Skip to main content

2 Commands That Could Save Your Gun Dog

2 Commands That Could Save Your Gun Dog
Photo Credit: Chip Laughton

Problem

What can I do to keep my dog safe when hunting? There are skunks, raccoons, badgers, and bobcats. There are poisonous snakes and the odd porcupine, as well as waiting tangles of barbed wire set to put V-shaped rips in his chest. There are dead pigs left to rot and be rolled in, or too-fresh cow droppings. There are deer and jackrabbits and feral cats heading hell-bent toward a busy blacktop road with your dog hot on their heels. And scariest of all is suddenly coming upon a sign telling you this is a government coyote control program, KEEP AWAY, warning of the strychnine guns strategically placed with the enticing meat begging to be grabbed. If you have hunted in the Midwest pheasant belt any time at all, you have run into many of these inherent dangers. So, how do you avoid a catastrophe waiting to happen?

Answer

What you need to do: Obedience training. There are two commands your dog must be trained to instantly obey. One is the “down” command (also called “drop,” or in German, “das Halt”). The other necessary command is “leave it.” Both commands must be instantly obeyed every time and at any distance, no matter what distractions there are to tempt disobedience. The dog’s compliance has to be absolute, and there are no exceptions.

Training for the “down,” “drop,” or “halt,” command (or whatever other word you want to use for this) is detailed in a step-by-step procedure in the NAVHDA “Green Book” (The Training and Care of the Versatile Hunting Dog by Bodo Winterhelt and Ed Bailey, Chapter 9, pages 89-95). I suggest you use one of the early printings, because this chapter was altered in later printings and was somewhat watered down by some well-meaning soul.

There is no praise, no treats, no pats on the head or good boy in the “down.” It is not a request to do something. It is a must, without hesitation or question. The dog should already be well-versed in walking at heel on and off leash, knows “sit,” and knows “come” when called.


The dog is started on the “down” from a sitting position by your left knee, on leash. The dog’s front legs are lifted and moved forward with your right hand, while your left hand puts pressure on the back of his neck just at the base of the skull. As these two things are being done, the command to “drop” or “down” is given, and the dog is forced onto the ground with the his chin flat on the ground, his head between his two front paws, and he is held there until he relaxes. Hands are shifted to left hand on the rump, right hand on the neck behind the head. This is the required “down” posture. Then, slowly lift your hands. If the dog stays, you can stand up straight and wait a few seconds, and with the “come” or “heel” command, walk the dog away for a few minutes before repeating the “down” sequence.


The more-cooperative dog will soon learn to go down flat on the command alone, without the need for hand pressure. For the more difficult dog, you might need to run the leash under your foot so you can pull him down. When the dog has learned to go down on the word alone and stay until told to come, add distractions of all kinds like walking around him, stepping back and forth over him, going out of sight, rolling a ball or a bone past his face, etc. He should stay put. If he moves or lifts his head, quickly put him back into the position. Do not tolerate the slightest mistakes.

At this same time, introduce a second command—a single blast on a whistle—followed immediately by the already learned word command. After a few pairings of whistle and word, the dog will respond equally well to either command. A third command—a raised arm, palm of hand faced toward the dog—can be added to the front of the chain, so the dog will respond equally well to a visual command, a whistle command, and a verbal command. Then all of this must be repeated again outside in the field, and with the dog off leash and at increased distances.

When your dog has learned the “down” command, you can ease off. It would be perfectly ok to allow the dog to stop and sit if you like, as long as he stops immediately upon command.

Leave It Command

A bonus: When the dog has mastered the three commands, a deer jumping up in front of him followed by the whistle to stop him will act as a fourth command in the process of training. Just like adding whistle and hand, a whitetail’s flag will act as a command. A flushed bird can work the same way, and in a time or two the dog will be steady to flush. A shot at a bird followed by a whistle or word, repeated a few times, and the dog is steady to shot because the shot becomes another command for stopping the dog.


The “leave it” command is less work-intensive, but it must also be totally failsafe. “Leave it” must be obeyed instantly, or even sniffing one more time, because it could save your dog’s life.

