In the fall, I travel north to my old training grounds in New York’s Hudson Valley, where I work alongside my friend and fellow trainer, Dan Lussen. During this time, we often partake in what we like to call “train the trainer.” I find that training or re-training humans to communicate with their dogs properly is the most impactful element of a gun dog’s future success.
Owners are terrifically inconsistent in their delivery of verbal commands. Too frequently it seems that dog owners simply assume their animals are native English speakers. I see owners inadvertently associating multiple terms with the same desired behavior (i.e. here, come, come here for a recall, no, don’t, stop to indicate undesirable action). I see owners speak to a dog in full sentences, as if the dog can interpret dialog (i.e. get over here now!). So often I see owners default to repeating a command with increasing volume and energy when the dog fails to accomplish the desired behavior.
All of this said, verbal commands and audible commands, such as whistle blasts, are key handling and training tools. Flushing dogs in particular benefit from a small assortment of verbal commands that enable a handler to communicate with the dog remotely. Verbal and audible commands are key, but they must be taught and delivered in an efficient, intentional manner. Here are a few critical verbal commands for flushing dogs, how to associate those commands with behaviors, and how to best communicate those commands to your dog.
- Hup or Sit: This command is given to make a dog sit and stay, either at heel or mid-cast. This command is also often delivered with a prolonged single whistle, accompanied by a raised hand.
- Come or Here: This recall command is taught early and reinforced frequently. The recall command should be single-syllable with a hard vowel sound ideally, so that it can be heard at a distance. Multiple quick “pips” on the whistle can also serve as a recall.
- Heel: Personally, I rarely teach a verbal heel command. Instead, I assume that the dog will learn to heel as the necessary behavior when walking on leash.
- Dog’s Name or OK: Release command. This should allow the dog to return to hunting, or take off on a retrieve after a bird is shot (if the dog is trained to hup on the flush and fall).
- Back or Dead: The release command to make a blind retrieve. In essence, a command to go use the nose to sniff out a dead bird that may not have been marked on the fall.
- Two Quick Pips on the Whistle: Change direction at the end of a cast.
These common verbal commands can all be overlaid during the training process, with a few general considerations. Foremost among these is the absolute necessity of staying consistent. Trainers and handlers need to pick a command and stick with it. Dogs respond to concise commands that are delivered with consistent energy and enthusiasm. They will learn most quickly and most effectively when the audible or verbal command is attached to the behavior, and delivered in identical fashion each and every time.
Putting Commands into Play
The trainer must first establish the desired behavior. In the case of the sit or hup command, we start with the dog close, and on a lead. We introduce a treat and hold it high. As the dog focuses on the raised treat, it forces the dog’s head upward, which invariably forces his hind end down. This is the desired behavior, and it is rewarded with the treat. After this behavior has been established, it can be labeled with a verbal command. As the treat goes up and the dog begins to sit, firmly but confidently speak the word “sit” or “hup.” Deliver the chosen command only once, and reward the desired behavior. In future sessions, always use the same command, and continue to reward the desired behavior. As the dog begins to associate the command with the behavior, offer the command first to initiate the behavior, and then treat.
This process applies to all intended behaviors, and the labeling of them. Remember, establish the intended behavior first, label it, and then initiate it with the verbal command. If matters go sideways, take a step back. Establish the desired behavior by controlling the environment. Don’t ever give the command and hope it works, or give the command multiple times assuming that at some point it will work. The command should be given with confidence, and compliance should be consistent.
I typically introduce an audible whistle command after the verbal command has been cemented. This feels like a good progression, allowing the dog to build on lessons that have been put in place already. To overlay a whistle command, simply give the verbal command and follow immediately with a whistle command.
Delivering commands is a central part of training flushing dogs. Flushers work close, and by design they must remain in close contact with the handler. There is, in some ways, a steady dialog that occurs between flusher and handler, and some degree of this communication can and should be accomplished through words and whistle.
The key to this communication remaining intact, however, lies in establishing the behavior, associating the behavior with a command, and then remaining steadfastly consistent about that association. Only with such clarity and consistency can a bird dog be at its best, and the handler be his or her most effective in training.