Lately, it's become fashionable in more obscure quarters to adopt a laissez-faire approach to dog training, as if any pointing dog, minus basic obedience and given enough time in the field hunting wild birds — no "artificial" penned quail or pigeons for these guys — will develop of his own volition into a functional, biddable bird dog.
Ain't gonna happen. Nice try, though.
Hear me out. There's nothing more important to a bird dog's development than time spent in the field hunting wild birds. You simply can't do it too much; dogs only improve when they're given the opportunity to find, work and point hundreds of wild birds a year. All birds are good, from woodcock to meadowlarks, grouse to pheasants. I don't care whether they run, sit, fly or squawk, exposing a trained dog to lots of wild birds is a good thing.
But the days of keeping a stable of pointers permanently banished to an outdoor kennel are essentially over. Most of us keep our dogs in our homes. I do. They're our pets, our friends, our partners in life as well as the field. That's why basic obedience is still important. Consider them manners for bird dogs. Dogs that won't come when called, who won't sit when told to sit and who jump all over your shell-shocked visitors are no fun to be around. You wouldn't let your kid tear up the neighborhood playground and behave like a brat, would you? Why would you let your bratty dog get away with the same behavior?
That's why a certain level of basic obedience should be part of any training program. I'm not talking about teaching a dog to roll over, shake, tap out its age with its front paw or yodel on command. I'm talking about the basics: come, sit, heel, and refusing to let your dog jump on you.
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I've said for years that the two most important commands you can teach a pointing dog are "whoa" and "come." Teaching your dog to come will make your life at home and in the field easier and far less stressful. Aside from dogs that bust birds and then chase them to Arizona and back, there's not much I can think of more aggravating than a dog that repeatedly refuses to come when called.
Assuming your dog has been collar conditioned — a critical step that I've covered before in this column — getting him up to speed on the "come" command is largely a matter of continuous e-collar reinforcement in a variety of locations.
You start in the same place all obedience training starts: in the yard. Once the dog is recalling there, take him for walks prior to hunting season in a variety of locations: empty fields that may or may not have wild birds; parks; anywhere (obviously, he must always be wearing his e-collar). Adding other dogs is an excellent distraction, as are livestock. Limit yourself to two or three recall commands per trip; more than that and he'll get sticky. When he's obeying promptly in these locations, he's ready for the field.
Don't let him slide on hunts because he might be getting birdy, is chasing a covey, or whatever. Pick and choose a time when you can actually see him to give the "come" command, and when you give it, have your thumb on the button of your transmitter and use it promptly if he ignores you.
Eventually, he will figure out he can't win, and most dogs will quit trying. Some won't, of course; I was one of those kids who never would listen to my parents, and some dogs are the same way. But you'll be over the hump.
The "sit" command is often misunderstood. Many pointing dog trainers recommend you not teach a bird dog to "sit" at all, since it can interfere with other commands like "whoa." They're absolutely right.
But that doesn't mean it should never be taught. The "sit" command is extremely useful: when you're trying to get your dog to settle down to put a collar on him, or when you're trying to get him to hold still to pluck cactus spines out of his pads.
You can avoid conflicts with other commands simply by teaching it last. It's easy; after months of being schooled in other commands most dogs will learn it in a couple weeks, and if any of you are experimenting with clicker training, this is the perfect command to practice on. Of all the commands I use, this is the only one that doesn't really require a collar, although there's certainly nothing wrong with using one.
"Heel" is a command that seems to have gone entirely out of favor among bird hunters. I have no idea why. Over and over again it's proven its usefulness to me in the field. I've had countless instances when I wanted to heel my dogs into an area before turning them loose to hunt, or when I ran into other hunters and dogs in the field, or when I was too close to a road or highway and heeled my dog for his own safety. Heeling a dog at the end of a hunt is a great way to let him know he's finished and it gives him a chance to settle down prior to the ride home.
Again, training starts in the yard. I use what we here in Montana call a "piggin' string," and what the Rick Smith folks call a wonder lead. No matter what they're called, they work great. I heel my dogs on the left, some people heel them on the right; it doesn't matter a bit as long as you're consistent.
As with the "sit" command, most dogs will pick up the "heel" command in a couple weeks. After a week or two on a piggin' string, I transition the dog to the collar by giving him continuous stimulation while simultaneously pulling him to my side with the string, then immediately releasing the stimulation. I don't demand perfection; as long as the dog's at my side I really don't care if he walks ahead or behind me a couple feet.
Next, it's time to move to the field, where the command is most useful. Get in the habit of commanding your dog to "heel" at the start and end of each hunt. By the time you're halfway through the season he should be pretty solid, but once you give him a "heel" command, don't let him wander away until you release him. If he strays, hit the continuous button until he returns to your side.
The last obedience command isn't really a command at all. Rather, it's just good manners. I don't let my dogs jump up on me, ever, and work hard at preventing them from jumping on other people, as well.
My method for training a dog not to jump on me is the same one I've been using since I was 12 years old: giving it a sharp knee in the chest. It always works and it's easy. For the dogs that circle around behind me, I've gotten good at giving mule kicks with the back of my heel. Most dogs get the message promptly. Getting them to mind their manners with house guests, unfortunately, is considerably harder, and something of an ongoing struggle, at least in the Carty household.
But I keep after it, and you should, too.