If I have a guiding principle in the realm of training dogs; it's that it's far more a process of repetition than rocket science. And so it goes with potential problems: the way to cure them is to avoid them through a constant repetition of good behavior. In order to do that, however, some of you — and I was certainly one — may have to look at the training process in a different way.
Back in the day, when I was still pretty clueless about training protocol (and no, that wasn't last week, but thanks for the helpful suggestion), I sometimes bought into ads that promised quick results. I really wanted to believe some of that stuff — that if I just knew the secret technique or had the right tools, I'd be able to bypass generations of traditional dog training methods and have a finished dog in a fraction of the time.
There was a grain of truth to some of that nonsense. E-collars can certainly nip bad potential behavior in the bud, as thousands of owners of snake-proofed bird dogs will attest. But curing an ongoing, well-defined problem is one thing; training is a horse of a different color. Effective training is a long-term commitment, and in that respect it hasn't changed in a couple hundred years. So a far more realistic approach is to concentrate on thoroughness, not speed, and to anticipate future problems and plan for them.
For the sake of this piece, let's put aside the truly weird stuff — dogs that bark at people in pink shirts or chase their tails until they collapse, that type of thing — and focus on problems that every trainer, from the first-time dog owner to an established professional, wants to prevent. For that, we might as well start at the beginning, with gun-shyness.
Acclimating your new pup to the sound of gunfire isn't difficult, and there is more than one way to do it correctly. Yet, I'm continually amazed at the creative ways people find to screw it up. Whatever you do, don't introduce your dog to gunfire by taking it to a gun range or shooting a shotgun over its head to "see what it will do."
Thousands of dogs have been introduced to gunfire this way, and true enough, most seem to weather the experience with no ill effects. But why take a chance? Gun-shyness is easy to prevent, but nearly impossible to cure. You need to do a thorough, gradual job and you need to do it slowly.
Start by introducing your new pup to gamebirds. I've covered this extensively in this column so I won't go into further details here. The idea is to get your puppy chasing the bird, something it should love to do. When your pup has had two or three weeks of daily bird chasing under its belt you're ready to introduce gunfire.
I start with a simple clapper I make with two boards joined on one end with a hinge. When they're slapped together, they make a sharp "crack!" The harder you smack them, the louder the noise. When the dog's complete attention is focused on chasing the bird, I make two or three mild cracks with the clapper and observe the dog.
Nine times out of 10, they completely ignore the sound. After a few days of that, I switch to a starting pistol held behind my back, then fire it progressively closer to the dog. Eventually, I switch to a 20-gauge shotgun, fired at successively closer ranges, always while the dog is chasing the bird.
This is nothing new and it's certainly not a technique I invented. The point is to stay with it. Stopping too soon allows for the possibility of your dog being spooked by too much gunfire. From beginning to end, the process takes me a minimum of two months, often longer. If the dog shows the slightest unease at the sound of the shot — not uncommon — I back off and slow down. When he finally graduates, however, he's good to go. I've never had a dog backslide after it's been put through several months of a slow, gradual acclimatization to gunfire.
Avoiding problems in the future is as much a process of knowing how you want your dog to behave as it is a process of knowing what you don't want. Want your dog to quarter in the pocket? Loosely defined, "quartering in the pocket" means that your dog works an area in front of you between 10 and 2 o'clock (9 and 3 o'clock is also acceptable).
It's a great idea, but exactly how do you get your dog to do that? For years, I hadn't a clue. My dogs ran all over the damn landscape, including behind me. Some still do. Then I happened across a few sentences addressing that very subject in the late Bob Wehle's book, Wing & Shot. He suggested keeping puppies on a lead and gently pulling them forward whenever they fell behind, then teaching them to turn forward on two whistle blasts.
I gave it a try, and lo and behold, it worked like a charm. But it didn't happen overnight. I started Tango, my newest pup, when she was just a few weeks old, and continued to work with her on it until she began hunting nine months later. Today, she reliably quarters in the pocket and when needed, turns on two whistle blasts. Problem avoided.
Thinking of training as instilling gradually accumulated skills in your pup's noggin turns your thoughts to the future and where you want him to be in one, two or even three years, not next week. Nowhere is that more true than when training your dog to whoa and come, perhaps the two most important commands he'll ever learn. The nuts and bolts of teaching both commands aren't difficult, and again, there are perfectly good ways to teach them. But it's the process that is critical and what I want to talk about here.
Over the years, I've found it helpful to look at training as consisting of two stages: the first stage, during which your dog is schooled in the actual mechanics of whatever it is you're trying to get him to do, and the second stage, in which you reinforce what he's learned while he's actually hunting. The first stage is critical, but the second stage is what you're shooting for.
Let's say you've trained your dog to whoa on a bench followed by a whoa board, then progressed to planted birds in the field (essentially the way I do it). You now have a dog that whoas reliably on planted birds. Is he ready to hunt? Nope.
What your dog needs now are distractions. Distractions, after all, are what he'll be bombarded with on an actual hunt — other dogs, other hunters, the exciting scent of wild birds; smells and sounds he's never scented or heard before. Controlled distractions added now are how you prevent your dog from being rattled by uncontrolled distractions later.
Distractions can be just about anything, as long as you introduce them gradually. Moving a dog out of its familiar environment and into a new one — say, a completely new training field — may be all the distraction he can handle at first. Then, as the bird flies off, you'll want to add gunfire. Having another person accompany you adds another level of distraction. The point of these exercises is that your dog must remain steady on "whoa" until you send him on, no matter the distraction.
Training your dog to come on command? Distractions will work here, too. You'll first want to train him to recall from farther and farther away (distance is a powerful distraction). Then teach him to recall while he's playing or running with another dog. When he'll do that, he's ready for the field.
At this point, your dog should have at least a couple months of whoa and recall training, both with and without distractions, under his belt. It would be a waste and a shame to throw away all your hard work on his first day of hunting. So don't. Have a game plan. Anticipate what might go wrong (you should have a pretty good idea after having spent weeks observing his reaction to distractions), and rehearse how you'll respond when (not if) something does. Forget about shooting birds; let someone else do that while you handle your dog.
Keep your eye on long-term goals and your dog on the path of righteousness. Eventually, you'll have a dog that, by and large, does the right thing out of habit. And that is a very pleasant place to be, indeed.