September 28, 2016
If I had a nickel for every time I've seen someone mishandle a pointing dog, I could spend a month playing slots in Vegas.
Typically, it goes like this: Someone switches from flushing dogs to pointing dogs and his urge to control the dog's every move goes along for the ride. Rather than being allowed to hunt on its own and use its own discretion to explore cover, the poor pointer is subjected to hours of whistle blasts, verbal commands and hand signals.
Although I have a big mouth and a loud voice (ask my friends!) I try to keep my urge to micromanage my dogs in check in the field. Except for one thing: hunting in the pocket.
The "pocket" is the swath of cover from roughly 10 o'clock to 2 o'clock. It's where I want my dogs to be most of the time they're hunting. When I am walking north, for example, I want my dog to be hunting north, and in the pocket. I don't want him hunting behind me, or to the side of me. Why? Because I don't enjoy hunting that way.
There's no reason a dog won't find as many birds behind me as in front of me. In fact, I've had dogs do that very thing more times than I can count. But, not to put too fine a point on it, dogs that continually back cast are a pain in the ass. I don't want to be looking for my dog, I want to be following him.
Luckily, training a dog to hunt in the pocket isn't difficult. I haven't done this with all my dogs; in fact, I learned the procedure from one of Bob Wehle's books recently. But it works and it's fun! It's a great way to bond with a new puppy and get him started on the right foot.
Here's what you do: Take your puppy for a walk. I've started my own pups as young as three months, but any age will work. Clip a 20-foot lead to pup's collar and off you go. Walking along a lightly used road is ideal, because you'll have a clear, linear path for your dog to follow. I use the roads in my subdivision.
Let your puppy roam ahead of you or to the side, but the moment he stops to sniff a dandelion or a bug and falls behind, clap your hands to get his attention, point your hand in the direction you want him to go (yup, this counts as a hand signal), and tug on the lead to get him moving.
Don't expect him to pick up on this right away. Puppies have short attention spans, and the younger he is, the longer it will take him to grasp the concept. But eventually he'll get it. That's when you'll notice he stops and watches you pass before bounding ahead again.
Then he's ready to transition to a whistle. Clap your hands, point and follow with a whistle blast (I use two short tweets). If he doesn't immediately bound ahead, tug him forward with the lead. Down the road, after he's been collar conditioned, you can reinforce the whistle with light nicks from an e-collar.
That's all there is to it. It's simple and it works, but will probably take a couple months or more.
Now let's talk about the real world application for this nifty command. No matter how well you train him, your dog won't be able to hunt in the pocket all the time. In the dense woods of northern Wisconsin, dogs can't see where you are most of the time, even at close range. As a result, I often pay more attention to my dog's intention than his actions.
Tango, my pointer, who has been trained to hunt the pocket, will look up at me when she sees me pass — just as she did as a puppy — and then turn to the front. My setter, Hanna, who has not been trained thus, does exactly the opposite, and turns to the rear.
I have no idea why Hanna does this; it's too late for her to change. I can change her direction — usually with a whistle blast reinforced with a stiff nick — but it's not fun.
Of course, there's certainly room for flexibility here. Chukars and Huns live in rough country, and a dog that is hunting cover that in its estimation may hold birds — exactly what you want a good pointing dog to do — will often be led out of the pocket by a roll in the topography. Should you correct him and redirect his motion?
Let the Dog Work
There's no absolute answer, but I usually choose to let the dog work the cover and then see if it returns to hunting in the pocket on its own. If it gets hung up behind me I'll whistle it forward, but in general I trust the dog's judgment to find birds, as long as the dog's prevailing direction is forward and in the pocket rather than behind me.
Let me reiterate:This business of a dog's turning forward or back is important. Dogs that cast to the side and turn back will always end up hunting behind you; those that turn forward will usually hunt to the front. I've noticed that dogs, for whatever reason, are geared to turn one way or another, and should you find that your dog prefers to turn back, you can be ready with a quick whistle blast or a correction to get him moving forward again.
My goal is not to have a dog that obeys my every directional whim, but to have, within the parameters of his own judgment, a dog that hunts with me in a way that makes us both happy. Hunting in the pocket accomplishes that. And it accomplishes something else, too: when you know where your dog is, you don't have to worry about what he's doing. That's called teamwork, and teamwork is a fine thing, indeed.