Have you ever hurried across a bean field with four pounds of mud on each foot, arriving just in time to see your buddy's dog bust past your dog's point and take the birds out, or worse yet, catch your own dog in the act? In either case, "It just ain't good for public relations."
A proper back or honor occurs when a dog sees its bracemate on point, stops immediately and holds position in a pointing posture so as not to pressure either the bracemate or the birds. Backing is critical whether you're hunting or running in field trials or hunt tests€¦basically any situation where pointing dogs are run in braces.
If you own a natural backing dog, thank your lucky stars and the good sense you had in choosing a dog from quality breeding. Your job will be much easier.
I feel backing is an extension of the pointing instinct, and those dogs with the proper instincts in balance will sometimes back naturally as young adults, often before they've pointed their own birds. There are many others who point well, but their backing is somewhat latent and has to be nurtured.
Then there are those who point their own quarry but are likely to pressure or even bust a bracemate's birds. Even though each of these types requires a slightly different approach, the basic training techniques, field area and equipment are the same.
Also consider when to work on backing.
Most trainers feel it should come after the dog has worked and pointed a good number of birds and is steady to a degree. At that point the dog better understands what's going on, is comfortable with birds, guns and being handled. It is also very important the dog has completed basic yard work and clearly understands and obeys the WHOA command.
The ideal training field has rolling ground or clumps of high cover that will conceal the pointing dog. It's best if our backing dog gets close before seeing the pointing dog — remember, we're hoping to trigger an inborn response and surprise seems to help. Around 20 yards is good for the backing dog to come in view of the pointed bracemate.
Have a helper plant a bird, or even better, set up a remote release and position the pointing dog so it's behind cover or over a rise in the ground and not visible during the approach but in full view of the backing dog once he clears cover. Again, the idea is to have your dog move in, then surprise!€¦he sees the pointing bracemate and this will trigger the instinct to back.
Ready your student by attaching a long check rope to his collar, then run the rope down the back, taking a half hitch around the flank, letting the remainder trail behind. The flank hitch allows you to apply pressure while not pulling the dog's head (and attention) away from the pointing dog. Now cast your dog and make a swing in the direction of the pointing dog.
As you close in, position yourself to pick up the rope and check the backing dog once he sees the pointing dog and/or stops, then reinforce with "whoa" and make him stand. Be sure to stop your dog well back from the pointing dog — backing is a response to seeing the pointing dog and has nothing to do with scenting game.
You'll find the half hitch a powerful tool and the dog will dictate how much pressure is needed. Once the dog is stopped, be quiet as most dogs do better with full attention on the pointing dog and reinforcement through the check rope. If the backing dog attempts to move in, give him a good jerk with the check rope and stand him back in his original location.
Once things are under control and your backing dog is standing, have your helper flush and shoot the bird. Sometimes it is helpful to allow the backing dog to make the retrieve, particularly as a reward for good work. Giving him the retrieve
not only associates birds with the pointing dog; the reward keeps your student sharp and excited about training.
By the way, if your dog is e-collar conditioned, it's a great tool and offers a lot more flexibility during this or any part of training. For example, you can use slight pressure to "bend" or handle your dog into the backing set-up, appropriate pressure to reinforce the stop/back, and still have higher stimulation available if the dog breaks toward the bird.
Change of venue
You have to change locations so your student doesn't start to anticipate and creep in. Another good idea is alternating pointing and backing to keep both dogs fresh. As with any drill, don't overdo it. Again, "whoa" is the tool to communicate "stop," and not understanding this command can lead to confusion.
During the first few set-ups we physically stop our backing dog with the check rope or remote collar, at the same time reinforcing the stop with the "whoa" command.
Repeat this scenario on several different occasions and at varied locales. Once the dog begins to understand we delay the "whoa" so the command slowly changes from a cue or warning to stop, to become reassurance and reinforcement for the correct response as the dog begins to stop on its own.
As you repeat the same basic drill on subsequent days in different areas, even with different pointing dogs, expect your student to begin to respond correctly. Seeing the pointing dog becomes the cue to stop and there's no longer a verbal command to "whoa," only a calm reinforcement. At the same time we're progressively less tolerant of disobedience to the visual cue and correspondingly firm with corrections.
Never allow your backing dog to "road in" on the pointing dog. If that happens, check him up abruptly with the flank hitch or collar pressure and force him to stand and honor the point.
Also, never allow your dog to turn, walk away or leave his backing position to come to your side. Make him stand! "Whoa" means stop and don't move. Be ready to toss a bird or pop the release to keep him on his toes and standing correctly, using the excitement of the bird as a reward.
Don't allow bad habits to get started, but don't forget to follow correct response with a little praise and allow the retrieve as a confidence builder. We have to keep things as positive as possible. If your goal is to have your dog back steadily through the flush and shot, simply continue to reinforce obedience to the "whoa" command as you have in pointing situations. Be ready on the check rope or collar while your assistant flushes for the pointing dog.
If your backing dog moves, check him and force him to stand and praise him when he does. Use your imagination and slowly raise the "thresholds of obedience" step-by-step. I advise you have the dog steady on his own pointed birds before it is required while backing.
At some point most trainers, especially those training for high-level competition, completely discontinue using the verbal command "whoa." Finished dogs should understand they must remain steady once pointing or backing, without commands.
If you don't have access to a steady dog, a great alternative is a "backing" silhouette. These work almost as well and never break and chase. Even better are spring-loaded silhouettes or those with electronic controls, allowing you to raise and lower the silhouette when the time is right.
One big advantage with these is the situation is easy to set up, especially when used along with remote bird releases. Another benefit to using a silhouette is that the available cover isn't as important because the silhouette lies flat until triggered. One person can easily set up the situation with a bird in a releaser positioned ahead of the silhouette.
Then bring the backing dog around and trigger the silhouette. The backing dog suddenly sees a dog on point and stops, after which you release the bird when ready.
Good luck with your training, and here's to mannerly dogs that back reliably!
Here are some basic items and tips you will need in order to get your gun dog to back properly.
- Employ a friend or fellow hunter to help you with field work
- Check rope of 20 feet or more
- Pigeons or other gamebirds (check your state's regulations)
- Solid, reliable set-up pointing dog
- Remote bird release (optional)
- Remote collar (optional)
- Backing silhouette (optional)