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Building a Bird Dog

Why socialization and obedience are key to sporting dog development.

Building a Bird Dog

Exposure and obedience training are the keys to focus on for the first year of your bird dog's life. (John Hafner photo)

Not everyone likes dogs, but you’ve got to be hard-boiled if you don’t love puppies. The most seasoned bird doggers smile when they peer into a whelping box.  How could they not, for puppies represent possibility, along with hope, faith, love, and everything associated with new beginnings. But puppy development is a deliberate and progressive process, that, if done properly, results in dogs with qualities we admire: boldness, drive, intensity, patience, handle, bird smarts, and a biddable disposition. Some of those traits are genetic for sure, but properly introducing puppies to the world brings out the best in them.

Betsy Danielson of Minnesota’s Northwoods Bird Dogs, Jeremy Criscoe of Florida’s Blue Cypress Kennels, and Mark Fulmer of South Carolina’s Sarahsetter Kennels, know that during the first eight weeks, puppies develop mentally at an astounding rate. Each pro trainer uses puppy development programs that start just days after whelping. Though the methods used by these professionals are different, their objectives are the same: to use a focused and progressive platform to help puppies handle change. When puppies are equipped to handle change their stress levels are reduced. Less stress means better focus.

Handler with puppies
Early handling and human interaction with puppies is the beginning of their socialization and obedience training. (Sarahsetter Kennels photo)

They all handle puppies to expose them to being touched. Sometimes they move puppies in different directions to introduce them to changes in a physical setting. Other times, they introduce sensory changes like noise or temperature fluctuations. The result is that these dogs become relaxed and confident, and equipped to handle training or trialing pressures, long travel, exposure to new environments and birds, and everything else that comes when a dog is put down for a run. These experienced professionals have shared with me a few of the many techniques they use when working with puppies as well as some recommendations for owners to consider as next steps for their pup’s first half year.

Engaging the Mind

For the past 35 years, Betsy Danielson of Minnesota’s Northwoods Bird Dogs has spent considerable time with pointer and setter puppies. “Jerry and I use a super puppy development program at our kennel,” she said. “Beginning on day three and continuing to eight weeks, every benchmark is designed to stimulate the puppy’s learning. By engaging their minds, puppies mature into calm, alert, confident, and responsive dogs. For instance, we constantly handle puppies so they are used to human contact. We turn them around in lots of different directions so they learn to deal with change. We’ll run cold cotton swabs through their paw pads so they are used to a new feeling. It also prepares them to have Hawthorne tines removed just as it readies them to have their nails cut. By week four, we leave the whelping box door open so they can check out the dog run, and that increases their desire to explore confidently. We expose them to crates, and place two or three pups in a kennel at a time. That way they learn it’s fun to load up. There are many other steps, but the point is to expose them to the world in a safe, progressive way. Puppies that learn to handle new things don’t get as stressed.”

When it comes time for owners to pick them up, Danielson advises that they focus on two key attitudes for the first six months. “The first attitude is to expand the puppy’s mental stimulation. Introduction to basic yardwork, water, fields or woods, riding in a kennel, and birds—basically everything. The important part is for owners to let puppies figure things out on their own. Puppies are quick learners, and they learn from both successes and mistakes. Let puppies be puppies and let them learn on their own. It’ll give them confidence and experience, which helps them readily adapt to new situations.

“The second attitude is to remember that during the next six months, a puppy can do no wrong. We let them find and chase birds, and once they realize they can’t catch a grouse or woodcock they settle down and stand their birds. We let them figure out how to cross a creek. They don’t need to do it the way we do, but they do need to get across. Patience and encouragement are essential, particularly because it means owners aren’t overhandling their dogs. The confidence that comes along the way makes formal training easier. If given the opportunity, you’ll see that puppies are a lot smarter than you might think.”

Woman trainer with English setter puppies
Remember that during the first six months, a puppy can do no wrong. (Betsy Danielson photo)

Early Mental Development

Jeremy Criscoe, the Head Trainer at Blue Cypress Kennels, runs a similar early puppy development program for his UK Labrador retrievers. Like Danielson, the Eukanuba Sporting Dog Pro focuses on early mental development. “We interact with our pups a few days after whelping,” he said. “We turn them around from front to back and from side to side. We’ll pull them away from their momma when they are nursing and let them find their way back. Sometimes we’ll change their positions when they’re feeding. Changes in location helps them learn to deal with stress, and from that they become calm adults.

