There are many schools of thought on how long it takes to train a flushing dog. I suppose that in truth, a dog never stops learning. Training a gun dog is a process that begins the moment that dog enters your life, and progresses as both the trainer and the dog mature. Ideally, it is a process that continues for many, many years.
Most flushing dogs receive the bulk of their education over a three-month period. I know that some trainers like to have a dog in training for far longer, but I am a firm believer that a good deal of a flushing dog’s education can be accomplished in three months, specifically right around a year of age. Provided that the dog has good breeding, proper socialization, and sufficient manners to take some teaching, three months is more than enough time to work through the fundamentals.
When those fundamentals are communicated efficiently and effectively, they should provide the foundation for a life of drilling and refinement, as well as hunting days afield. But what should an owner or trainer expect to accomplish in those three months?
When I was training professionally, I liked to get dogs into my kennel at about 8-10 months of age. At this point, the dog should be well socialized, physically developed, and confident enough to withstand the stressors of learning new skills. Some dogs would come to me with basic commands such as “sit” or “come” in place, but many had no training whatsoever. I generally like to begin work with a dog that is socialized in such a way that other dogs or external stimuli do not cause them significant distraction. With those criteria accounted for, I can get to work.
In the first month of training a flusher, I aim to:
- Teach a dog to quarter through the training field, referring off me.
- Help a dog get used to and excited about birds.
- Condition a dog to gunfire.
- Encourage a dog to bring a dead bird to hand.
The process of accomplishing these goals is comprehensive. I begin by putting the dog down in the training field and encouraging him out ahead, ranging to alternating sides. Soon after, I begin to roll dead birds in front of me to help build an association between the dog’s proximity to me and the appearance of a bird. I encourage the dog to pick up the dead bird and bring it back to me, keeping the retrieve quite short. When things go as they should, this process creates a dog that quarters well but remains “sticky” (referring back to me regularly as a magical source of birds) and has a sense that bringing a bird back to me is a good thing. Lots of praise and treats at this stage.
After the dead-bird scenario has been repeated for several sessions, I do the same procedure with a wing-clipped bird, and then a flyer. The wing-clipped bird is more enticing and dynamic, and its presence enables the dog to up his intensity, ideally heightening the prey drive. The beauty of greater intensity is that it can be leveraged to distract the dog from other stimuli, which is why I take this opportunity to introduce the gun.
I introduce gunfire with thrown birds; first dead, then wing-clipped. As the dog is quartering, I will throw the bird and let the dog chase, firing a training pistol in a direction away from the dog, and progressively closer. The sound of the gun and the introduction of a bird creates a positive association. Gunfire equals birds, or so thinks the dog. Again, the bird brought to hand will be rewarded with treats and praise.
In the second month, I work through the shot and fall, hoping to accomplish the following:
- Shoot flyers over the dog.
- Teach the dog to sit on the whistle.
- Teach the dog to sit on the shot.
- Refine the retrieve with repetition.
Sessions in the second month generally build off the first, and I will begin to shoot flying birds more regularly. The dog will flush rolled birds and I will shoot them, encouraging a good, strong retrieve.
At this point, I will also begin to work specifically on the sit/hup command. I start this sequence on the slip lead and teach sit with a verbal command, then add in the whistle. Typically, I will give the verbal command followed by a sustained whistle to build an equivalence or association, translating the action to a verbal command as well as a whistle blast. Over time, provided the dog will hup on a whistle when running in the field, I will add in the association of a gunshot. A similar translation is required, with a sustained whistle and a gunshot overlapping. This lesson requires many reps, but in short order it can be added to the rolled bird sequence and quartering work in the field. In month two, I need to pay attention to quality control. I need to ensure that I add new material at a rate that allows me to keep the quality of the execution high. What I mean to say is, I will not add the distraction of a rolled bird until I have seen exceptional success and consistency of the dog hupping on the whistle and on the gunshot while quartering out ahead. I combine this drilling with continued opportunities to retrieve, ideally over slightly longer distances.
In the final month of training, namely the third month, I focus on the following:
The final month consists of repeated drilling in the hopes of steadying a dog. I generally roll flyers to accomplish this. With the dog quartering, I roll flyers into the field and let him flush them. The flushed birds are shot in the air, and I command the dog to hup on the shot. This is a sequence that essentially represents the work of a trained dog, and if there is a breakdown here, I simply move backward. Occasionally, I will need to re-drill the retrieve, or the sit whistle, or other finer points of the process. The beauty is that training a flushing dog is a logical progression, so backward steps simply build up foundational skills that will serve the dog throughout.
Repeated drilling, lots of birds, and a consistent hand will steady a dog by the end of three months.