There is a misconception among bird dog owners that mastering the most difficult training drills is the key to having the best in-the-field dog performance. In reality, the best pheasant, quail and grouse dogs share something else in common — a solid foundation of basic dog obedience training.
One of the most common mistakes I see amateur trainers make is trying to rush their puppies, and later their young dogs, through training so that they can focus on advanced drills. But for nearly all of us, a slow and steady training progression is the best bet because if you don't nail down the fundamentals of obedience you'll never have a dog that is as good as he could be.
It's really that simple.
This isn't just crucial to the hunting aspect of our dogs, but is also necessary for their behavior in the house. Since most of our bird dogs also pull double-duty as family pets, they need to not only follow directions in the field but in the living room.
And it all starts as soon as you pick up your pup.
The First Steps
Basic dog obedience is basic obedience no matter what breed of dog you have — Lab, Chessie, Bernese mountain dogs, they need to be obedient.
Every dog needs to understand basic commands, and if you've got a hunting dog it is absolutely imperative. This not only ensures a better time hunting, but also a safer time hunting.
To start, force yourself to slow down and focus on one command at a time with the plan to work through all of the basics, which include: sit, stay, heel, down, kennel and place. If you've got a pointing dog, you'll also want to include the "whoa" command.
Dogs aged eight to 20 weeks have a very short attention span, so if you're focusing on "sit" for the first command expect to work for only a minute at most before taking a break.
This may seem too short, but it's not. A minute of training, followed by a minute or two of something fun is really all you need to start a pup off correctly. Sixty seconds of training immediately followed by a session of playing will be just right to keep the dog interested and instill the certainty that a little work leads to a little play, which is key.
You want your dog to want to work for you, and a play reward is ideal for setting that stage. The play sessions also help the dog regain his focus for the next round, which wrings out the most efficiency with each short training session.
A well-bred dog won't take long to grasp some of the basic commands, which is why a lot of us make the assumption that training will be easy and fast. For example, your new superstar of a puppy might seem to fully understand the sit command after a day or two. That's great, but it doesn't mean that you should move on and forget to work on the sit command.
Instead, introduce a new command like stay, but always revisit the sit command. You don't want to lose the ground gained through the first command, so it's always necessary to go back and review — with every session, without question. This serves the purpose of letting you know exactly where your dog is training-wise, and it also helps the dog by giving him confidence.
While learning something new he will get confused, but if you backtrack to a command he already has a handle on, he will grow more confident, which translates to better training and overall knowledge retention.
As you conclude each training session, end it on a fun note. For many upland bird dogs, this might involve a simple retrieve or two. No matter what, use a release command to indicate it's time for some fun. I like to use "okay" as my fun cue, but you can use whatever you'd like.
What if you don't have a puppy? Perhaps you've got a three-year-old dog that has plenty of potential but doesn't hunt quite the way you'd like him to. This undoubtedly exists because the dog was allowed to develop bad habits as a puppy.
I look at this like weed growth. By the time the bad habits, like weeds, have grown, it's difficult to keep them in check. You can trim them down, but they always want to grow back. Bad habits developing in your bird dog tend to become chronic issues, and they necessitate a training plan.
If your dog seems to fit into this category, start from the beginning. This may seem counterproductive if your dog has some of the basics like "sit" and "heel" down, but he needs to have everything 100 percent mastered. Without that, his behavior will continue to give you fits.
The good thing about going backwards with an older dog is that the attention span is usually better than that of a puppy's. But this is still not a green light for three-hour training sessions. Drills don't need to be as short in duration as those with a puppy, but they shouldn't drag out too long.
I'd much rather train for five minutes at a time instead of an hour. To me this is very similar to something I see every year with one of my life's other passions — bowhunting. To be a good shot with archery tackle, you need to shoot all year long. And it's not necessary to shoot 150 arrows at a time; a dozen arrows a day is perfect.
Too many bowhunters try to cram a year's worth of practice into a month ahead of the season, which is just like dog owners trying to square away a dog in a month or two when the process actually requires years.
On this note, it's important to remember that you need to make time to train. It doesn't take much of a commitment each day, but it does take a little bit. Carve out 15 minutes every day to work with your dog on specific drills. This will help him understand his basic dog obedience commands much better than a five-hour, once-per-week session during the weekend.
How you maintain goals and a training schedule will directly translate to how good of a dog you really have. For this process, I keep a simple ledger with not only my goals for any given week or month, but also our daily progress. It's easy to forget just where your dog is at throughout the process, and notes in a ledger will allow you to start right where you've left off.
As the weeks go by, you'll want to know how far you've come. The best way to judge this is to gauge your dog's behavior during the first session of any given day. If your dog starts fresh and performs flawlessly, he has it down. If he stumbles a bit or seems confused, you know what you've got to work on.
If you measure success by the last drill of the day, you will have given your dog a refresher course and he'll appear to be further ahead than he really is. Knowledge retention is the key, and that is best measured by the first session of a fresh day.
If you keep a ledger and pay attention to the skills your dog exhibits during the initial training session each day, you'll have a good grasp on your dog's learning curve. What you may notice, unfortunately, is that your pup is kind of slow catching on to things. This is okay; it just requires you to slow down further.
When I run into a dog that seems to struggle more than others, I'll run multiple sessions per day with each comprising the same amount of time. With ample breaks between drills, the dog will eventually catch up and retain the commands he is struggling to learn.
Just like with children, dogs learn at their own pace and there is nothing we can do to change that except work with them in the best way possible.
The best dog trainers I know are those who aren't afraid to admit they don't know what they don't know. Amateur trainers would do well to admit the same, and seek the help of those who do know. There are a host of quality training books and DVDs available to walk you through training drills for every command you can imagine.
This is a great way to understand the intricacies of each command, and why training a certain way may be the best method. Not only do quality training materials give you insight into each step of the basic obedience commands, they will also help you transition to those more complicated commands and drills that truly finish out a good bird dog.
In addition to providing much-needed information on what to do to train for each command, good training material will walk you through the frustration of training stumbles. Dogs will have good days, and they'll have bad days. How you handle the days when nothing is going right will predict how well your dog will turn out overall. Every dog has off-days; handle them correctly and you'll keep your dog on the right track.
The ultimate goal of dog obedience training is to establish a truly solid base for your dog to expand on. Every advanced skill your dog will potentially learn to help him recover wounded roosters, or stop immediately when you spot a porcupine in the grouse woods, begins with solid fundamentals. Without them, your entire time with your hunting dog will involve daily behavioral struggles.
You want to make sure that when you give a command, your dog responds. Once you've committed to that directive, he should understand there is no room for disobedience. This responsibility isn't solely his, however, because you should also understand that you're never to give a command that you're not willing to reinforce.
Knowing this, and knowing that proper obedience training involves countless baby steps, will result in the dog that is a true standout in.