Training Pointing Dogs to Hunt in the Pocket
In the flushing-dog world, you hear a lot of talk about the perfect “windshield wiper pattern,” a dog that hunts before the hunter in the same arc as a windshield wiper. There’s a reason for that: flushing dogs of necessity must hunt close, and a windshield wiper pattern is, all other things being equal, an effective way to cover ground at close range. It’s also pretty much mandatory to win spaniel trials.
When it comes to pointing dogs, however, the analogy only goes so far. Yes, we want our dogs to cast back and forth in front of us, but does it have to mimic the rhythmic pattern of a windshield wiper? Not for any reason that I can see.
I’ve never been a believer in forcing pointing dogs to run any kind of pattern, even close-ranging pointers. Instead, I want them to use their noses and brains to find birds where they see fit, within a range that’s comfortable for me. My friend and dog breeder Mark Wendling calls that “hunting in the pocket.”
Hunting in the pocket means that the dog is making casts from ten o’clock to two o’clock, although nine to three is good enough for me. But many dogs, if not most, don’t naturally hunt within those artificial constraints; instead, they hunt where their noses take them—in front of, sideways to, and, because they somehow know it’s my pet peeve, behind me.
I spent decades hacking my dogs back into the pocket. And then, about eight or ten years ago, I had an epiphany: I picked up one of Bob Wehle’s books on dog training.
The late Robert Wehle, as most of you know, was the originator of the Elhew line of English pointers, of which three of my dogs are descendants. Wehle recommended taking walks with puppies as young as three or four months and encouraging them to range ahead, not behind. Sometimes he’d attach a lead to them, and if they lagged behind, he’d clap his hands and tug them forward. That simple.
Since I had a puppy I was training around them, I gave his method a try. It worked like a charm. All those years of hacking dogs, wasted! If this doesn’t prove that I’m a slow learner, then as soon as I learn how to do it, I’ll eat my hat.
I’ve added slight modifications that suit the way I like to train, but here’s the gist of it.
Start young. You can do this with puppies at three or four months of age up to, say, six or seven months of age. Beyond that it will still work, but older pups are more rambunctious and therefore more difficult to control. Put your pup on a 20- or 30-foot lead and take him for a walk along a lightly used road. I use the paved road that dead ends at my house, which gives my pups a nicely defined shoulder to follow.
Now let him ramble in front of or beside you. When he stops to examine something, keep walking, and as you pass him, clap your hands. When he looks up, extend your arm forward, indicating that you want him to keep moving ahead of you. If he won’t go, tug him forward on the lead. He’ll have no idea at first what your hand signal means, but he’ll understand the tug on the lead, and eventually he’ll make the connection.
When he does, introduce your whistle. When he stops to examine something, instead of clapping give him a whistle signal—whatever signal you like—to get his attention. I use two sharp tweets, but you can use a staccato rendition of the Star Spangled Banner if you want. Your whistle replaces the hand clap as a way of getting his attention, which is followed by your arm signal, which tells him where you want him to go. Which, in turn, is followed by a tug on the lead if he doesn’t obey.
After a few weeks, you’ll notice that your pup is starting to get it. When he stops and you continue to walk, he’ll see that you’re leaving him behind and he’ll dash ahead of you, or wait until you whistle and then dash ahead before you can tug on the lead. When he’s doing this more often than not—no pup does anything consistently at four months of age—you’re home free. He’s essentially finished, all before you’ve begun his formal training. A few months later, after he’s been collar conditioned, you can reinforce the whistle with a very slight nick. You’re set. He won’t forget what he’s learned, and you now have a tool to keep him in the pocket when you hunt.
But you’re not quite done. Now it’s your turn.
Although you now have a way to keep your dog casting ahead of you, don’t be a martinet about this. All dogs, if they’re working scent, or find something that seems particularly birdy, will swing behind you from time to time. That’s perfectly okay, as long as it doesn’t become a habit. And the ideal ten to two windshield wiper pattern? Enjoy it when it happens, but don’t insist on it. These are pointing dogs, not automotive accessories.
Let his casts take him to where he thinks he’ll find birds. Yes, that means that some of the time he’ll be hunting unproductive cover, but that’s how he learns it’s unproductive. If you really want to move him to different cover that perhaps he hasn’t seen, give him a whistle tweet to get his attention, then motion him in the direction you want him to go with a hand signal, taking a few steps in that direction as further emphasis. Remember the forward hand signal you taught him way back when? He’ll remember, and he’ll make the connection to hand signals in the field quickly.
I’ve used this method on my last three dogs, and it’s worked well on every one of them. They don’t always hunt from ten to two, or even from nine to three, and they fall behind me on a regular basis, particularly if I’m hunting in thick cover, where they can’t see me. But if they fall behind, I give them two whistle tweets and nine times out of ten they swap directions and run back ahead, where they belong. In fact, should I pass them, they’ll often run ahead without my having to use the whistle. They know that’s where I want them to be.
Hunting over bird dogs is supposed to be fun, but it’s no fun when you’re dog is constantly out of position. This simple technique, taught at a young age, will give you the ability to keep your dog in the pocket for the rest of his life. For the two or three months spent taking your pup on brief, pleasant walks, that sounds like a good investment to me.