I know, we all want to walk in on solid points to flush and shoot birds. Isn’t that the reason we have pointing dogs? Of course it is. But you don’t get that by teaching the dog to point. You get that by teaching your dog to NOT FLUSH BIRDS. This is a very simple concept that isn’t so simple to explain. Or grasp. If you want your dog to perform to its full potential, YOU can’t tell him when it’s time to stop and point the bird because you don’t know that. You can’t know that. Fortunately your dog does.
How does this concept apply to training your dog to be staunch (hold point)?
First, always give pups a season of actual hunting, or more, before thinking about trying to staunch them up. The reason for this is simple. They aren’t ready for it until they have learned to handle birds. I’m talking about wild birds during actual hunting, not planted birds in a training situation. Until they get too close to a bird and bump it, or flush it on purpose, they can’t know how close they can get away with approaching before they point. This is crucial. Even when pups are out flushing birds, breaking point, etc. they are learning valuable lessons that can’t be taught any other way.
Once they have learned to handle birds we teach them not to flush or chase using training birds. I don’t want to go into detail about how to accomplish this. The point I want to make here is: teach them they’re not allowed to flush birds, transfer that lesson to hunting, and they immediately turn into competent pointing dogs. Understanding they can’t flush the bird is the last piece of the puzzle. They already know how to point birds, relocate if a bird moves, follow running birds for long distances, etc. As soon as they learn to let you flush the bird you will get shots over solid points. It can be hard to get your head around letting go of control but that’s what you have to do if you want top performance from your dog.
Why does this matter?
Whoa-ing a dog when you see that he smells the bird in an effort to teach him to stop and point backfires. He wants to please you but you aren’t making sense to him because you’re telling him to stop before he really has the bird located. You’re confusing him. Keep it up and you’ll get shoddy bird handling demonstrated by flagging tails on point, creeping, or even backing away from birds. By contrast, if you let him decide when he has the bird located, he will point. Solid. No flagging. When the bird runs he’ll know it (flagging now indicates the bird is running) and relocate (he’ll go solid again). No need to release him – he’ll do it on his own. Over and over until he loses track of the bird (unusual), it flushes wild, or gets pinned. I’ve watched dozens of setters do this (we call it “roading”) on Pheasant, Grouse, Chukar, Huns, Sage Grouse, California Quail, and Sharptails over the past 30 years, often for hundreds of yards, and I honestly can’t remember one bumping a bird in this situation. (Note: by “bump” I mean getting too close by mistake, not intentionally flushing the bird)
Aren’t dogs supposed to hold point until released?
Field trial rules require dogs to hold point until released, which often leads to a misguided attempt to use this approach for hunting. It may be required for field trials but it provides no advantage when actually hunting. None. Teaching the dog to keep pointing where the bird was five minutes ago will only teach him NOT to follow running birds. If you’ve ever watched a dog “road” a grouse for hundreds of yards and pin it where it runs out of cover you’ll agree this is the pinnacle of bird handling. The most exciting, most challenging, top performance a dog can turn in. If you’ve never seen it, do yourself a favor and stop teaching your dogs to hold point until released. Let them do what they’re bred to do and you’ll be glad you did.
There’s one more issue I want to address here. Yelling “whoa” to prevent the dog from moving often results in exactly what you’re trying to avoid – birds flushing out of range. Not because the dog moved. Because your voice spooked the bird. Want to put birds in the air? Yell. The human voice flushes birds almost as reliably as the dog getting too close. I’ve seen it happen dozens (and dozens and dozens) of times. Next time you’re out pay attention when you talk and see if birds fly at the sound of your voice. If you want verification before next season there’s no shortage of videos on Youtube demonstrating my point. Dog points, bird runs as gunners approach, dog tries to follow, handler yells “whoa”, bird flushes immediately. I can’t believe how often you hear something like “WHOA-uh, there they go…” When the dog points your job is to be quiet and get ahead of him to flush the bird. If the bird runs and the dog starts roading, keep walking but don’t say a word. He’s doing his job. Only talk if the dog flushes the bird. Then and only then do you correct the dog using “whoa”.
