How Long Does It (really) Take to Train a Bird Dog ?

This could be a painfully short article. Without trying to sound like a wise-ass, the honest answer is that it takes as long as it takes to train a bird dog. There is no set time frame for any dog, no matter the breed or pedigree.

But people being who we are, we’re going to compare our pup to someone else’s and a few of us will even set a date on the calendar, usually coinciding with opening day, that our dog’s training will be finished. We can’t help it. Of all the mistakes you could make with your dog, however, this one could wreck things the worst, simply because it has the potential to do damage over a long period of time.

So why are timelines the enemy and how do we train a dog without one?

Every dog is different

Whenever this subject comes up I think of the guy who sees the old video of two year old Tiger Woods on The Mike Douglas Show, figures Tiger did ok for himself and sits down to plan a golf regimen for his own kid. Break 80 by age 8, break 70 by age 12, win six Junior World Championships and bag his first major at age 21. Seems reasonable, right?

I pity that kid.

There is no standard for how long it should take to train your bird dog, and choosing one out of desire or envy is not a recipe for success. There are only two things that determine when your dog will be finished:

  1. How quickly your dog learns
  2. How good you (or the pro trainer you use) are at teaching

That’s it, nothing more. #2 is something you can always improve. #1 is genetic and you’re stuck with it. Both of these change with every dog you own, and not necessarily in the faster direction, which is to say that how long it took to train your last bird dog should not be used as a marker for your new dog.

At this point you might raise your hand and say, “Hey, what about how much time I put in? Doesn’t that play a role in when my dog is ready?” Yes and no, and the reason I left it off the list is that you can’t train a dog 3 or 4 hours a day and get to the finish line faster than someone who trains 15 or 30 minutes a day. There’s a limit to what a pup can absorb in one session. Beyond that, your efforts are counterproductive and you could actually delay or even reverse your progress by pushing ahead when your pup is saying it’s time to stop.

Expectations are the key

If you own enough dogs, you’ll have some that learn quickly and some that seem to take forever to outgrow the puppy nonsense. The key to not rushing the process (and causing more harm than good) is leaving time-related expectations out of the program.

While it’s tempting to say “I’m going to have him sitting and staying by the end of June”, resist the urge. When your pup isn’t hitting the timeline, the same timeline you arbitrarily set yourself, you’ll start pushing and rushing and getting frustrated and that’s when things come unraveled in a hurry.

calendar with a red X through it

I’ll say it again: Deadlines don’t have a role in dog training.

How do you know if you’re stuck?

If you’re not seeing any progress over the course of several weeks, take a step back and look at what you’re doing. Something about your methods is not getting through to the dog and staying on the same path will get you more of the same. Don’t let your pride get in the way here – talk to a friend or a trainer and get a fresh perspective.

Or just take a break for a few weeks. Sometimes both dog and owner can benefit from a little time off, an opportunity to reset the learning gear and come back with a fresh perspective. Things that aren’t apparent when you’re neck deep in training often become very obvious when you step away for a while.

Try this tomorrow

This section should be called “Try this beginning tomorrow and keep doing it for a week”. Whatever you’re currently working on with your dog – obedience, steadiness, retrieving, whatever – go out and just work your dog without any expectation of outcomes. If he makes a mistake, correct according to whichever method you’re using and work him again.

For you scorekeeping types, you get zero points for making progress and zero points for regressing. You only get points for working your method and noticing what the dog does, then reacting accordingly.

One week from tomorrow, step back and look where you are. If you see progress, any progress, give yourself an A.

What other mistakes do we make with bird dogs? Don’t Ruin Your Bird Dog (a guide to not screwing up your pup) talks about the four biggest ones.

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