Achieving Focus in Young Retrievers
by Mike Stewart

Among my favorite field experiences is when one of my labs makes a flush of an upland bird, then remains absolutely steady to the shot and fall while marking the bird. Without a word from me, the dog looks directly at me, eyes locked, motionless, waiting for instruction. You can see in his expression, "What do you want? Just say the word and I'm off." That's' focus!

This level of biddable control begins with establishing a strong relationship with your dog. At the basis of this relationship is focused eye contact. Our dog looks to us for instructions, interdependently, as a conditioned response.

If you hold the dog's eyes, you are a leader and will likely get the attention you desire. Learning will take place and ultimately maximum control. "Own the eyes and you own the dog." No eye contact, on the other hand, is indicative of an independent nature, lack of concentration or avoidance behavior.

We are not talking about a pointer locked on birds. They are focused correctly on the scent. We are looking for eye contact when instruction is in order:
1. The flush and shot
2. Remote marking, the handler is a distance from his dog
3. Honor situations
4. Whistle stops and hand signals

I look for several stages of focus during the basic training cycle, each occurring at different points in the process.

Stage I - With the young pup, 3 to 5 months old, usually one can achieve brief focus (direct eye contact) with the use of a motivator (reinforce) such as a treat, their food at feeding time or the youngster's favorite bumper (no chew toys).

When your youngster offers eye contact, immediately reward the behavior with a verbal, "good," and a quick treat. Once the pup understands how to sit patiently, set the pup off the ground on a bench. Hold the treat out to the side at arm's length. Remain perfectly still and quiet. Eye contact must be a voluntary action on the part of the pup. When the pup glances at your eyes, reward him/her with a verbal, "good," and the treat. The pup quickly learns the association: eye contact = reward. Gradually extend the duration of the eye contact.

Now, I am not a proponent of the over use of treats from the hand for retrievers. Treats often promote mouthing problems and later delivery difficulties. Remember Wildrose Law #4: Do not condition in a problem that must be trained out later. Substitute bumpers quickly eliminating treats.

Stage II - In obedience training, every command is preceded by the pup's name. Get the youngster to look at your eyes before any movement or command is given.
Sequence: "Deke" - eye contact - "heel." Gradually lengthen the duration of the eye contact.

This works for any dog; hunters, adventure dogs, or companions and it's applicable for dogs of all ages.

Use the whistle instead of the dog's name. The objective: The peep gets the pup's attention and the eyes. Repeat Stage II sequence without the name. Whistle - eye contact - "heel."

Stage III - Another point at which to gain focus is during hold conditioning. When teaching "hold," place the bumper in the dog's mouth and maintain eye contact while the dog holds. Provide lots of praise.

Later in the progression as the youngster wants to take and hold the bumper to receive the immediate affection and praise, you may utilize a variation of Stage I. Hold the bumper to the side and without a word wait for the eyes to lock on yours. Then, quickly give the bumper and praise.

State IV - Later, in stop-to-the-whistle training, I once again emphasize eye contact. During whistle stop exercises, hold those eyes for a brief period before the next command or cast. Do not allow glancing about or head swinging.

If the dog glances about looking for the bumper or focuses on a thrown diversion, use the whistle to regain the eyes and hold the focus briefly before the cast. Gradually lengthen the duration of the eye contact before the cast or command.

Stage V - Steady to flush and shot. In training, encourage the dog to hunt a bit of cover. Once interested in the hunt, fire a training pistol and toss a bumper high. Remain perfectly still and say nothing.

By now, we have trained for steadiness to thrown bumpers and shots with denials and delays. So our dog should stand fast. You want to get that glance and ultimately locked eye contact with your dog, a breathless stare awaiting your signal. Focus!

In time, every whistle stop will result in a look to you by your dog. Every diversion, flush, or bird down will get the same reaction from the young hunter - eyes on their handler for instruction which will ultimately be followed by the reward of a retrieve and lots of praise.