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Don't Believe These Gun Dog Training Myths

Don't Believe These Gun Dog Training Myths
Photo Credit: Dale Spartas

I’m embarrassed to admit that from time to time I grow weary of the expensive South American shooting expeditions, bales of cash and adulation I receive, gratis, for my humble role as the pointing dog columnist in this fine magazine. Perhaps, I was musing this morning, I need a few poison pen letters to swing the balance a bit in the other direction, the receipt of which my editor here at GUN DOG immensely enjoys. [Editor’s note: Not!]

So here I go, again. What follows are some common training myths that just don’t pan out.

Never Shoot A Bird Your Dog Doesn’t Point

I got my first bird dog, a Brittany, when I was 12, and although a lot of my memory of those years is a bit hazy, I would bet the ranch that my untrained dog flushed as many quail as he pointed. I blasted away at every single one of them.

I’ve had years to reflect on those days, and I’ve trained a fair number of dogs since, and I’ve yet to find that shooting an unpointed bird hampers a dog’s desire or ability to point birds in any way.

The theory is that a dog that is rewarded for not pointing, i.e., having an unpointed bird killed over it, will revert to flushing. As theories go, it’s relatively sound. But in practice, it doesn’t work that way.

A well-bred pointing dog wants to point birds. Granted, that instinct is stronger in some dogs than others, but the answer to that problem is to buy well-bred dogs from an established American breed—pointers, setters, Brittanys, GSPs, vizslas, and so on.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that you should make shooting unpointed birds a habit. If your dog deliberately busts a covey, give him the correction he deserves. But if you killed a bird on the covey rise, because, well, you haven’t killed a bird in a week and you really want a bird for the freezer, don’t worry about it. Your pup will be fine.

Force Breaking Cures Hard Mouth

No, it doesn’t. Not pointing dogs, anyway. I’ve probably force broken two or three dozen pointers in the last dozen years, including every dog I’ve personally owned in that time, and it didn’t cure hard mouth in a single one of them. What it does do, and does well, is allow you to control their retrieving, and forces the issue should they decide to refuse to retrieve. Which, incidentally, they all will do sooner or later.

So, unless my dog is showing a high degree of natural retrieving instinct, I force break all of my own dogs for the reasons just given. In my opinion, and in the opinion of other dog trainers I know, a hard mouth is probably genetic. There are corrective measures you can take with a hard-mouthed, force-broken dog that sometimes work, but as for the process of force breaking itself fixing the problem, it’s never worked for me.

You Can Train Your Dog To Hunt Close

This myth has caused more aggravation and heartache than probably any other I know of. When I moved to Montana lo, these many years ago, I was told by just about everyone who ostensibly knew what they were talking about that I needed big-running dogs to hunt prairie birds like Huns and sharptailed grouse. So that’s what I bought, and I spent the next 20 years or so hunting over dogs who were so far away I couldn’t see them, following up points on dogs that were so distant that the birds were long gone by the time I got there.

It was an aggravating, frustrating way to hunt, and although no one has ever accused me of being quick on the uptake, I did eventually figure it out and switch to dogs that were bred to hunt at a much closer range.

But myths die hard, and a corollary to this myth is that you can train a big-running dog to hunt close.

There may be a dog out there somewhere that’s been trained to do that, but if there is, I haven’t seen him. Dogs that are genetically programmed to hunt at 500 or 800 yards, as several of my dogs have been, will find a way to do just that. You can plant pigeons and teach them to quarter at 50 yards until the cows come home, but once they stop finding birds, they’ll punch out in search of them.

What you can do is hack them, by whistling them in or hitting them with a collar or tone whenever they’re too far out. That’s what I ended up doing on my big-running dogs, and it worked. But it’s not much fun. Buy a dog that’s bred to hunt at a range with which you’re comfortable.

An Older Dog Will Train A Younger Dog

I’ve never been sure how this one got started. Think about it: Trained to do what? Eat garbage? Chew extension cords? Shred your best hunting boots? Puppies can pick up all kinds of bad habits from being around older dogs—as if they need an example, having been born with so many of their own.

But if you think that hunting a young dog with an older dog will teach it to hold point, or come when it’s called, or walk at heel or do any of the other things that a well-schooled pointing dog should do, then, well, I’ve got a nice property overlooking the San Andreas Fault you might be interested in.

Pointing dogs are bred to point, to hunt at a certain range, to be biddable and intelligent. A few are bred with strong retrieving instincts. But if you want a dog to hold its points until you arrive and shoot the bird, if you want it to return promptly on whistle and voice commands, if you want it to slam on the brakes when you give it the command “whoa,” then it’s up to you to train that into him.

There is one situation where pairing a young dog with an older dog makes sense: when the younger dog is just learning to hunt. In that case, the older dog will find the birds, and the younger dog will be exposed to them sooner than it otherwise might have been. But as soon as the pup starts actively looking for birds on his own, it’s time to hunt him on his own.

Pheasants Will Ruin Your Dog

Many, many pro trainers, field trialers and serious amateur trainers hate pheasants. I don’t hunt them much myself, although I used to. They run, they live in rank cover where you can’t see your dog, and a wounded bird can do some serious damage to an impressionable puppy on its first retrieve.

But the biggest reason I hear for not putting a young dog, or any dog, on a pheasant is because they’ll teach them to trail, rather than point. And again, I’ve never found this to be true. I’ve watched young dogs trail a rooster for over a hundred yards, but when the bird finally decided to hold, the dog locked up and pointed it.

But, you say, won’t a dog who trails running roosters become predisposed to trailing and flushing other birds? Not that I’ve ever seen. If, for instance, your dog is hunting woodcock or Mearns quail, which tend to hold rather than run, where, exactly, is your dog going to trail them to?

This whole business of teaching a dog to remain rooted to the spot it first hits scent is counterproductive. Field trialers want their dogs to do just that because, in most trials, they don’t have to worry about shooting the bird.

But hunters want their dogs to find birds they can shoot, and that often means trailing a running bird. In short, a good hunting dog should trail running birds and point sitting birds. One action does not preclude the other.

Okay, I’m done. (I can already hear the collective sighs of relief.) Next month I’ll get off my soapbox and resume my search for truth, justice and the Bird Dog Way.

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