There’s a school of thought among certain old-time dog trainers that it’s best to let a young dog mature for a year before beginning serious training and bird work. Well, sports fans, I’m here to tell you that pointing dogs have been trained that way for generations. And it works.
But that doesn’t mean it’s the only way to train bird dogs, and it’s not the way I do it with my own dogs. This I believe: The longer you can mold correct behavior in a puppy, the easier it will be to keep that puppy on the path of righteousness as it matures.
There’s nothing radical about that statement. Dog men as legendary as the late Bob Wehle have practiced the same approach for decades. In fact, it was largely from Wehle’s book Wing & Shot, as well as from my friend Mark Wendling, a breeder of Elhew grouse dogs in Wisconsin, that I learned the value of coaxing puppies as young as nine or 10 weeks to quarter before the gun.
This wasn’t a huge revelation; I’ve taken every pup I ever owned for short, rambling walks. But with my most recent puppy, an English pointer named Tango, I approached the exercise with a new purpose, as per Wehle’s and Wendling’s instructions. Rather than let her run aimlessly, I instead encouraged her to cast to the front, ideally between 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock.
The inspiration for that decision has a name, and her name is Hanna. Unfortunately, throughout my setter Hanna’s uncomplicated life, she has never been particularly concerned about where she runs. Three-hundred yards in front or behind–it makes no difference to her. This has led to a whole lot more whistle and collar work than I (and undoubtedly she) would prefer.
So I figured I’d try something different with Tango. Starting at about 12 weeks of age, whenever I’d take her for a run I’d attach a 20-foot lead to her collar. At first, whenever she fell behind me–whenever she dropped behind 9 o’clock or 3 o’clock, in other words–I’d clap my hands, extend an arm pointing forward and encourage her to romp ahead.
Eventually, I transitioned to two quick whistle tweets and a tug on her lead. In no time, she learned that whenever I passed her, she needed to stop whatever she was doing and get ahead of me. Months later, after she’d been thoroughly collar-conditioned, I continued the same program with two tweets, followed by an occasional nick from her collar.
It’s made a difference. Now, at a year of age and with half a season of hunting under her belt, she’s far more attuned to her position in relation to me than all but one of my other dogs, and whenever she falls behind, two tweets send her forward again.
I’ve taken a similar developmental approach with retrieving. First, though, let me say that I’ve long been a believer in force-breaking, assuming the pup is over a year of age. But Tango and Cooper, an 18-month-old Brittany I trained this past summer, both showed strong natural retrieving instincts, unlike most of the other pointers I’ve had in my kennel. I decided that, rather than force break them anyway, I’d see where their natural abilities would take them.
So far, the answer is: quite a ways. To date, both have happily retrieved numerous pigeons and gamebirds. On the other hand, both have also refused retrieves, so I may not be out of the woods yet. But the outlook is promising.
DUMMIES TO BIRDS
How did I do it? With Tango, I started with the same method virtually every dog trainer in the United States has recommended for years: throwing play dummies of rolled-up socks in a confined area, then coaxing her back to me. Later, she graduated to short retrieves in the yard, which eventually segued to dummies thrown as far as I could pitch them.
The transition from dummies to dead birds required some persuasion at first, but once she got the hang of it, she began to love them. Later, when I shot her first live pigeon over her, she ran out, nosed the bird for a moment, then scooped it up and brought it back to me. Interestingly, Cooper got none of these play retrieves–he was on an abbreviated schedule–but from day one he retrieved the pigeons I shot over him as though he’d been born to the work. And so he had.
Does this mean I’m giving up on force-breaking? Not even. I’m still convinced that most pointing dogs benefit from the practice. But if your dog has a strong, innate drive to retrieve, it may be worth the attempt to develop that first.
One thing I’ve done for years with very young pups, and a practice that sometimes raises eyebrows among old-school trainers, is to introduce puppies to birds when the pups are as young as eight or nine weeks of age. Skeptics have told me that the chance of scaring a pup with a wildly flapping bird isn’t worth the risk, and they’re right–I would no sooner put an unrestrained bird in front of a young dog than I would smack that same dog with the butt of my shotgun. But done correctly, the risk is quite small, and pups exposed to birds at a tender age develop their prey drive months ahead of youngsters who don’t see birds until later.
Here’s how to do it. Take a couple wraps of masking tape around a live pigeon, locking the legs and wings in place, then plant it in sparse cover. Next, walk your pup in downwind, either on or off a lead.
One of three things will happen: Your puppy will grab the bird and drag it around; your puppy will seem intimidated and back away; or your puppy will ignore it. None of these responses is unusual. One response you probably won’t get is a point, but that will come later and is nothing to worry about. Really.
Regardless, give your puppy planted birds for a week or two until he’s actively looking for and finding them. Then free up a wing–one wing, not both. The waving wing will further excite most puppies and usually provoke interest in those that are still tentative. Next, loosen the bird’s legs, then the other wing, and so on.
If at any stage your pup should shy away from the bird, back off, give him a week or so to work up his moxie and try again. It’s fine to encourage reluctant puppies, but never, ever force them. Still a bit balky at exposing an eight-week-old pup to planted birds? Then wait until you’re comfortable. Puppies given birds at three, four and five months come along quickly and will still be well ahead of their peers a year down the road. And once they’re happily chasing flushed birds, you’ll be set up nicely for the final stage of puppy preschool: exposure to gunfire.
CLAPS AND BOOMS
I’ve tried every way of exposing puppies to gunfire there is. The best way, hands down, is to fire a cap pistol behind your back when your pup is actively chasing, and completely focused on, a bird.
Rather than use a cap pistol, I start with a simple clapper anyone can make by attaching a hinge to one end of two lengths of 1- by 4-inch pine. Depending upon how hard I clap the boards together, I can produce a quiet pop for short-range work or a much louder bang! for dogs running at a distance.
When the pup is chasing a bird and is at least 20 or 30 yards away, I clap the clapper together softly once or twice, closely monitoring the pup for his reaction. Done this way, puppies rarely pay attention to the sound. Eventually, I’ll progress to louder claps, then a starting pistol fired behind my back, and finally a pistol fired in the air, but always when the dog is chasing the bird.
Later, when the pup is considerably older, I’ll progress to a shotgun, again fired as the puppy is engaged in chasing a flying bird. If your pup is already steady at that point (nice fantasy, huh?), move away from him at least 40 or 50 yards, flush the bird and then shoot.
So there you have it: puppy preschool. Move slowly, at a pace comfortable for your pup, and never discipline him during these exercises. If it’s not fun for the little guy, it ain’t gonna work. Discipline and obedience come later, when serious yard work begins.
Finally, take the inevitable hiccups in his progress with a grain of salt. He’ll get it, trust me on this. And he’ll be a better dog much sooner for your having made the effort.