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?
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!”