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Raising The Bar

Raising The Bar

The best way to get a dog rock solid on obedience is to tempt him to disobey.

By late last summer, Hanna was doing everything right. She'd progressed through the half dozen stages I put my dogs through during their steadiness drills, and although she'd been a bit hard-headed from time to time--angelic-looking setters will fool you--she'd finally begun to see things my way.

Using a live pigeon to tempt a young dog on a whoa board to break, as pro trainer George Hickox (in red cap) is doing here, is an excellent way to reinforce steadiness.

By August I was shooting pigeons over her, and she was behaving remarkably well, steady as a rock and staying anchored to one spot until I sent her for the retrieve. So I had high hopes when I headed to the mountains on my first blue grouse hunt of the season. You would think, after all these years, I would have learned.

On that day and for several weeks thereafter, Hanna pointed, and I shot, blue grouse under what I would call suspicious conditions. It's impossible to monitor a dog every minute it's hunting, particularly an inexperienced dog. Birds would flush out of thick cover, fly over my head, and a few seconds later, there would be Hanna, hot on their tail.

A correction wasn't merited because I hadn't actually seen her break point. But by the time we switched to the prairies and began hunting Huns, it was clear that my steadiness drills hadn't sunk in.

Hanna was pointing Huns just fine, but at least half the time she was chasing them too--exactly opposite of what she'd been trained to do. That didn't bother her all that much, but it caused me to wail and gnash my teeth. She was still up to her old tricks by the time we drove to Wisconsin three weeks later.

In Wisconsin, though, I vowed things would change. Grouse numbers were up after years of decline, and getting Hanna into a half dozen points in a couple hours wasn't out of the question. I strapped my e-collar around her skinny neck and let her fly.

It took almost a week, but daily corrections finally started to get the point across. By the time my buddy Mike Bartz and his wirehair, Gus, joined our party, Hanna was back to where she'd been two months before--steady to wing and shot, waiting for my command to retrieve, a model citizen. Mike was impressed. What Mike didn't know, and I conveniently neglected to tell him, is just how long it had taken me to get her there.

The difference between yard work and field work, i.e., training that you do while you're actually hunting, is that yard work is easy. I know that sounds like sacrilege to anyone who has spent months trying to get his dog to please come when called, but it's true.

Getting your dog to do all the cool stuff you've trained it to do while you're actually hunting is where the work comes in. That said, though, there's a lot you can do to ease the transition.

I call any drills you add to basic yard work to tempt a dog to disobey--so you can then correct him--"raising the bar." It doesn't really matter if you use my drills or not. Feel free to make up your own. No dog is going to be perfect 100 percent of the time, including mine (which any number of my friends will be happy to verify), but expecting obedience 95 percent of the time in the field isn't asking too much.

If there's one thing I see over and over again among inexperienced trainers, it's that they quit working with their dogs when just a few more weeks of gradually increased distractions would put the dog right where they want him. As a perfect example of what not to do, let's use someone who won't sue me if I libel him in print: me.

"Sit" is the last command I teach. It's a handy command to have around the house, but not one that I ever use in the field with pointing dogs. When teaching "sit," I don't use a collar; instead I push the dog's reluctant little butt to the floor, say "sit," and reward him with cookies. Most dogs pick it up in a week or two, and I usually let it go at that.

But I'm under no illusion that they've really got it. When someone comes to visit, my dogs are all over them, regardless of my "sit" commands. They pay no more attention to me than they do the radio blaring in the background.

It wouldn't be difficult to get them over the hump. Do a few days of rudimentary commands with prompt corrections (with or without a collar), then reinforce the command when someone comes by for a visit. But that takes planning and time, and since I've never really put a lot of emphasis on the "sit" command anyway, my innate laziness usually gets the best of me.

In fact, a lack of time on the part of frustrated owners is why most pro trainers have all the dogs they can handle. It takes time to train a dog to do anything reliably and well. That's why I've never been a believer in quick fixes. Most dogs can learn to sit in a week. Mine did. Think about that.

At the risk of over-simplification, I consider training a two-part process. The first part is yard work that includes a series of ever-increasing distractions to tempt the dog to disobey. The second is reinforcing what the dog has been trained to do on an actual hunt.

By the time you take your pup on a real hunt, he should, theoretically, know the rules.

