hallway retrieve for you and you praise him so much and love all over him, it will build that drive for him to want to do it over and over again.

But when that process has been skipped, or even just shorted, it makes training the retrieving skills more difficult. Not impossible, but more difficult nonetheless.

Buck had had a little retriever work, but not enough to get him to really understand what he was supposed to do. But Buck was eager to please, and that helped him out tremendously. He was kind of goofy and awkward at first, but I treated him just like I would a young pup. When he did it right, I acted like he just did the greatest thing ever! Lots of praise, petting and “Good boy!”s. Pretty soon, he figured out what it took to get all of that praise and attention, and that made him very excited for the retrieve and the praise that was sure to follow.

That is not to say that I did not have to make corrections to Buck. He needed lining out on walking at heel, steadiness, and eventually Force Fetch, once we got to that point. But after I had to make corrections to him, I made sure and always took a step back and did something I knew he would do correctly, and gave him the praise he desired. That kept his drive high and his focus on pleasing me.

Eventually, Buck turned out to be a pretty dang good retriever! Even though he got a later start than most dogs do, he was able to get all the skills down to make himself a reliable, good hunting buddy.

Just because a dog does not start at the “ideal” time, does not mean that it is too late for them to learn. One thing about it is, as a trainer, you have to read your dog, and adjust the training to fit him. There is not one cookie cutter training model that works for all dogs. Each dog is different, and needs training adjusted to fit their natural ability, their personality, and their mentality on things.

If you can keep an open mind, and change things up when needed, you can see great gains in a dog that might otherwise not reach his or her potential.


As a dog trainer, I have seen dogs of every skill and ability level, as well as dogs of all intelligence levels. Some that took just a few days to teach whistle stops, and some that took a month and a half to learn “hold”. Each dog brings new challenges, and that is something every trainer has to be prepared for.

I currently have a dog that I am training named Gator. He is a sweet, well mannered young male black Lab, and he has been a joy to work with. He has great obedience; he walks at heel perfectly, sits when I stop, comes to heel when called, and has rock solid steadiness.

Then we get to force fetch. His hold work was great, I mean great on the table! We had no problems whatsoever. Then we moved to the ground, which, judging by the table work, was going to be a breeze. But, we all know how things go when we predict them to be easy, and I knew better than to believe it would be so easy!

The first obstacle was having him hold it while seated next to me, and for whatever reason, he did not want to do that. But we got over it relatively fast, in 3-4 days. Then came the biggest hurdle of all, thus far. The walking hold. This is the hardest part of training any dog, and my least favorite. You have to have the dog hold it, then start to walk at heel, and immediately the dog will drop the bumper to start walking at heel, because for whatever reason, it goes against the dog’s mentality to do two commands at once, Hold AND Heel. Most will walk perfectly at heel, and hold rock solid while seated, but you go to put the two together and it rarely goes very smooth.

After they drop it comes the “fun” part, you have to pick up the bumper, stick it back in the dog’s mouth, and hold it in there while you pull the dog in a heel position. After you have gone a short, ways, like five or six steps, you stop, take the bumper, and praise the dog. This usually takes a week or so for the dog to finally buy into the hold, and understand what you are asking of them.

Gator was very typical in this manner, but he was learning something I did not realize I was teaching him. When I am holding the bumper and the dog and making him carry it in a heeling position, I always make him go five or six steps. That has always been my method. This has worked with every dog I have trained over the years with no issue. That is until Gator!

Once Gator figured out carrying at heel, I thought we had this obstacle conquered, until we went about six steps and he quickly sat down!! He was still holding just fine, but I had inadvertently taught him that we only carry for six steps then we are done!

Looking back, it makes sense from his perspective. I have trained tons of dogs, and he is the first one to ever see the hold work this way. It didn’t take too long to fix this problem, making him carry it further and not sit down when he tried to sit, and it taught me something important going forward. Changing up the training routine can be very beneficial. Dogs can figure out your patterns before you realize you have patterns, and know what you are going to do before you do it!

Now I vary the distance that I require them to carry the bumper at heel. Sometimes it is six steps and sometimes it is 10 or 15. The main thing is for them to watch you and follow your commands, and not just go on their own and stop when they think they should be done!