Begin inside, or in an enclosed area without any distractions. Place some enticing object, toy, or edible in an easily seen place. Walk your leashed dog at heel past the object, and just at the moment your dog notices the object and shows interest, command “leave it” combined with a quick tug on the leash and guide your dog back to you and away from the object. Quickly reward your dog with a small treat or praise, and enthusiastically lead him away in a new direction. Repeat with a variety of the most enticing objects you can find until the dog is responding instantly on the command alone, without a tug on the leash. Repeat the whole process with the dog off leash but under control at heel.

Next, you must repeat the whole process in the field with the dog actively searching, or make-believe hunting on a walk in a field where you have previously planted the objects to be avoided. You might need to use a mild shock reminder in a free-ranging, harder-headed, less-cooperative dog. A shock following a disobeyed “leave it” will help him to remember the command.


Do not use a loud “leave it,” or a “no,” or any negative command by itself. Dogs will learn faster if a negative is quickly followed by a mind-changing, positive thing. Hopefully, something he thinks is better than what he has just given up.

Hunters usually do not train their dogs to the “down” or the “leave it” commands, although they should. Most prefer “whoa” instead, and expect compliance. “Whoa” is good if you first have control and want the dog to be still, like on a training table or a vet’s examining-room table. But to keep your dog safe during the excitement of hunting, you need something much stronger. You need “DOWN” and “LEAVE IT!”

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Recommended Articles

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

Gun Dog: Shed Antler Training 12

Gun Dog: Shed Antler Training 12

Gun Dog: Shed Antler Training 12

Gun Dog: Shed Antler Training 4

Gun Dog: Shed Antler Training 4

Gun Dog: Shed Antler Training 4

Gun Dog: Shed Antler Training 8

Gun Dog: Shed Antler Training 8

Gun Dog: Shed Antler Training 8

Gun Dog: Shed Antler Training 6

Gun Dog: Shed Antler Training 6

Gun Dog: Shed Antler Training 6

See More Popular Videos

Trending Articles

The hard part about training gun dogs is getting them to go against their natural behaviors. Unnatural Behaviors: Training Gun Dogs to Hunt Training

Unnatural Behaviors: Training Gun Dogs to Hunt

Tony J. Peterson

The hard part about training gun dogs is getting them to go against their natural behaviors.

Whether you're building or buying a new dog kennel, following these simple guidelines will ensure a safe and comfy home for your favorite hunting buddy.How To Build the Perfect Dog Kennel How-To

How To Build the Perfect Dog Kennel

Jerry Thoms

Whether you're building or buying a new dog kennel, following these simple guidelines will...

Kyle Wintersteen does a dog breed comparison on Chessies and Labs. See how these two breeds stack up.Dog Breed Comparison: Chessies vs. Labs Profiles

Dog Breed Comparison: Chessies vs. Labs

Kyle Wintersteen

Kyle Wintersteen does a dog breed comparison on Chessies and Labs. See how these two breeds...

You've heard it before: it takes birds to make a bird dog.

Sure, you can train—at least to aWhy You Should Be Training with Penned Birds Training

Why You Should Be Training with Penned Birds

Dave Carty

You've heard it before: it takes birds to make a bird dog. Sure, you can train — at...

See More Trending Articles

More Training

You can learn a lot about what your dog is trying to tell you if you take the time to listen to it.What the Barking Dog is Telling Us Training

What the Barking Dog is Telling Us

Ed Bailey

You can learn a lot about what your dog is trying to tell you if you take the time to listen...

Puppy training should start the moment you pick up your new gun dog. Retriever Training from Day One Training

Retriever Training from Day One

Tom Dokken

Puppy training should start the moment you pick up your new gun dog.

To create a truly well-rounded, versatile hunting dog, you must adhere to four basic principles.Principles of Versatile Hunting Dog Training Training

Principles of Versatile Hunting Dog Training

Ben Brettingen

To create a truly well-rounded, versatile hunting dog, you must adhere to four basic...

See More Training

Magazine Cover

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Digital Now Included!

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE Arrow

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Phone Icon

Get Digital Access.

All Gun Dog subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit mymagnow.com and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now