But don't bet the ranch on it. To a dog, a new location means the rules he learned at the old location no longer apply. And those are exactly the rules he'll play by as long as you let him. So, by way of example, let's talk about steadying your dog to wing and shot. Not because I think everyone should steady his dog--I do not--but rather, because raising the bar by adding distractions is so crucial to the success of that particular process.

By the time I introduce live birds, the dog has already been schooled in the whoa command on a bench, then on the ground, and finally on a whoa board. Now, with the dog at "whoa" on the board, I'll throw a clipped wing pigeon down in front of him, say 10 to 15 feet out.

That pigeon is going to be a huge temptation at first, but if the dog is a smart pup, he'll eventually get used to it, which is my cue to take him off the board and into the training field. Then, with the dog walking on a lead, I'll command him to "whoa" and throw down a clipped-wing once again. Eventually, I'll progress from introducing clipped-wing pigeons at a walk to flyers in a trap, first without gunfire, then with it. Each sequence further tempts the dog to break, and each time he does, he gets a mild correction. Before long, he'll be standing the hard-flying birds I flush from the trap like an old pro.

Now comes the fun stuff. I put a clipped-wing pigeon in a trap, command the dog to whoa, then release the trap. The bird will pop up, flutter out 10 or 15 feet, and fall to earth. At that point, every dog I've ever trained this way--every one--will break and go after it.

You can't blame them. Every iota of their prey drive will want to get that bird, so for the first few times the dog breaks, I simply pick him up and put him back in place, with no further correction. Once I know he's got the message, I then resume correcting him for breaking, adding gunfire as a final distraction. When a dog can handle all that he's ready to have live pigeons shot over him.

For the sake of brevity, I've omitted several important steps, such as showing the dog what I expect of him during each subsequent command before correcting him for disobeying. My point is to demonstrate how I gradually increase distractions, one incremental step at a time, until the dog is performing reliably in the yard. I use different drills but a similar escalation of distractions for every command I teach. And that brings us to the second phase of training: field work on an actual hunt.

It seems wildly optimistic to me now, but there was a time when I thought I could take a young, albeit thoroughly-trained dog into the field and hunt over him--as if, having put him through months of summer obedience work, I no longer had to worry about him disobeying. I also spent a lot of time and energy pulling out my kinky red hair in frustration. No great loss, but still€¦

There is training and there is hunting, and believe me, your dog knows the difference.

With a trainee who has just graduated to hunting, I strive to reinforce every command in the field in exactly the same way I reinforced it in the yard. If, for example, I expect the dog to return on one whistle blast in the yard, I don't whistle at him two or six times in the field before administering a correction. The rules are the same, even if he doesn't want to believe that. It is especially important that you stick to the program during the dog's first few hunts. Get him off on the right foot and he'll be far easier to keep in line later on.

Now for a reality check. The problem with training a dog on an actual hunt is that you have no real control over the situations that arise. Your dog, whom you've spent all summer bullet-proofing with Carty's precious little distractions, may disappear over a hill and fail to return on your whistle. Did he ignore you? Or did he simply not hear? My rule of thumb: If I can't see the dog disobey a command, I won't correct him, no matter how suspect his behavior.

Missing a correction will slow down the training process but certainly won't end it, and sooner or later you'll get another chance. If you're lucky, one or two perfectly-timed corrections may be all it takes to get your dog back on the path of righteousness. But the truth is, it won't always happen that way. It takes as long as it takes.

By the end of the season last year, Hanna was hitting her stride. One day, Bill Buckley and I took Hanna and his pointer, Jimmy, out for Huns. We'd been hunting for an hour without a point when both dogs crested a hill. Suddenly, I saw Hanna lock up. Jimmy saw her, hesitated, then bolted past. I walked up to Hanna, told her to whoa, and when I couldn't find anything, sent her on.

She ran past Jimmy and locked up again. I whoaed her, and again Jimmy breezed past.

But Hanna stayed rooted to the spot, and when the birds took off — and Jimmy took off after them--she never budged. Unbelievably, we found another covey less than two hundred yards away, and what followed was a virtual repeat of Hanna's previous performance. I never touched a feather, but I couldn't have been happier. Hanna had handled them perfectly.

I wish I could say she remained flawless for the rest of the season, but no dog ever does. Still, it was a great start. As far as I was concerned, she'd arrived.

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