Many gun dog owners confuse the focus regarding steadying a dog, mistakenly believing that steadying is all about the flushing bird. It is not.
Because of that incorrect belief, trainers worry that all the focus on the bird during the steadying process will somehow turn their spaniel into a pointer. Or at least make it hesitate on the flush, when what is desired is a strong, bold flush.
Hupping when a bird flushes is only part of a finished spaniel's job. Equally important for a finished spaniel is sitting to each of the following: the voice command "hup," a single whistle toot, a hand signal with the arm and hand raised with the palm facing the dog, and a gunshot. Oh yes, and a flushing bird.
Teaching pup to instantly and reliably hup to a voice command, a whistle, a hand signal and a gunshot will segue fairly flawlessly into pup becoming steady to a flushing bird.
Steadying a gun dog consists of control and obedience. Certainly birds and "steady" are related, but steady is all about control.
Steadying, thus control, is taught during yard work, in the house and in the garage or basement. Only when one is quite advanced in the steadying process does one move to the field and use birds in the steadying process.
Pup has retrieved since he was a little guy, returning a puppy dummy in the hallway or basement, and then in a narrow fenced enclosure or small yard. So keep pup enthusiastic by only tossing two or three retrieves per session, and by loving him up and petting him for doing such a good job. As pup progresses, increase the retrieving distance while making sure he returns the dummy to you.
Now we are ready to take the final steps of yard training prior to steadying pup in the field.
Pup has learned to sit and stay for 30 seconds, 60 seconds and longer, including while you walk away from him in the yard. Rather than releasing pup or calling him while you are away from him, return to him, pet and praise him briefly and then release him from his hupped position.
Once pup handles that consistently, you can then call pup to you from his hupped position, but only do that about one out of three or four times. Continue walking to him to release him the remainder of the time. This teaches pup to avoid anticipating when he will be released, so he never releases without your command.
Give your verbal command, "hup," with a single whistle toot and/or a raised hand signal to make pup hup. It is critical to have pup respond (hup) immediately to each of the three signals: voice, whistle and hand, especially the whistle for field use.
Expanding on this last drill, hup pup and toss him a short retrieve, but make him wait varying amounts of time before retrieving the dummy; start with a very short wait and increase pup's waiting time as he progresses. As pup improves, allow him to retrieve only one in three or four dummies while you retrieve the others. This tightens control on pup while teaching him that every shot bird is not his to retrieve.
Praise pup as he progresses and include fun retrieves, walks and tussling together on the ground or floor. Learn to train by watching pup's tail; if it is up and wagging, continue training. If not, take a break.
Much of the training process is a matter of repetition; there really are no shortcuts. Repetition is boring for both you and pup, but you will see progress. Progress should buoy your spirits, and you should pass along the goodwill to pup as you both move forward.
Now it is time to teach pup to be steady to a dummy, a gunshot and a flushing bird. It is not difficult.
Stand on pup's lead with pup hupped at your side and toss a dummy a short distance while giving pup the hand signal to remain seated. If pup obeys, great — hold him there for several seconds and send him for the dummy.
If pup runs for the dummy before being released, drag him back by the lead and make him hup prior to sending him for the dummy. Repeat until pup waits to be sent. Pup should never think that every retrieve is his, or anticipate retrieves.
Next, remove pup's lead and do the above drill while being positioned to intercept pup from going for the retrieve before you command him. Do this until you can toss the dummy for pup from any position (including from behind pup) without pup's leaving for the dummy prior to the command. Continue retrieving many of the tossed dummies yourself.
Now, make pup hup using the whistle, voice or hand signal while he is moving around in your yard.
Your goal is instant, first-time compliance, and if you worked on the other drills adequately you should quickly be successful.
If pup continues moving after your command to hup, move immediately to him, pick him up by the loose skin on each side of his neck and carry him back to his original position where you commanded him to hup. Place pup on the ground and repeat the hup command.
Redo the drill as needed, with no rough stuff, and use a check-cord if necessary. Never take your training forward unless pup is 100 percent reliable at his current stage.
Take pup to the field and quarter him, and while unobserved, remove a dummy from your vest. While pup is moving toward the center of the training field (toward you), toss a dummy forward of you and pup before he reaches the center of the field. Immediately say hup and hit the whistle, and pup should stop.
If pup stops, makes him pause briefly and then release him for the retrieve. If he fails to stop, cut him off from the bird and carry him back to his spot where you gave the hup command, then you should make the retrieve. Do this repeatedly, mixing things up to keep pup guessing when he will get the retrieve. Praise pup's successes.
After a week or two of using a dummy for this drill, switch to using a dead pigeon. Continue until pup reliably hups on command — voice and whistle for a while. Mix some fun into your training; we are nearly ready to have pup flush live birds.
Before starting to steady pup to flush with live pigeons, it is a good idea to allow pup to flush and uncontrollably chase 10 or 15 pigeons. (Borrow some homing pigeons from a friend if possible to save money.) If you must use your own purchased pigeons, just consider it part of the price for a good, lifelong gun dog. Chasing those initial flushed birds will tire pup, which is good, while steadying him to flushing birds.
Quarter pup down the field into the wind with an assistant on each side of you. After two casts, toot the whistle once while pup is coming toward you and is about 10 yards away. If pup stops and sits, pull a dead pigeon from your vest and toss it, ensuring that you are between the pup and the bird. If pup remains seated, release him to retrieve. Love pup up when he returns the bird.
Same scenario as the last, but throw a live but dizzied pigeon into light cover without pup seeing you or the bird. The planted bird should be near you but hidden from the dog. Hopefully pup scents the bird, drives in and flushes it.
Immediately toot the whistle as soon as pup flushes the bird. If you have advanced pup's training forward only after pup has really learned each of his lessons, pup should hup upon hearing the whistle.
If pup breaks, try to cut him off and stop him, and move him back to where pup heard the command to hup. Do this about three times in a row, with your assistants shooting the second or third bird if pup is steady.
The shooter should not allow the bird to get too far, but he should not shoot it close, either, because a close bird can tempt pup to break. If pup sits and waits for the flush and shot, release him to retrieve the bird. Love him up big-time when he returns.
As long as pup progresses, he should never be allowed to break or chase a flushed bird again. If he hesitates or hangs up, toss "clip wings" in for pup to drive in on because they cannot flush and will rev pup up.
Do not go too fast, but do not take forever, either. If you have problems, go back as many steps as necessary and begin again. You can always ask for help, or send your gun dog to a professional. Steadying is one area where it is extremely helpful to train with a club or friends.
Take this as the gospel truth: If pup does not respond reliably every time in the yard or training area, he certainly will not respond consistently in the field.
Steady your gun dog and not only will you be proud, but he will be, too. It is an honest pride.