Not all of us are lucky enough to own acreage in the country. Most of us don’t even live close enough to public lands like Wildlife Management Areas to get out quickly before or after work in order to train a dog. That doesn’t mean you can’t train a dog in the suburbs, or even in the city. Here are some of my favorite spots to train:
Your Yard: It ain’t called yard work for nuthin’. Your yard, both front and back, provide a familiar, distraction-free area to work you pup. New lessons should be taught in a place with as few distractions as possible and because your yard is part of your dog’s everyday life, it stands to reason that there will be fewer distractions here than anywhere else–even the neighbor’s yard. Begin all obedience lessons in the yard and gradually extend the zone of comfort as your dog succeeds at the ‘sit,’ ‘stay,’ ‘heel’ and ‘here’ commands. You can also use it for more advanced drills; any concept that’s new and requires focus from your pup should start in your yard.
A Park: Local parks can range in size from a tree and patch of grass barely large enough for a dog to hike his leg and take a leak to large expanses of open space, play equipment and athletic courts. Obviously, the larger the better.
With short manicured grass, parks allow you to transfer your obedience work from the yard to a more open setting with greater distractions…and those distractions can range from another person or two to soccer games complete with red-faced screaming parents to the greatest distraction–other dogs. Make sure the distraction level present when you train isn’t too great for your pup’s concentration–don’t expect him to respond like he does in the yard, but hold him accountable for what he does know.
In addition to obedience, you can also work on quartering, sit to flush, steadying and handling drills in the large open areas of a park. Really, there’s not much you can’t do. And because they’re rather featureless, parks will build a retriever’s confidence on marking and lining drills–just keep stretching out the distance.
Schools: Like parks, schools have well-manicured grounds and play equipment. You can really stretch a dog out on lining drills and can actually incorporate the play equipment into training. Run them past the equipment, under the swings, through sandboxes, etc. Pretend that equipment is a standing tree or the sand of an island; the more textures and environments you introduce your pup to, the better he’ll be able to handle the unknown in a hunting situation.
Sit your dog on the elevated deck of a jungle gym and make him wait patiently while you hand-throw marks. Return to sit beside him and then send him for the marks. Make your pup return to the elevated stand and sit beside you before delivering to hand…you’re simulating any situation that would require him to work from an elevated platform (raised duck blind, treestand, etc). Picnic tables and jungle gyms at schools and parks also allow you to get your dog off the ground (a very stressful thing for our four-legged friends) and build his trust in you while also reinforcing his obedience. Heeling along elevated walkways, going through tunnels, etc, can often be like walking a plank to a duck blind, crossing a bridge spanning a canal or many other things you might encounter in the field.
Little League Games: If you’ve got a retriever, often times the hardest part is making them sit still when excitement is taking place. Little League games are great training. Take a seat and make pup sit beside you–exactly as you would wait for daybreak and that first flight of ducks to show up. Make him sit and watch as the excitement of the game ramps up and balls begin to fly. He’ll track them and want to retrieve–that’s good–but keep a firm grip on his leash and work on that steadiness.
Flood-Control Ponds: Many cities and towns are designed with ponds built throughout them that are used to collect rainwater runoff. They’re usually surrounded by short grass and can vary in size from just big enough to contain a full pond to large parks with small lakes. These are great spots to work a dog. Not only can you do almost everything you can do in a park or school, the water allows you to throw water marks, run blinds/memories and to get your dog in shape–even during the heat of summer.
Parking Lots: Obviously, you don’t want to work your pup in a Wal-Mart parking lot, but I’ve taken mine to church and school lots to work on handling drills. Overhead lighting makes it nice when winter darkness creeps up at 4:30 p.m. and featureless pavement keeps distractions to a minimum and bumpers are readily seen. A word of warning: watch your dog’s feet when working on the asphalt and make sure the area is clean of debris like broken glass.
Tennis Courts: Again, overhead lights on some courts make it possible to train after dark, but the really nice thing about tennis courts is that they’re contained. If you have a young puppy, containment and control are key. When my dog was about 10 weeks old I’d take him to the neighborhood park and lock us in the tennis court. Then I’d layout a ladder of 3 or 4 bumpers stretched along the fence of the court. He’d run out to pick up the bumpers and because he was running along the fence, he began learning to take straight lines right off the bat. The enclosed area and fairly boring courts kept him from getting distracted or high-tailing it for something more interesting. I also used the nets when we started working on handling a couple months later!
As you can see, there are numerous places to train in the city; it just takes a little imagination and desire to make it happen. While all the areas mentioned are great places to work on obedience, drills, distractions and the like, your dog still needs to get into wild places–heavy cover, tall grass, bird scent, wild and planted birds. But you can save those things for the weekend. Take the skills your dog has learned during the week and simply transfer them to areas that you’d frequent when hunting!