How To: Develop A Great Pointing Dog

How To: Develop A Great Pointing Dog

A check rope and simple "flank hitch" is a handy tool for controlling and correcting a dog who's breaking or taking birds out. Here, the trainer demonstrates how, with the check rope trailing as the dog hunts, it's easy to gain control and enforce steadiness on game by applying enough pressure to keep the dog steady.

A missed opportunity because of birds being bumped rather than pointed — it's an age-old problem, all too common and the center of discussion as hunters gather ready after an early-season outing.

What caused the bird to "bump" or flush wildly, leaving us with no opportunity to shoot? Sure, I know, the dog was too close'¦but why?


Maybe it was just plain bad luck. A dog on a downwind cast can run smack over birds or get too close without knowing they're, which causes birds to flush


Another possibility is an uncertain nose. A dog hunts with his nose, using the wind as he searches the field to locate game. With a keen discriminating nose he's aware of all odors, yet isolates and identifies each. Quick identification is critical, as inches can make the difference.

Once game is scented and identified his instinct to point is triggered and the dog freezes in his tracks. When all is right, the bird will also hold motionless so as not to be located.

Both bird and dog are locked in by inherent behavior.Here again, timing is critical. With an uncertain nose, one more step because of a lack of pointing instinct may cause the flush.

As we've discussed before, both quality of nose and tendency to point are inherent. Training can play a role but really great dogs have an inherited advantage. Anything less than the proper balance of nose and pointing instinct will detract from the dog's success as a hunter.

Other considerations are the type of birds being worked and scenting condition. Some gamebirds complement dog work more than others. Show me a dog who can consistently work Hungarian partridge or point every ruffed grouse he contacts and I'll try to buy him.

Woodcock tend to "sit tight" and hold well; and bobwhite quail are a pleasure to hunt with a good dog on the right day, but there are days when they run and flush wildly and are almost impossible to work. And of course, pheasants are notorious runners that can lead any dog on a merry chase.

Then there's variation in scenting conditions, and only the Lord knows what gives here. How scent travels and dissipates depending on atmospheric conditions and the wind are mysteries we will probably never completely understand.

Hunters or dog handlers agree scenting conditions can change from hour to hour, most don't know why. One day birds are pointed at 10 yards; the next they're flushed time after time with no indication by the same dog that they were anywhere around.

Most folks think of bumping as not being deliberate flushes but more accidental, whether caused by conditions or inability. Depending on the cause, an occasional bump is excusable.

On the other hand, deliberate flushing or "taking birds out" by the dog is not excusable. The good news is that we can have an influence on this cause of flushing through proper training.

Steady on Game 

If we agree the tendency to point is inherent, we should also agree the instinct to pounce and catch is too. It's a natural sequence in predatory behavior to point or freeze when game is scented, but once location is pinpointed the wild animal will pounce on its prey in an effort to catch its evening meal. This is true of most predators — cat, fox, coyote or dog.

Through selective breeding man has enhanced the pointing instinct of his "bird dogs," including their posture and intensity, but this desire to catch is still strong in good hunting dogs.

For the dog to remain in a pointing position until we flush the bird, it flies and even after the shot is purely obedience to a learned command. Granted, many hunters don't want their dog to be steady to wing and shot, but most agree they must stand steady to flush

We're not going to discuss the steps of "whoa" training here but we will assume your dog knows the command but with excitement in the presence of game, he doesn't hold. Often, partially trained dogs will hold until we're in close or about to flush before breaking.

These we can affect, both through reinforcement of commands and by how we handle ourselves before and during the flush. Yes, we may be part of the problem.

Set up the flank hitch with your check rope coming off the collar and a half hitch around the flank. The flank area is typically a very effective "point of contact" used during basic steadiness training.

Too much noise as we approach the pointing dog and his birds can be unnerving to both. It's probable that this noise will cause the birds to run or at least move as they make ready to flush, and seeing or hearing this movement will cause most gun dogs to break.

Because our hunter may not see or hear this movement, the dog will get the blame when in fact Mister Bigmouth is the real cause.

As with many pointing dogs, a heavy reliance is on the natural pointing instinct to hold. A noisy approach by the hunter will penetrate this fragile balance of concentration. Once aware, the partially trained dog will likely break.

Still, if the dog rocks back as you approach, preparing to pounce, your only chance is commanding him to "whoa," first in a calm, reinforcing tone in an attempt to sooth him. Often this will relax the dog somewhat, thereby nurturing and reinforcing his pointing instinct while not spooking the birds.

Stay In Sight

Our next consideration is our angle of approach. Granted, it's often not within our control because of cover, creek banks, fencerows and other obstacles, but when possible we should approach the pointing dog from the front or side in his view. This tends to reinforce obedience and may help hold the birds.

So when possible, avoid approaching your dog from the rear and moving past to make the flush. Instead, stay to the side when you can. As you move past from the rear there's a strong tendency for the dog to move with you.

Whether this is due to greed or competitiveness in the dog as you move toward his birds or he picks up on some movement as a release command, the outcome is probable.

Working as a team member to complement the dog's efforts, thinking and being aware and in control is our responsibility.

Still, if you're doing everything right and the dog continues to take birds out as you approach, you have to use force, quickly making corrections. — again, assuming the "whoa" command is learned.

Please realize you can't shoot and retrieve birds then make corrections. If your dog breaks, the hunt is over for the time being. Corrections must be made now, and timing is critical.

When a pointing dog breaks, hand your gun to your hunting partner, run the dog down, use appropriate correction, then carry him back to the spot he originally pointed, "whoa" him and make him stand for some time.

If you're lucky enough to have singles scattered ahead, this is a good time for further reinforcement.

Attach a check rope to his collar, run it down his back to the flank area then take a half hitch around the flank, leaving the remainder to drag behind.

As you move on, periodically "whoa" the dog while reinforcing with a pull on the check rope from the rear. Make him stand a short time then release him to hunt on.

The best possible situation for the pointing dog would be to move up on the singles hoping your dog will establish point. When this happens you're in a good position to make some real progress with his obedience to the "whoa" command.

Once the dog has pointed, quietly move up and pick up the trailing end of your check rope, then ask your partner to move in to make the flush. If the dog breaks, pull him back off his feet with the check rope, pick him up with a shake and place him back in position with a stern command to "whoa."

A couple of these sessions will normally regain control of the trained but disobedient dog.

Training while hunting is a problem because it's hard to have the control needed in these off-the-cuff situations, but on the other hand, no training set-up can perfectly emulate the actual hunt and this is where it counts.

Correction in the field is to be expected and needed with most useful hunting dogs--just have your check rope handy.

The check rope is one tool or method of control no trainer-hunter should be without while working dogs. It has any number of uses, giving you a "longer handle" for better control.

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