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Dog expert: Train your retriever for outdoors sports, then practice often – News & Observer

Bill Hillmann demonstrates how to get a retriever excited at a recent training seminar in Pender County. Hillmann says one of the keys to success with a dog is making the learning process fun.


His favorite word is “practice.” Without it, he asks, where would the professional golfer or basketball player be?

Bill Hillmann, one of the top retriever trainers in the nation, does not train dogs but teaches people how to train dogs, especially retrievers.

It’s a Saturday morning in June at Rocky Point, 20 miles west of Wilmington on some of the finest retriever grounds in North America. Hillmann, the coach, has a freshman team of 20 people from across the country eager to learn. A breeze blows away humid air as the retriever fanciers settle in under the shade of five tents.

Hillmann’s dogs carry numerous field trial championships and he has handled more high point derby dogs than anyone in field trial history. That is why dog people flock to his training seminars and buy up his DVDs.

“In essence, my system teaches fundamentals and then practice over and over,” he said. “I study musicians and athletic coaches rather than other dog trainers.”

Hillmann points out that a great musician starts every day by practicing the music scale, the most fundamental step in playing any instrument.

“People who practice the most win,” he said. “Repetition creates habits that will never go away. Repetition is the mother of skill. Teach something, and then practice it until it becomes an action without thought.”

Hillmann tears into methods used by many dog trainers, amateur and professional.

“Many people who train retrievers will teach a new concept to a dog, do it two or three times and move on to another subject,” he said. “Then in the end a dog has been exposed to six or eight new concepts, but he hasn’t practiced any of them. Consequently, he’s not very good at anything. And he knows a little bit about a lot of things. Spend more time practicing and less time testing to see whether they know something.”

Hillmann’s pet peeve is trainers who get mad at their dogs and punish them when a mistake occurs.

“Don’t blame the dog because you haven’t taught him correctly,” he said. “Dogs don’t intentionally do something you don’t want them to do. Biggest mistake in retriever training is people try something one or two times and they think the dog understands it and they move on to the next thing but doesn’t understand anything very well.”

Hillmann emphasizes that one of the keys to success with a dog is making the learning process fun and exciting.

“Get the dog excited before you train. Play with him. Praise him,” he said. “You don’t want a dog that is afraid and views training as drudgery. The more you do this the more in sync you and your dog will be as a team. You want the dog to love it and be nuts about it.”

Many trainers who use an electric collar shock a dog to the point of pain when a mistake is made. Hillmann, on the other hand, uses the lightest of nicks as positive reinforcement and indirect pressure when a dog does something correctly.

“My general philosophy is to teach a dog how to do something and then repeat until he knows how to do it very well before going on to the next step,” he said. “I’m not interested in training any other way. If I don’t ever win another field trial, if I’m not successful, fine. But I’m not going to have anybody witness me being unfair to a dog.”

Hillmann, who maintains a farm in Caldwell, Texas, grew up in Wisconsin without a dog until he was 18. As a young man he was a professional photographer in San Francisco, specializing in sail boat racing and horse dressage events.

“In my mid 30s I saw my first field trial and thought to myself that I could teach a dog to do that,” he said.

Hillmann handled his first retriever to be a high point derby dog, then to be a field champion. On turning pro in the late 1970s, he never lacked for dogs to train. He campaigned retrievers on the field trial circuit for 35 years. Now his efforts, along with the help of wife, Mary, are producing videos about training dogs and conducting seminars.

Hillmann has seven DVDs out and several more in production. He can be reached at


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