How to Deal with First Year Puppy Issues

A good friend of mine recently shared a closely held secret: his Brittany, then just 8 months old, was creeping on birds. Tell me more, I said. He'd been setting up the pup on planted pigeons all summer, but when he walked past it, the dog broke and crept forward, presumably to flush and chase. Puppies love doing that kind of stuff.

"I mean, that's it? She breaks and creeps when you walk past her?" I asked.

"That's about the size of it," he said glumly.

"Sit down," I told him, "and brace yourself." I ticked off the last half-dozen dogs I'd owned on my fingers, plus another dozen or so I'd trained, then looked at him. "I think every one of those dogs crept when I walked past them," I said. "All puppies creep when you walk past them. When a pup doesn't creep, sell everything you own, drive as fast as you can to the track, and bet on the long-shot to win, because sure as shootin' it's your lucky day."

Creeping in that particular situation isn't even a big enough problem to merit a stiff drink. It's usually easy to cure (calculated, escalating corrections). But there are issues that rate considerably more hair pulling, many of which will surface during a dog's first season. Fix them now and you've got a good chance of licking the problem for good; wait too long and they can become ingrained and much more difficult to cure. Knowing the difference between the two is critical.

I'm often surprised at the scant attention some trainers pay to the things I consider important, and how much sleep they lose over things that don't really matter. Case in point: bumping birds.

Bird Bust 

I once challenged the judgment of my buddy Palmtree when he pointed out that one of my dogs had busted a bird. I corrected him. "He bumped that bird," I said.

"Busted, bumped, no difference," Palmtree said.

That got my Irish up, not a good thing to have happen in close proximity to an ex-cop who is 6-foot-7 and armed, but there you go. Be that as it may, I am not budging. Busting birds is a problem. Bumping birds is a mistake, one all dogs make, old and young, and often unavoidable. Young dogs in particular are prone to bumping birds when their excitement overrides their innate caution and they try to get too close to a wild bird before pointing it.

What's the solution? Let 'em bump. They've got to learn how close they can get, and the sooner they learn that, the quicker they'll quit. Rebuking them after the fact may help, but I wouldn't bet the ranch on it.

On the other hand, if your dog is working a bird and, for whatever reason, you think it's too close and you give it a command to whoa, which it subsequently ignores, that's a problem. Disobeying a command is an issue that segues directly into the realm of obedience training, and a basic grounding in obedience is the foundation of any good bird dog, or at least, any dog that's a pleasure to hunt over.

Before a pointing dog reaches 2 years old (and ideally long before then), he should be grounded in fundamental obedience: whoa, recall to whistle and voice commands, heel, and if you've force-broken him, fetch. That those commands are necessary and important (we can quibble on "heel" and "fetch," but "whoa" and "come" are inviolate), is rarely a matter of debate. Yet over and over I see trainers allowing their young dogs to disobey commands in the field that they've spent all summer hammering in the yard.

Why? I think the answer is simple: most guys hunt a couple dozen times a year, and by God they're going to shoot something on the few days they get to hunt. If the dog doesn't listen, well, they'll deal with that later.

But allowing an impressionable young dog to disobey commands teaches him just one thing: that he can disobey your commands in the field with impunity. And once he realizes that, it can be hell to turn him around again.

Prey Drive

Dogs that chase birds after they've been pointed, flushed and/or shot at may or may not be a problem, depending upon how the dog has been trained. But allow me a bald-faced assertion: most dogs, given their druthers, would chase every bird they saw if they thought they could get away with it.

If your dog is one of those — and he probably is — the first question you have to ask is whether the dog was specifically trained not to chase. At the very least, that means he should reliably recall on whistle or voice commands so you can call him in; better still, he should be steady to flush, or steady to wing, shot and fall. When I get a puppy of my own, or take a year-old dog into my kennel to train, I spend the first few weeks putting the dog into birds, and if he chases them I don't give it a second thought. If the dog has a weaker prey drive than I'd like, letting him chase will get him pumped to find more birds. If he's already got a strong prey drive, letting him chase will lock it in.

But at a certain point, after whoa training begins, chasing stops. I train most dogs to be steady to flush: they hold point until after the gun is fired or they're given a release command. By that time the bird is usually either on the ground or far enough away that the urge to chase is considerably diminished, and for those that do, a quick blast on the whistle — with my thumb poised above the button of my transmitter in case they ignore me — turns them around.

I learned long ago that hunting a young dog with older, more experienced dogs during its first season can be problematic, so I typically recommend against it. The problem is that many youngsters rely too much on the older dog to find birds and don't learn to hunt on their own. But another annoying wrinkle is some dogs, and I currently own one, love playing with other dogs so much they won't settle down and hunt.

Tango, my exquisitely bred, perfect-in-almost-every-other-way English pointer, has a serious case of grab-ass-itis. She worried almost every dog she hunted with to a frazzle during her first season, but during her second season, I'd had enough.

The minute she tried to move toward another dog, she got a nick. Tango is nothing if not persistent, though, and it was well into her third season before she finally settled down. Most dogs take only a few corrections before they're good to go.

A final, and not uncommon problem is dogs that first point and then bust birds. This is an issue that relates directly to how well the dog has been trained to whoa. In my kennel, "whoa" means the dog stops until told to move, period.

Give a dog leeway to determine that on his own and he will — and he'll either bust the bird or break the minute it flushes. So step one is to make absolutely sure the dog is reliably staunch on planted birds, in several different locations.

Step two requires putting down your gun and picking up your e-collar transmitter on a real hunt. This might take a few days; it might even take weeks. But take care of the issue now, during the dog's first season, and — allowing for the occasional lapses that even well-trained dogs have — you should have a staunch, well-mannered pointer for the rest of that dog's life. That's an "issue" everyone can live with.

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