So as we put last season behind us and thoughts turn to getting our dogs tuned up for next season keep this in mind. If you want top performance from your dog, you have to let him decide when to point. Don’t correct him unless he flushes the bird. When you’re hunting next season, trust him to know when to move and when to stop. Be quiet when he’s on birds (as in don’t flush birds he’s working hard to pin for you). You’re a team. You do your job, let him do his.
One of the most common questions we receive is some variation of “How should I train my puppy for hunting?” That’s an important question and our answer often surprises owners. Basically, teach them “Come” so you have control, condition them to the gun, then take them hunting and let them figure it out. Throw in a little play retrieving so you have a basis to encourage them to retrieve birds and some fun walks in field or woods so they get used to keeping track of you and you’re on your way. Most important, don’t do too much training. The best way to ruin puppies is by putting too much pressure on them when they’re young. This doesn’t necessarily mean being hard on them – too much training will take some enthusiasm out of a pup so be sure to keep it to a minimum so they’re still having fun. You’ll want to teach other things at home to make them good citizens (No, Kennel, No Chewing, etc) but don’t overdo that either. Just enough to teach them good behavior and what’s expected of them.
In this post we lay out our basic approach to developing puppies and getting them ready to be hunted. This past season we raised three pups, Lock, Thistle, and Misty, all born in February 2018. Here’s a summary of the training we did to get them ready for hunting season.
You can start play retrieving lessons right away. This is a fun game, not serious training. You are trying to encourage this behavior, not train it and insist on obedience. We use a leather work glove or folded sock and throw it for them in a hallway or other place they can’t run past you. If they try running by catch them and praise them for fetching. If they don’t come right to you they’ll probably head for the dog bed or crate, some place they are comfortable – position yourself so they have to pass within reach to get there. Don’t grab the dummy right away and take it from them. Allow them to hold onto it while you praise them. Otherwise they may try to avoid you so you can’t take it from them. Use whatever command you like; Fetch, Bring It Here; etc. Here are a few videos of last summer’s play retrieving.
May 12, 2018 / First Retrieve Lessons
Limit sessions to two or three successful retrieves. A couple sessions per week will suffice. You can try more frequently but back off if they start to lose enthusiasm. Keep it exciting for them by limiting frequency so it’s something special. The clips below were shot on 2 August 2018. They’ve had a handful of lessons since May, probably less than ten total during the entire summer. Note their enthusiasm for this game – they’re obviously having fun.
August 2, 2018 / Continuing Retrieve Lessons
Occasionally you run into a situation where things don’t go as planned. Stay positive and keep it fun. In the following video the pup is hesitant to pick up the sock. After being teased with it for a short time she decides it’s OK and runs off with it. Teasing them in this way works very well. Hold the dummy out to them and pull it away when they reach for it. That makes them want it even more. This also works very well with birds. Pups are sometimes hesitant to pick up a dead bird at first so we tease them until they are really trying to get it, then throw it and command “Fetch”, the same as with the sock in the video.
We feel these basic lessons help bring out their inherent desire to retrieve and are essential for encouraging retrieving in the field if they hesitate to pick up or bring dead birds to you. This short video of Gen illustrates how this works in the field.
Gen is eight months old here and this is the first bird she’s had shot for her. It flew off out of sight hanging a leg and Gen later found and pointed it dead. Once she realized it was dead she was unsure what to do but responded immediately when told to “Fetch It Up”.
Come / Shock Collar Reinforced
We start with the usual positive reinforcement techniques. Clap your hands and call them (Come, Here, whistle signal, etc) then praise them when they come to you. Soon they know what you want and will do it fairly reliably. Eventually they will decide not to obey and you’ll need to correct that. Every time. Come is the one command we never tolerate disobedience on, for their own safety as well as our sanity. Don’t give the command if you can’t make sure they obey.
When puppies are young you can run them down and bring them to where you called them. Once they can out run you (it gets earlier every year 😉 ) we introduce the shock collar to reinforce Come so we maintain control of the pup. Our dogs wear a shock collar on every hunt, though we use it rarely after they understand they have to obey. There are two main reasons for this. One is to be able to reliably call them away from dangerous situations; roads, cliffs, traps, animals, etc. The other is because we don’t tolerate deer chasing for obvious reasons. We nip that in the bud with a jolt on the highest setting if they chase deer. It’s not common in our dogs but we do see occasional interest in deer and it’s best not to let them get in the habit of running them, by sight or scent. On road trips pups wear it every time out of the truck so even bathroom stops become a training session and we’re soon able to call them back reliably.
