Training a versatile hunting dog can be quite intimidating, especially if you’re the new owner of a Drahthaar, Kurzhaar, Langhaar, or other very German breed of dog. It’s not like an AKC hunt test where it’s common, and countless training resources are available. The NAVHDA testing system is similar to that of the JGHV, a German-based testing organization, but Americanized. You don’t have just one type of hunting situation to train for, but rather multiple species of game, hunted in just as many different situations.
Writing about training for the entirety of the testing system, or even one test for that matter, would lend itself better to a book format, and upon reaching the 20th page, I stopped and realized there is no way to condense all of it into one 1,800-word article. However, I discovered each subject of versatile hunting dog training can be broken down into four main principles: natural ability, desire and exposure, mental stability, and obedience. Each one of these pillars come together to create a well-rounded versatile hunting dog.
Natural ability is the basis for the creation of many original breed clubs in Germany, such as the Verein Deutsch-Drahthaar (VDD). The primary breeding goal of the VDD is versatile performance ability. “Through performance to standard” is the guiding light of the club to this day. The same breeding principles still apply and are manifested through physical traits and ability, leading to the very best hunting dogs possible.
Not all breeds are held to this strict standard, and more sorting has to be done to find quality dogs. That’s not to say there aren’t a ton of top-notch wirehairs and shorthairs, because that’s simply not true. I’m not blind to the problems within the German breed clubs either. Breeders who wouldn’t know a covey rise from a bad experience with gas station sushi, are putting out litters of dogs for money—hunting ability be damned!
It is critical to first find a breeder, no matter the breed, who is dedicated to producing the highest quality of dogs. However, it’s equally important to find a breeder who is available to help mentor you through the training process. Without a dog possessing the natural ability to hunt, you’ll never have a dog able to achieve great success in the field. Even if your dog comes from a genetic cocktail featuring Michael Jordan, Venus Williams, Bill Gates, Ronda Rousey, and Chris Kyle, if you don’t unearth that innate ability, you’re stuck with an expensive and well-bred house pet.
Desire & Exposure
Many people say you can’t train desire, and to an extent I agree. However, what you can do is help your dog uncover its natural desire to find game. For example, after a short Google search of “dog breeds with low prey drive,” the Vizsla appears in many of the lists. Think about that for a minute. If you’ve ever spent time hunting behind a good Vizsla, then the last thing you would think was, “this dog doesn’t want to hunt.” Granted, breeding does have a part to play in desire, and many of the great AKC working lines of dogs are being destroyed in the name of “dog shows.”
Just one look at the bizarre downward angle of a German Shepherd’s hindquarters, and you’ll know what I’m talking about. Desire to hunt can be bred out of a dog in the same manner. There are many dogs that would have proven to be great hunters, but the owners never helped uncover it.
Since we’re all reading GUN DOG magazine, I’m going to assume you are interested in hunting dogs, thus the dogs need to have some sort of genetic desire to find game. Now it’s your job to bring out this desire. By exposing our dogs to different types of game in different situations, we’ll build the foundation for a well-rounded hunting dog in the future. When dealing with a puppy, one of the best things you can do is go for off-lead walks in different environments. Let the young dog just be a puppy and experience all of the smells and critters he encounters. Walking around in similar areas to where you’ll be hunting makes it even better! A young dog’s brain is just like a child’s, in that they are able to soak up tremendous amounts of stimuli.
The next, and arguably one of the most important aspects, is using game to bring out desire. Introducing young dogs to all of the different sights and smells is critical. This means planning beforehand to have access to game throughout the first few years of your dog’s life. Training a versatile hunting dogs means you’ll need to procure ducks, upland birds, rabbits, raccoons, or foxes. Taking your dog out to hunt wild game is hands down the best way to help them gain experience, but you’ll also need to find training game to create controlled situations. If you’re even remotely considering running your dog in the VGP, or utility test, you’ll want to go out and try to hunt up a fox or two. Either that or go on roadkill patrol, which can be dicey but rewarding. Speaking of roadkill, here’s a tip that will keep your marriage intact! For the love of everything sacred, get a separate chest freezer dedicated to storing training game. There’s nothing worse than your significant other going in for chicken breast and coming out with cottontail rabbit.
The key to introducing a young dog to foxes, raccoons, or any game for that matter, is making it fun. Get the dog fired up, wanting to chase and catch it. The same goes for birds, but with a little twist.
