Retriever Training at Clays Course – Garden & Gun

Third-generation dog trainer Jeremy Criscoe, owner of Whistling Wings Kennel in Alabama, has a big picture view of what makes dogs tick: he breeds and trains British Labradors and has participated in field trials in Scotland, England, Wales, Ireland and across the United States Much of Criscoe’s training methodology is rooted in the British approach, in which self-control on the part of the dog is paramount.

To tune a waterfowl retriever’s self-control, Criscoe says, a range of sporting clays make a perfect laboratory, and he’s put together a three-step training regimen for a standard sporting clays course. If you don’t have access to a range of sporting clays that will allow dogs on the course, it’s easy enough to replicate these scenarios with a buddy and a manual or mechanical skeet thrower.

Education on the range begins as soon as you arrive. Dogs should always be under control. “They only load on the load command and release on the release command,” Criscoe explains. At the range, Criscoe can make multiple trips between a UTV and the firing station, to perform the gun and shells, or to do some blind pick-ups for advanced practice. “The dog learns to wait patiently,” he says. “Then walk the dog with you from station to station. Every movement can be a useful training moment.

At the first position on the range, have the dog sit and hold steady while you shoot from the range. “If the dog breaks, you’re there for the correction,” Criscoe says. “You can put down your gun, go get the dog and bring it back.” You’ll want to make corrections to the station, with firm lead control and a stern “No, no, no” spoken in a low, disgruntled tone – what Criscoe calls a “pirate growl voice”. Take the dog back to the firing point, have him sit and stay, and break some more clays. This time, he suggests, get on a leash so the dog can’t break off.

You’ll dial in the difficulty on the second station, and that comes with a twist: have the dog sit and hold steady as you throw a bumper behind you. Then shoot a clay target or two, and only then, if the dog remains stable, send it for bumper recovery. “That way, you’ll quickly reward the dog for not snapping,” Criscoe says. “You will emphasize positive behavior.” And you’ll teach the dog that he can’t run and recover with every shot. “Just because they see a bird coming in doesn’t mean they have to go get it. They only leave when you tell them to leave. After all, no one connects with every bird.

For an even more challenging exercise, Criscoe likes to place a pair of practice dummies to the sides of the firing position, about twenty degrees left and right. Crack a few birds and maybe get a buddy to shoot too. “The dog is watching a pile of clay blow up right above you, but you tell him ‘No’,” he says. When the shot is complete, line up the dog and send it to the blind. It requires a lot of multitasking, which sharpens a dog’s attention span.

Now complete the course by alternating between the three strategies.


This story is part of a series of articles on sporting dog training tips from Eukanuba Pro Trainers. See the series here:

>> Tips for a young dog’s first dove hunt

>> Introduce a bird dog to noises and water

>> Retriever training at Clays Course

>> The Importance of “Whoa” for Bird Dogs