You can find any number of videos detailing how to introduce a shock collar correctly so we’re not going to try to explain that here. If you’re not comfortable doing it yourself pay a trainer to do it for you, and to teach you how to properly use the collar in the field.
Conditioning To Gun
This is the most important step in getting a pup ready for hunting. Everything else you can fix but a gun shy dog is a big problem and will probably never be a hunting companion for the typical owner. Correction is difficult if not impossible so it’s best to avoid the problem in the first place. Do this by gradually getting your pup used to loud noises. Clapping hands loudly, slapping boards together, rolled up newspaper slapped against a hand, etc can all help get pup used to noise. Cap guns/starter pistols are also a great tool – we use one that shoots #209 (shotgun) primers. Whatever you use make sure you stay at a distance until the pup ignores the sound. Gradually get closer/louder and make sure pup is not bothered by the noise. If you see any signs of worry back off and go slower. Try to do this conditioning while distracted by something interesting or exciting, like food at feeding time.
For the past few years we’ve been doing a group session with pigeons and a blank pistol, graduating to a shotgun fired from a short distance. We throw pigeons for a group of pups/young dogs and they key off each other’s excitement about the birds. After they ignore the pistol at close range we fire a shotgun with light loads during the same pigeon drills. Then we work them on a few training Quail and eventually shoot a bird or two over them. After that we take them hunting and don’t shoot close and/or directly over their heads. If all goes well they have no problem with gun fire.
Here are some videos we shot of the group pigeon sessions last summer.
September 8 2018 / First Pigeon Session
This is their first time seeing pigeons so we just flew some birds to familiarize them with the birds. No gun fire yet.
September 17, 2018 / Introduction to Blank Pistol
First time we shot the pistol for them. They’ve had pigeons thrown for them most days since Sept. 8th and are very excited about the birds.
September 29. 2018 / Blank Pistol at Close Range
We gradually got closer with the pistol over the past week or so and can now shoot it close to them with no reaction.
October 8. 2018 / Introduction to Shotgun
First time firing shotgun during pigeon session. We did this during the next few sessions to make sure they all ignored it.
They’re now ready to have a bird shot over them. Note that we avoid throwing multiple new experiences at them in the same session. First get them used to pigeons. Their wings are loud and can spook a young pup. They sound very different than game bird wings. Once they’re comfortable with the birds you can advance to using the blank pistol but don’t try introducing both together. Take it one step at a time.
Training Quail / Shooting Birds For Pups
After pups are comfortable with gunfire on pigeons we like to shoot a training Quail or two for them. They learn a lot from this step. It kick starts their hunting/pointing instinct, they discover birds and how to locate them by scent, and have their first opportunity to retrieve a freshly shot bird. They can learn all this in actual hunting situations but this gives them a head start. Near the end of gunfire conditioning we introduced the pups to Quail.
October 7, 2018 / First Time On Training Quail
We make sure they’re excited and chasing the bird when we shoot the blank gun. We had no points this time out but they got introduced to game birds and had the blank pistol fired for them.
October 8, 2018 / Second Time On Training Quail
Note that both Lock and Misty actually establish points this time. What a difference a day makes.
October 13, 2018 / Shooting Training Quail
Because it’s difficult to control the situation we’ve taken to throwing birds the first time we shoot them for pups. That way we have a better chance of getting the bird to fly where we want it – away from the dog and towards the gun. It’s not perfect but it saves time and gets the job done. They’re already used to having birds thrown for them from the pigeon drills so there’s nothing new except actually shooting the birds.
Unfortunately I missed the bird and it reflushed without being seen by Lock but we accomplished our goal of getting the gun fired over him on game birds. It went better for Thistle.
At this point they would have benefited from one more session with training Quail in which we shot a few birds they pointed. However we don’t recommend much more use of training birds with pups at this stage of the game. Excessive use of training birds doesn’t teach them anything useful and could actually retard their development on wild birds.
