September 23, 2010
Train your pups early and well, and you can expect a life-long hunting partnership.
Training a gun dog is mostly a matter of helping him learn cooperative behavior. With the exception of a few devices such as the "forced retrieve," in which the trainee must hold or hand over a bird on command in order to end his discomfort, most behaviors can be instilled using what today's canine professors call "positive reinforcement," a long term for "praise" and "food treats."
Almost everyone who has ever mucked a kennel has a book or video coming out on training all kinds of dogs, from duck tollers to drug sniffers. There is also a brisk commerce in conducting seminars for backyard trainers who bring their pup to class along with a check containing lots of zeros. The idea that prospective gun dog trainers need more instruction than their trainees is fairly new, having recently replaced the timeworn notion that, "You only have to be smarter than the dog."
Rookie dog trainers used to get together at farm ponds and dog clubs where the folks who had experience helped beginners at no charge. As I recall, we shared the few books available when we were faced with particularly sticky problems and we learned to live with our mistakes. In those days, we applied what horse sense we had and some of our exercises were hilarious.
Luckily, shock collars were not yet on the market when an inexperienced friend was having some difficulty getting his bird dog to stop unless the pup happened to feel like it. Everyone within a township heard this fellow yelling "whoa" while the obviously deaf pointer joyfully tore butt-tucking circles around him like a runaway jet ski.
She darted past me trailing a long check cord and, when I jumped on the rope, she executed a perfect somersault, landing back on her feet wearing an utterly stunned expression on her face. Turned out the pup's hearing was just fine and she would whoa on a flyspeck from that day on. Not a classic application of New Age behavioral science, but those were desperate times.
This kind of loosely organized amateur assistance is still available to anyone joining a hunt test club such as those governed by the North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association and other gun dog groups, or who has friends with pups-in-training.
No newcomer should consider tutoring a gun dog without reading a book or two on his contemplated type of hunting partner, even if he will have experienced advisors during training. The definitive classics by such authors as Dobbs, Duffey, Hickox, Smith, Spencer, West and Wolters will help a beginner avoid heartbreaks and headaches when unforeseen but inevitable problems crop up. The knowledge they impart will enable the tyro to anticipate his pup's attempts at testing him.
A novice who wants his pup trained for serious competition has never had much choice but to hire a professional. It is unrealistic to expect even the most talented prospect under inexperienced tutelage to beat a professionally schooled dog that's spent months with Canadian prairie grouse or real feathers on a duck marsh. Perhaps to the detriment of both hunting and competition, not all field-trialers actually hunt with the dogs they campaign nowadays, as they once did.
This has led to some disagreement between hunters and trialers about how sporting dogs should perform in the field as opposed to when they're in competition judgment. Although these distinctions may seem a bit fine to field trialers, they cause plenty of confusion among beginners about what to expect from a prospective hunting dog.
For example, there is much debate about the desirability for hunters of the speed and range expected of field trial pointing dogs. But what backyard gun dog trainers may not know, and what they're not being told by most experts, is that the presence of so-called field trial bloodlines in their pup's pedigree is not an imperative predisposition for the subject pup to run out of control.
What's more, the excessively unrealistic multiple blind retrieves required for field trial retrievers do not mean that descendants of successful competitors will not succeed in practical hunting situations nor that a tyro will have to blow the pea out of his whistle to hunt one of them. That's because a pup's genealogy dictates its potential for athletic performance and intensity whereas its learned behavior traits are mostly up to its owner.
So an open field trial champion will tend to produce pups that are capable of running fast and far, process scent and have an abundance of desire to find game. Such dogs are limited in their potential for hunting only by their ability to learn specific behaviors (called "bidability" by bird hunters). Likewise, retriever shoppers can be more confident in selecting a pup whose forebears have proven trainability, athletic talent and determination in competition.
Matings of unproven individuals too often result in pups that are limited in their ability to cover ground and in intelligence and desire. A resourceful trainer can tailor his canine's traits to suit his mode of hunting but he can't create capabilities that aren't already in the dog. Odds favor the first-time trainer who starts with a pup capable of running fast and wide, who lives to hunt and can handle the pressures of training. Contrary to what many experts suggest these days, mating of field trial winners usually produce just such puppies.
Novices are told that the only way to hunt on foot with these dogs is to use high settings on a shock collar. In fact, the way to get the best from an athletic pup is to begin at an early age--not 12 or more months as is often recommended--showing him how far he should range. Two- and three-month-old pups should be learning basic obedience and the joys of being afield with a human partner.
Instead of using a shock collar for this lesson, a patient and sensible trainer can allow his young pupil to discover for itself that fun is to be had and birds are to be found only when it operates at whatever range the handler desires. Put a beeper collar on the pup and trust it to do its job.
Common sense dictates that one doesn't scold or punish a tot for chasing birds or running away with the dummy. An immature pup is not supposed to learn high-performance hunting. He must learn that hunting is fun when he's with his handler/partner and that he must come when he's called. And here's an untidy little secret that most professional trainers don't talk about: If a gun dog grows old without ever learning more than those two things, he'll still be a useful, enjoyable hunting associate, regardless whether he came from backyard breeding or from horizon-busting or ice-breaking field trial campaigners.
Naturally, if that's all he's taught he may never perform to his maximum potential, especially if he's of big-league lineage. Field trialers must squeeze every drop of style and stamina they can from their charges in order to compete with other talented dogs and as a result there are some unhappy canines out there coping with too much electricity and other pressur
Gun dogs, on the other hand, are at their best when happy and not paying hell for their mistakes. In my experience, dogs under severe training pressure are inhibited in their concentration on making game. Training stress turns the student's attention to his teacher's tone, taking him out of the game of using his nose and legs. Some otherwise steady performers break down under pressure and revert to wrecking one bird contact after another. Excessive pressure is the leading cause of "blinking" (pretending game is not present when it is) by bird dogs and retrievers.
It is far better for inexperienced tutors, who are unsure how hard to press their pups, to err on the side of too little intensity. Soon enough, they will learn how much pressure to put on individuals and specimens of the respective sporting breeds, each of which has a different temperament. Here again, horse sense and observation are just as important as knowledge.
Anyone contemplating buying a gun dog pup, whether training on his own or with professional help, should get this principle if no other: Acquiring a hunting dog is not like buying a mountain bike. We get a partner, not a possession, and most homegrown gun dogs become family members when they're not assisting with fieldwork.
A pup cannot be stored in a corner of the garage until its owner is ready to use it. It requires the same commitment of interest and attention as any other partner or family member. Hunting dog ownership is far too costly in time, money, effort and study for those who are not committed to a partnership with their pup, and I have never known anyone unwilling to commit who truly enjoyed living with and following a gun dog.
Those who are willing to make that commitment, however, reap unbeatable rewards.