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Interview with Debra Folsom • Article by Dave Carty

Ducks Unlimited Magzine - November/December 2004

Debra Folsom

Debra Folsom with Hightest Sporting Tradition MH "Orvis"

Suppose a hunter drops a greenhead in heavy cover and then sends his dog," Debra Folsom says. "The dog's out there only a minute, but hasn't found the bird, so the hunter starts blowing his whistle." Folsom is describing a situation in which a handler won't allow his dog to use its natural instincts, and she's seen it happen over and over again. "if the hunter does that continually," she says, "then eventually the dog goes out for a retrieve, hunts for one minute - maybe not even that - and then sits down and starts looking for directions."


Folsom has just outlined a textbook example of overhandling, in this case an overenthusiastic application of hand signals. The overhandling 

affliction and its evil cousin, overtraining, have many variations, but most fall under a single category: too much pressure, too soon.


Folsom has seen more than a few cases of overpressured dogs in her 26 years as a pro. The transplanted canadian married an American retriever trainer, John Folsom, and the two opened a kennel, Hightest Kennels, in Oroville, California ( Today, clients from around the United States send the Folsoms dogs that have pushed just a little too hard.


The dog's common problem, Folsom says, is that all of them have been jammed through a one-size-fits-all program. "You don't want to have a training program that you push dogs through," she says. "That doesn't work. You need to vary your training program to fit the dog, because every dog is different. Otherwise, you have dogs that are miserable and that don't get to hunt enough."


"Hunting enough" is how Folsom gets her charges back on track. "Before you even attempt hand signals or control on a dog, it first has to learn how to use its natural skills," she says. "In other words, if you're working with puppies, they have to get out there and hunt and learn that when they get scent and move toward it, they're going to get rewarded. They have to learn that - they don't naturally know that, as an older dog would."


Giving the dogs fieldwork before immersing them in heavy training develops a natural drive and resilience that helps them withstand the rigors of the hard training to come. But Folsom claims that some handlers, misled by books and videos that promise a finished retriever in record time, short-stop the natural learning process with intense training. Then, when the dogs starts losing its drive, the handler panics.


For that very reason, Folsom limits early obedience. "We don't do a lot of obedience on the dogs when

they're young," she says. "Instead, we add obedience to retrieving as we go along." Rather than being drilled to sit and heel, for instance, her young dogs are in the field, having a grand old time chasing bumpers and retrieving shot birds. "we go out and shoot and throw them a lot of birds," she says. "There's no substitute for shooting a lot of birds over a dog. Then, when the dog is really picking that up, and it's had a lot of birds shot for it, we begin force breaking. Then we collar-condition the dog to come when it's called. Now, we can shoot even more birds over it, and it's going to pick them up and not mouth them and come back in." (For puppies, Folsom recommends starting fieldwork with thrown bumpers first, then transitioning to shooting birds.

Overpressured dogs typically lose some of their enthusiasm to retrieve and hunt, and may seem cowed and hesitant around their owners. "Your dogs 


will tell you (how they're feeling)," Folsom says. "If they want to retrieve, they're eager to get out of the truck. They're looking out there for birds or for the gunner. They come out of the truck happy." Those that don't may have been forced to do too much, too soon. "You just can't decide that you're going to buy a puppy and it's going to be a good-handling dog," Folsom says, referring to dogs that have the ability to take complicated hand signals, although the caveat applies to other training situations as well. "People go out and buy a $1,000 puppy out of a field champion and expect it to be a hero," she says. "But some of them aren't."Those that aren't, however, are not a lost cause by any means. Folsom started her training trial dogs, but now spends most of her time training hunters. Backing off the pressure and increasing the dog's exposure to birds can still produce a "darn good shooting dog," she says, even if it never quite masters hand signals, multiple blinds, and other field-trial staples.As breeds go, Labs and Chesapeakes are tough customers and can take a lot of pressure, but all dogs have their limits. Those limits vary widely from animal to animal. The best approach, Folsom claims, is to let the dog's natural enthusiasm guide the intensity of your training. "Some dogs need a lot of pressure from day one," she says. "But others you can't really put very much pressure on at all. Too much obedience too soon is a mistake. We don't teach a dog to stay at a young age because we want to find out first if the dog wants to go."

Birds May be the Key to Training Success


Is your dog's enthusiasm waning? Professional trainer Debra Folsom says that is not unusual. "Every trainer has probably pushed a dog to a point where it got a little down," she says. 


The cure is a two-part process: 1) back off, and 2) add birds. "The antidote to too much pressure is to go out and shoot some live pigeons (over the dog)," Folsom says. "Live birds fire the dog up. That's really the only fix there is." 


Of course, not everbody has access to birds, not to mention a place to shoot them. If you don't belong to a club that cabn supply you with pigeons, then your next option is to hire a pro. You will probably pay an extra charge for the birds in addition to the pro's fees, but nobody said that training a good retriever was cheap. 


Some animals are enthusiastic hunters right out of the gate, and some are not. In the latter case, Folsom suggests that the dog may benefit from a season in the field to allow it to mature, at which time training is kept to a minimum. Later, when the dog's drive develops, so will its ability to absorb lessons.



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