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Entwined Training

This article, an interview with Jack Sharkey ( and Fred Riley by Jacqueline O’Neil, appeared in the July 1995 AKC Gazette. It is reprinted with her permission.

Your Obedience dog may be halfway to a hunting title

How can your sporting dog earn a new title in half the time? By entering hunting tests if it already has an obedience title or obedience if it already has a hunting title. Putting old lessons to work in a new arena often enhances a dog’s skills and attitude. The result is a better performance in the original sport, with the new title as a bonus.

Field and obedience training make a perfect match, according to pointing breed hunting test and field trial judge Jack Sharkey of Alexandria, owner-handler of the Vizsla, NFC/DC/AFC Hodag’s Hunter, UDX, MH. "What impresses judges in the field is a dog that’s enthusiastic yet under control, needs minimum handling and is steady on its bird work," Sharkey explains.

He says an obedience-titled dog has a head start in pointing breed field training because it already obeys commands, handles kindly (willingly), takes directions and knows the difference between work and play. For example, sometimes a pointing dog can’t resist the temptation to interfere with its bracemate during a Junior Hunting Test, but an obedience trained dog has already learned to leave other dogs alone while working. An obedience dog has also learned to come when called, which is scored as part of trainability at hunting tests.

When preparing for advanced level hunting tests, the steadiness an obedience dog has perfected on the standstay, and its retrieving ability, could cut training time in half.

When making the transition between obedience practice and field work, Sharkey always changes his dog’s collar. He says the dog never becomes confused because it wears a different collar for every activity (everyday wear, field, obedience and show), and he always takes the time to put the appropriate collar on the dog, even for a five-minute review.

While yard work (training the dog to respond to commands at home, before applying the training in the field) is the traditional way to give field dogs their basic obedience lessons, Sharkey prefers taking his dogs to obedience school because it’s good socialization and conditions them to work away from home and in the company of other dogs. The classes also improved his handling. "The instructor called my attention to mistakes I didn’t realize I was making," he says.

Sharkey believes the benefits of entwined training are mutual because a field-trained dog also has a head start when preparing for the obedience ring. "Dogs with advanced hunting test titles work with intensity and drive," he says. "Yet they are under their handler’s control at all times and have learned to remain steady, despite the ultimate distraction of game birds. To me, that’s obedience training at its highest form."

Adjusting Retriever Attitudes

Sometimes obedience training is more than a helpful second hobby. In fact, it can be essential to a dog’s field career. Hunting tests simulate actual hunting situations, and since no hunter can bag their limit while struggling with an uncontrollable dog, trainability is one of the attributes evaluated in the tests.

Fred Riley of Brandon, Miss., one of three retriever test judges invited to judge the 1995 Master National, trained and handled his own Labrador Retrievers to the MH title without ever attending an obedience class. But recently, after judging a Senior Hunting test, Riley took a handler aside and suggested he train his dogs in basic obedience before returning to the field.

The handler had two dogs, and both were so out of control that they reached the line 30 feet ahead of him instead of "walking tractably at heel, off lead, " as called for at the Senior level. Consequently, their trainability scores suffered even though they exhibited tremendous drive and outstanding marking ability.

"Some retrievers have such a strong will that they do the work for themselves, but to pass hunting tests they have to learn to hunt for the handler," Riley says. "Both of those dogs were over 2 years old. If their owner doesn’t start over with basic obedience or hire a professional trainer, they will remain out of control and their natural talents will never be utilized."

On the other hand, if your retriever is becoming bored in the obedience ring, field training may put the sparkle back into its performance. Heeling, retrieving, scent articles, the signal exercise, directed jumping, the directed retrieve and the group exercises all correlate to field work.

Of course, you’ll still have to introduce the dog to game birds and retrain a little. For example, while your competitive obedience dog keeps its eyes on you while heeling, a more casual heeling style is appropriate for field work. It’s best if your retriever walks to the line beside you, but is attentive to its surroundings. This is easily accomplished by using a different collar and a different command—one that will come to mean "walk with me," instead of "heel."

Proximity to game birds and the great outdoors will challenge your dog’s ability to withstand distractions, so expect some mistakes at first. Be prepared to reteach (not correct) commands you honestly believed your dog already knew, and to proof in a variety of terrain.

Helping your dog apply its obedience training to the work it was originally bred for could be a challenging and rewarding adventure. The result might be a hunting test title, and it will certainly be a more upbeat obedience dog.

-- this article was copyrighted by the author July 1995, reprint by permission

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