Those of you who have been reading this column for a few years (I know it’s been tough, but somebody has to do it), know that I’m a fan of broke gun dogs—steady to wing, shot and fall--although I’m always careful to hedge my enthusiasm by stating that dogs that are steady only until the shot are, for most hunters, a perfectly acceptable alternative.
But regardless of which way you go, you have to train the command “whoa.” Whether you train it first, as I do, or second, after your dog has been trained to recall to voice and whistle commands, doesn’t really matter. Before you take your pup into the field, he has to know the command and obey it. Here’s how to get him there.
Put your dog on a bench and tell him to whoa, then physically pick him up and put him back in place if he moves his paws, even a little. Pick him up so that his feet are off the ground, tell him to whoa again, and put him back in place. Every time he moves, pick him up, repeat the command, and replace him. For now, repeating the command is necessary; since you’re teaching your pup what it means. Later you’ll say the command just once. Most dogs figure out this phase in less than a week.
Next, put him on the bench, tell him to whoa, and take a few steps away from him. The first time you do this, he’ll want to follow you, but don’t let him. Pick him up and replace him as before, but don’t repeat the whoa command. After a week of hearing it, he knows what it means. From here on out, you will give the command once, then reinforce it if it’s not obeyed. Within a few days, he should be standing in place as you walk in front of or behind him. If he is, great; you’re ready for step two. If he’s not, keep at it until he is.
Now you’re done with the bench. If you’ve been using your dining room table, scrub off the paw prints and return it to your wife. Put your dog on a short lead and walk him beside you (he doesn’t have to be heel trained for this step). Tell him “whoa,” then pick him up and replace him when he lunges ahead and ignores you. How do I know he’ll do this? Ha.
Although reaching down and picking him up works fine, you can also use this deluxe trick: loop the lead (a 20’ lead is about right) under his belly and tie it off with a bowline. Next, pull some slack above his back and clip the other end to his collar. Now you have a loop above his back that forms a suitcase handle of sorts, which will make it much easier to pick all four of his feet off the ground and reposition him.
Once you’ve got him to reliably whoa at your side, give him the command again, but his time continue to walk forward. He’ll follow, giving you another opportunity for a correction. When he’s whoaing on command even if you continue walking, he’s ready for limited freedom. If you’re using a suitcase handle, remove it, but keep the long lead attached to his collar.
Turn him loose (but hold onto the end of his lead) and when he’s running at right angles to you (not running away from or toward you), give him the whoa command and then, if he disobeys, haul his recalcitrant little butt back in, pick him up, and replace him.
Once you’ve got him whoaing reliably on a lead, let him run free with the lead attached and repeat the same whoa-and-replace sequence outlined above. Finally, remove the lead entirely and turn him loose—as always, picking him up and replacing him if he disobeys your whoa command.
A couple notes on step two: The later half of step two is a good time to replace your physical corrections with a collar, but only if your dog has been previously collar conditioned. If not, continue with physical corrections, i.e., picking him up and replacing him. Also, when you get to the free-running phase of step two, two or three commands per training session is plenty. More than that and you run the risk of a “sticky” dog—a dog that won’t leave your side.
Step one and two will produce a dog that’s ready to hunt. But I’d suggest going through step three, which will produce a dog steady to flush. You’ll need pigeons, a stake, a whoa board, and some kind of wire mesh container for the bird. This is where the fun starts.
Slap down the whoa board, and set up your wire container 10 or 12 feet away—upwind or downwind doesn’t matter. I use a wire cylinder about two feet in diameter and four feet tall made from common 2” garden fencing, but a jury-rigged wire box will do the trick.
Bring your dog to the whoa board, let him sniff it a few times, then put him on the board and tell him to “whoa.” Clip your lead to his collar and tie it to a stake behind the board, or give it to a helper if you can convince someone to help you. Now put a bird into the cylinder or box.
If you’re very, very lucky, your dog will remember his whoa command and stay put. But I wouldn’t bet the ranch on it. Every time the bird flutters a bit, he’ll bolt—which is why you’ve tied his lead to the stake. When he does, however, you now know the drill: pick him up and put him firmly back in place. He’s going to really, really want that bird, so keep after it.
When he’s finally holding steady for a few seconds, you can correct him with a collar when he steps off the board, but again, only if he’s already been collar conditioned. If not, physically picking him up and replacing him will get the job done. When your dog will stay on the board no matter how much the bird flutters around the wire cage, let the bird fly away and correct your dog if he bolts and tries to chase. When he’ll stay anchored on the board even after the bird has split the coop, you’re 90 percent of the way to a steady-to-flush bird dog.
This is where everything comes together. You’ve trained your dog to thoroughly understand the whoa command during steps one and two. During step three, he learned to resist the urge to break and chase. Now you can apply the finishing touches.
Plant a bird in a trap—electronic traps are convenient, but a mechanical trap will work just as well—lead your dog in from downwind, and when he points the bird in the trap, give him the whoa command. Tie his lead to a stake just as you did on the whoa board. Make him hold point for a few seconds, then pop the bird, and correct him if he breaks.
Later, if he’s been conditioned to gunfire, you can fire a starting pistol a second or two after the flush. If not, you can easily introduce the pistol later. When your pup remains steady until you fire the pistol, he’s ready to hunt—but be sure to correct him in the field when he disobeys, in exactly the same way you have been during training sessions.
This is an important command, so don’t rush through it. It typically takes me around a month or so to get through the steps I’ve outlined here, longer if I’m training a dog to be steady to wing, shot, and fall; and even after the dog has completed all four steps, I’ll put him through regular brush-up sessions throughout the summer.
Consistency is important. If you progress from one step to the next in small, incremental advances, the dog will have an easier time of it. That will save a lot of hair pulling on your part, and much reduced screaming in the field. You and your dog will both be happy, justice will prevail, and life will be good.