Everybody loves to see a young pup lock up, eyes focused on the wing on a string, but don’t get hung up on it. It’s more for you than the dog! You’ll want to run the pup on birds it can’t catch, in order to bring out the natural pointing abilities. Every time a pup catches a bird, he goes back two steps and does serious damage to the teaching process. My second dog, Herb, which I ran through the VGP at 15 months old, wouldn’t point birds for the first four months of his life, and I was freaking out as a result. I bought this dog to primarily hunt upland birds, and the damn dog was a dud! What was the secret? Exposure.
Making a trip to my mentor’s training compound, we ran Herb on bird after bird after bird, and he chased bird after bird after bird without a point. His prey drive was over the top, but he needed exposure to help bring out his natural ability. Finally, about 15 pigeons in launchers later, he realized he couldn’t catch them and boom, crept into a beautiful point. Exposure does wonders for bird-finding ability, and the more contacts your dog has with them, the better off they’ll be!
Everyone is so concerned with obedience and the other more advanced aspects of training, that many of them skip over exposure. If you only did one thing for the entire first year of the dog’s life, and it was exposure, you would actually be ahead of the game. You can always reign in a two-year-old dog with over-the-top desire, but it’s nearly impossible to build the same drive in that dog.
Getting a dog able to perform at a high level in all situations requires mental stability. This is why it’s often so difficult to run a young dog in the utility test, or expect a dog to stay with a cold blood track from a gut-shot buck of a lifetime. At the end of the day, you need a dog that not only has a nose and legs, but also the good stuff between its ears and the ability to think for itself and adapt to different situations. Breeding plays a part in this aspect without question, but it also comes from training.
In recent decades, there have been studies analyzing the question of “nature vs nurture.” In a research study conducted by Cunningham (1991) on horses, he determined only 35 percent of performance speed was inheritable, and 65 percent was attributed to other influences such as training, management, and nutrition. Another study was done by the U.S. military called the Super Dog Program, and it relied on the premise that small amounts of stress to a young puppy would produce adults that can respond better to stressors. Their studies corroborated that there are specific time periods early in their life, where neurological stimulation has long-lasting results. If you’re a breeder or simply interested, Google “Super Dog Program” and perform the routine on your young puppies. At the end of the day, the puppies that went through the program were more exploratory and dominant in competitive circumstances.
There are also certain phases of puppy development where the dogs are more likely to be affected by fear, and it can have long-lasting detrimental impacts to their mental states. It’s definitely worth researching if you are breeding or raising a dog.
This is the crucial piece of the puzzle that brings everything together. Without obedience, you’ll have a loose cannon that will be able to find birds, track deer, and give you one of the best duck retrieves you’ve ever seen. In the same breath, you’ll have a dog that will hunt for itself, drop ducks at the bank, and be a terrible hunting companion. It is the cornerstone to passing the utility test, in every single subject. A reliable retrieve is paramount to the process. There are many ways of achieving it, and I’m not here to argue the merits of a certain style. The same can be said for upland dogs. Say you have a dog that will range out into the next county and find covey after covey, but isn’t staunch. Congrats! You’ll be just as successful wandering around following your mom’s Pomeranian. It can be the difference between having a dog that is confined to the kennel 24/7 because it can’t be trusted around your children, or having a dog that will let the kids wrap their arms around it in a big hug.
The absolute best, and my personal favorite, obedience-training anecdote came from Mike Fortner of Dilmunfast Drahthaars, and it can be used in every facet of training.
“No response from you should be in between. Hugs, kisses, and opening heaven’s gates for good stuff, Thor’s hammer for bad. Once the dog learns a command, enforce it. My ex-wife was a counter, and she would give the kids a command and start counting. The kids knew that until she got to seven or eight, they didn’t have to move. They knew that if I said something once and I had to get up and say it again, they were in trouble. Be me. Don’t command the dog “Here” multiple times and nag the dog. He will only ignore you. He’ll learn until you command him seven or eight times, he doesn’t have to comply. Remember, this is supposed to be fun for you and your dog—don’t let it become otherwise.”
Every aspect of performance falls into one of these categories, and it will lead to the success or failure of your hunting dog. Building a serviceable hunting dog is one of the most rewarding processes, but it doesn’t come without hurdles and pitfalls. Have fun through every step of training, and remember every time your dog fails, it’s a reflection on your training. So think about where you went wrong and didn’t connect the dots for the dog, in order to keep pushing forward.