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In a candid moment, your wife would probably suggest you need constant training. In a candid (or inebriated) moment, you would agree. Your dog needs it too. Whether you’re fine-tuning or teaching new skills, these three tips that I’ve picked up over the years will steer you right.

1. Earn that praise

An old trainer once said, “Never give away a bowl of dog food.” To this day, I follow that advice religiously because it helps my dogs be better hunters and citizens.

My dogs earn every speck of praise, edible or verbal. I’m constantly providing positive feedback when they deserve it. But an unearned treat or verbal reward does nobody any good. It lowers the bar, sets back any progress you’ve made, and cheapens the handler-dog relationship.

It starts with dinner time. Lucky for the neighbors, my wirehairs don’t have to sing for their supper. But they do “whoa” for it. Treats, from dog biscuits to water, are doled out for coming when called or doing a job well. Even verbal or physical praise is earned: phony “good boys” only mislead a dog from the real work at hand and water down the value of his work.

2. Baby steps

“One step at a time” is more than a 12-step program’s bumper-sticker. It’s a mantra for teaching complex skills to my dogs.

Virtually everything we ask of our dogs can be broken into a series of small skills, each one leading to the next. We don’t move ahead until the preceding skill is mastered.

For instance, a retrieve is many bits, assembled into one (hopefully reliable) whole: go out, pick up bird, turn around, return directly to me. Hold until commanded to release. Stay until told to resume hunting. Whew!

Drill and praise—or correct—each step. Then link it to the next. Use the same command word for the entire sequence, to avoid confusion on both dog and human’s part. Dogs learn gradually, in pieces. Once I break the skill into those pieces, we’re both happier.

Tip: When I was a musician, I learned the hardest material from back to front, especially if we were required to memorize it. Similarly, starting with the grand finale and working backward in a training sequence means it only gets easier for your dog as you progress all the way to “good boy.”

3. Add distractions

“Whoa” (or any other command) requires comprehension and flawless execution of the basic command—then further mastery through distractions. With the “whoa” command, for example, you’re aiming for rock steadiness anywhere, any time. It’s easy on the training table. Somewhere else, maybe not so much. So take him to the front yard when he’s ready. Add another dog, and you might have to go back to basics.

Once you add the sight or smell of bird, more conditioning is required. Taking the lead off or adding hand signals are additional steps to be re-introduced at each level.

Sometimes, it’s back to square one in the yard or table. Other times, a step or two back is all it takes. If a dog has been away from a particular skill for a while, my first go-round with him starts on the training table to ensure perfect execution.

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