All too often I see people take a young dog, introduce it to birds, work on basic retrieving in the yard and graduate to gunfire introduction. They start taking the dog hunting and over time count on the fact that the dog will develop into an experienced hunter.
Dogs with great genetics and natural talent may progress this way, but this is a limited approach and it will not work consistently. Unfortunately (and I am coming from the retriever world) upland training is often treated as an afterthought. But pointer or flusher, there are key steps you can take when training your pup to take performance to the next level.
I would like to acknowledge that we all have preferences in what we'd like to see in our hunting dogs. Some of us are after a level of steadiness required in a finished level hunt test, while others are not. I am not going to get into all of that in this article; the following tips are intended to build fundamental skills in our dogs to be better and more efficient hunters, regardless of whether we want a finished level performer, trial dog or an excellent hunting companion.
I don't care what your goal is with your dog; they all need a very solid and thorough basic obedience program. All field training, at any level, is built upon your basic obedience commands. During our basic obedience training we are also introducing our dogs to the concept of being taught something; in a sense we are teaching them how to learn.
They are introduced to verbal corrections, basic lead corrections and likely some kind of training collar (nonelectric, such as a choke chain). All of those corrections are a basic introduction to pressure, another critical element to training our hunting dogs. Pressure is any form of correction given to a dog used to deter undesired behavior and teach a desired behavior as a result.
For example, when a dog is told to sit and the handler pulls up on the lead that is considered a form of pressure. The pressure will be reduced when the dog sits. The dog is learning how to turn that pressure off by sitting, and this is exactly how all training will take place as the dog progresses.
Additionally, we want to build our fundamental basic commands. These can vary based on personal preference. Many pointer handlers prefer to not teach their dogs to sit until they have completed bird introduction and established basic pointing skills. (The idea is to avoid a dog sitting when they find a bird.) Spaniel handlers generally prefer the term "hup" rather than "sit," and so on.
It is important to establish a few basic commands such as a recall command ("here" or "come," as well as a whistle recall), and a command that instructs a dog to load into the truck or trailer (such as "kennel"). Basic obedience is also the first area in which you will begin to introduce your dog to e-collar pressure, so while it is the starting point in our training, it really is the foundation of everything.
BIRD AND GUN INTRO
We all know that we want to expose our pups to birds and gunfire at some point, but there are a few questions that must be considered. What is our puppy's demeanor? Is our pup tentative, shy and apprehensive when we have him outside or take him places? Or is our dog extremely confident and bold?
The answers to these questions will change how we introduce a pup to birds or the gun. Here is some free advice: always introduce birds first!
Once a dog is crazy about birds and loves chasing them and retrieving them it is time to bring some introductory gunfire to the mix. I am a big fan of blank pistols (.22 or .209 primers) for this introduction.
The next time you take your dog out and put him on a clip-wing bird, have a helper stand about 100 yards away with a blank pistol. As your pup is chasing the bird and occupied by excitement, signal to your help to fire a shot.
Read your dog; if he acts as if he didn't hear it, signal for a second and third shot. If you still get no reaction, signal for the fourth shot and so on. You can gradually over a few days (or even weeks, depending on the dog) bring your helper closer to the dog and shoot the blanks.
I would recommend getting closer to the dog in increments of 20 yards or so. There is no need to rush, and by taking this approach you are conditioning the dog to gunfire simulation along with the excitement of birds.
It is a positive association on their part, and that will only help when bringing the real shotgun into the picture. Eventually you will graduate to the 20-gauge shotgun and do the same thing, starting at 100 yards away.
THE TRAINED RETRIEVE
This process is also referred to as "force fetch." This article is not going to describe the process, but I am going to advocate it and say that as an extension of your basic obedience program, the trained retrieve process will further develop your dog's ability to interpret and "turn off " training pressure.
This process is no different than our basics; we need to teach a dog what we want him to do. Through repetition, the dog will demonstrate further understanding that by complying with your commands, the pressure turns off.
"Force fetch" will yield a dog that will retrieve on command and deliver to hand, but it is much more important than that. Keep in mind that no two dogs are the same, and they respond differently to stimulation. Our goal is to maintain a positive attitude in our dogs; once you notice that going away, it is time to back up and continue teaching before more pressure is added.
If you are not experienced with the force fetch process it is wise to seek out the help of a professional trainer or someone with experience.
"Simple retrieves" refers to throwing birds or dummies for our dogs and developing their marking ability, i.e., watching birds fall and going to pick them up.
I do not care if you run tests, trials or just hunt; nor do I especially care what kind of dog you run in the field, but all dogs need to be able to mark fallen birds at varying distances among varying conditions. They need to be reliable markers because we will encounter all kinds of marks in the field.
We shoot birds in various types of cover, terrain and over water, all of which change a dog's perspective while marking fallen game. If we are lucky, we encounter multiple marks — two or more birds down — making marking skills that much more important.
Quartering is the area in upland gun dog training that inspired this article. I see so many dog owners put their dogs out in the field and let them run around until they locate a planted bird in training. They shoot the bird, have the dog retrieve it and let them continue this aimless wandering in search of birds.
I'll admit this is what I did for years with the first few dogs I trained. Dogs with exceptional brains (and noses) would quickly learn to use the wind and teach themselves how to cover a field, but we as trainers can help them sooner if we do the right things.
As a retriever guy, I learned a lot about teaching quartering by talking to spaniel trainers. These guys teach their dogs to quarter in a precise pattern that results in a dog covering every inch of a field. The pattern is close and consistent. The back and forth "windshield wiper" pattern allows for a methodical and controlled pursuit of birds.
As retrievers have been allowed to run in AKC spaniel tests recently, I am seeing this concept being done in retriever training as well. The pattern is quite simple to achieve. You can use white buckets or lining poles and teach the dog to run side to side to each marker. This takes time, but the pattern becomes a regular thing and you'll see the dog is very thorough in terms of ground covered.
Another method to either accompany or replace the pattern method is using two helpers in the field with you. Each helper will have a pigeon or bird in hand and they will take turns calling the dog to them. Through repetition the concept of going side to side and covering ground in such a pattern will become more apparent to your dog. Gradually, you can plant scented dummies or dead birds in the field so that while your dog is running this quartering pattern, he will find birds.
For flushing breeds using dead birds to start is a great way to build strong flushes. The dogs find the bird and can pick it up, developing confidence to go right after the bird they smell. With pointers, we will want to mark the areas in which a bird is planted with orange tape so that you can tell if the dog is scenting them and pointing, or not.
I would not use dead birds initially as we do not want a pointing dog to catch birds in the field. Live birds that can fly are the best way to go, and launchers can be used as well. This process will yield a dog that quarters much more deliberately, and consequently a closer working dog, which is preferred by most foot hunters.
Finally, I have always said that we can truly measure the ability of an upland dog not in the first hour of the hunt, but the last. Do not overload the field with birds within the first 100 yards. We do not want dogs to learn that birds are found quickly every time and as a result wind up with dogs that lose interest in hunting after 20 minutes. This can be accounted for in our quartering work and bird planting simulations.
Do not treat upland training as an afterthought. Proper attention to the basics and socialization can develop a more composed hunting dog that is more efficient and safer to hunt with.