“When they’re three weeks old we alternate noises. One day we’re quiet, and the next day we’re clapping hands. Then we’ll change the lighting. One day the kennel lights are bright and on other days they’re dim. From weeks four through eight we’ll add toys with different squeaker sounds. The noise startles them at first but then they find the toys are fun, and that’s a surprise. We’ll add big tubes for them to crawl through and let them climb over ramps that are low to the ground. Soon, they’re ready to run in the yard. Throughout it all we handle them, expose them to kennels and dog runs, and many things they’ll regularly experience in their lives. I watch their responses to change because it helps me place them in the right home.”


After pickup, Criscoe wants new owners to focus on yard work for the first half year. “Up to six months of age the training should be continued exposure along with regular yard work. Sit, stay, come, and heel are commands to repeat. One key part is to continue to change their environment. If a puppy is only exposed to the short grass in your backyard then they haven’t learned about water or tall grasses. Change up exposures and keep it fun. The real work begins after their adult teeth replace their puppy teeth. That’s between six and eight months of age.”

Trainer walking puppies in tall grass
Exposure to new environments is essential to building your puppy's confidence. (Sarahsetter Kennels photo)

Clicker Training and Obedience

Mark Fulmer of South Carolina’s Sarahsetter Kennels developed his Sarahsetter’s Progressive Early Natural Development program (SPEND) in the early 1990’s. He is one of the earliest positive and clicker trainers in the country and uses both disciplines when working with his English and Irish setter puppies. “I’ve been a fan of clicker training since the early 1990’s,” Fulmer said. “Research shows that between seven and 12 weeks a puppy’s brain develops rapidly. More neurons and connections are created if the brain is actively stimulated. I use clickers to introduce pointing dog puppies to do three things: here, kennel, and place. Those three commands set up the pup for future success with recall, loading up, and for standing birds.

Clicker training is a way to mark the moment the pup does what a handler wants. Clickers are small noisemakers, and the click-sound is made when the pup correctly does the task. A reward immediately follows the click. At seven weeks of age, I start working on a puppy’s recall. I’ll call “here” and when he comes to my side, I make a click and give him a treat. I’ll start handling pups, but after a few days I’ll add a second handler. Now the pup gets used to different handlers giving commands. After a few days we’ll stretch out the distance to 50 feet and repeat the click and reward. We’re teaching the puppy that it’s ok to move out which is what we want him to do when hunting.”

Week eight is when the pup is introduced to the kennel. “I’ll toss a few treats in the kennel. When the puppy smells the treats and goes in, I’ll click every time he picks one up. Then I’ll offer him a treat from my hand and when he takes it, I click. Over the next few days, I’ll extend his time in the kennel to get him used to it. At the end of the week the pup stays in the kennel with the door open until I give the “here” command. When he comes, I click and give him a treat. Now he knows recall and the kennel.”

German Shorthaired Pointer puppy at kennel
Kennel training is an important part of your puppy's first year development. (Erik Peterson photo)

Week nine is the pre-cursor to a place board. “I use a pyramid of place boards,” Fulmer said. “The top is small enough so the puppy learns to stand still to keep from falling off. If the puppy sits, I walk around to the other side. He’ll stand to watch me. I click as soon as he stands and give him a treat. Now the puppy knows to stand and not to move which sets up the woah command.”

It all comes together in weeks eight through 12. “My pups get daily bird contacts between eight and 12 weeks of age. I’ll grab some quail out of the Johnny house, hold them up in front of the puppies and let their wings flap. The puppies light up. Then I’ll toss some birds out in front of them in the field and let them run and chase them. That running gets them used to running ahead, just as they will when hunting. Later on, I’ll plant a field with pigeons and let them rip some birds. They’ll soon realize they can’t catch the pigeons and then they’ll settle down and start pointing and backing. Those points and backs are the combination of genetics and early developmental training, and it comes from stimulating their minds at an early age.”


Over the next several weeks, Fulmer recommends clients to work on “here, kennel, and woah.” It’s also the time for new owners to introduce pups to heeling. “I use a suitcase leash which makes heeling easy. It loops around the pup’s neck and also his waist. By changing pressure, I can reinforce the woah command and take the chase out of the dog. For the first six months, owners should continue bird contacts, expose puppies to new environments, and when appropriate, introduce them to other puppies, dogs and people. Just be careful introducing puppies to adult dogs. A lot of dogs don’t like puppies that much.” The only bad thing about puppies is that they grow up so darn fast. That first half year is critical to their development. Regular training sets them up for success and helps them become confident adults. We only go around once in life, but if we do it right, once is enough. And that is especially true with puppies.

German Wirehaired Pointer puppy at kennel
The hardest part of raising a puppy is watching them grow up too quickly. (Jerry Imprevento photo)
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