They’re now ready for the real thing. We can take them hunting and shoot birds with caution. Don’t shoot from close to the dog, limit the number of shots, and don’t shoot right over their head. Don’t shoot at the first bird that flushes – make sure your pup is comfortable with, and excited about, the birds before firing a shot. One new thing at a time. We’ve seen large birds (like Sage Grouse) scare young dogs the first time they see one flush – shooting at it in this situation would be asking for trouble. Pick your shot. Make sure pup sees the bird, you are far enough away and not shooting directly towards the dog, then take one shot (it’s a good idea to put only one shell in your gun for this). Watch for any negative reaction. If there’s no problem take another shot the next chance you get. Take it slow and gradually take shots closer to your pup and put that second shell in the gun for follow up shots.
If a pup shows any concern, acts worried or scared or nervous, or shows less enthusiasm after you shoot, DO NOT shoot again. You’ll need to back up and do more conditioning in non-hunting situations. Continue to hunt but don’t shoot at another bird until you are sure your pup is ready for it.
During these first hunts you should take your pup hunting alone. No other dogs and only take a friend if it’s someone you’re sure will not shoot in the wrong situation. Do not, EVER, take a pup out with a bunch of friends who are going to blaze away at the first bird that flushes until thoroughly conditioned to the gun in hunting situations. This is the most common reason we hear for gun shy, even with youngsters that have been shot over quite a bit. It’s a new experience – a bunch of people and their dogs, commands being yelled, etc and it can be very intimidating for a young dog. Then a bird flushes, six or eight shots are fired, and you now have a gun shy dog.
We took the three pups to Wisconsin in October and all saw a (very) few Grouse and Woodcock and had a few shots fired but had no actual points. We did manage to kill a Grouse for Lock which he retrieved after making a nice find on the wing-tipped bird that ran 30 yards from where we marked it. He went straight to it and pointed it dead, impressive for a young dog’s first experience.
We headed to SW Idaho in December for Chukars and again all had some exposure to birds. Chukars were spooky this year. Lock had several opportunities to follow running coveys. Although he didn’t make points he roaded them to where they flushed, showing he knew they were there and was following along where they’d run (We had snow so we could tell what was going on). Thistle and Misty had a couple opportunities, following running birds and making a few finds, albeit with no solid points. They all showed they had what it takes and were beginning to figure it out.
January brought us to central Kansas for Quail and Pheasant. Bird numbers were up this year giving all three pups the opportunity to put it all together. And they did. On her second hunt Misty had a couple of nice finds and solid points on single Quail. On Thistle’s first hunt she retrieved a single Quail then followed a running rooster more than 100 yards. Again snow told the story – the tracks revealed where the bird had run but Thistle roaded the bird by scent, stopping to point several times before locating it hiding in snow covered brush at the head of a draw and pointing it. She also made a nice find and retrieve on her prize.
Lock also had his first birds killed over a point. Here he is pointing the first covey of Quail he encountered.
Both Bob and Lisa shot birds on the covey rise and Lock made retrieves on all three. Here’s Lock’s first retrieve:
Notice he had to be coaxed to bring it to Lisa. Once he got the idea he did better on the second bird:
That’s it. What we have detailed above is all the training we did with these pups and you can see the result. They are by no means finished but they’re well on their way to becoming bird dogs. We’ve laid the foundation and for now all we have to do is take them hunting. There are many ways to accomplish the same things and you’ll have to adapt your methods to your situation and what you have available to you. However you get it done, do some play retrieving, teach them come (and make sure they will obey reliably), condition them to the gun, then take them hunting.
A very high percentage of our dogs never get any more formal training than this. We continue to encourage retrieving, work on control, and teach a turn signal, all while hunting. They learn on the fly. There may be some fine tuning later (staunching up, etc) but they will figure most of it out on their own. In fact they have to figure it out on their own. You can’t teach them the finer points of handling birds – how close they can get or how to follow running birds for example – they have to learn that themselves and they’ll learn it really fast. Even with limited bird contacts Lock, Thistle, and Misty all showed they were looking for birds, followed where they’d run, located them, and made points on wild birds in just a handful of actual hunts. They have the instincts and intelligence necessary to handle birds. If puppies don’t have what it takes you can’t teach them these skills. If they do have what it takes you might “train” it out of them if you insist on making decisions for them rather than allowing them to take the initiative and learn for themselves. No amount of experience on training birds with you “whoaing” them when YOU think they should stop will teach them how close is too close to a cagey old Grouse. You will only teach them to rely on YOU to decide when they should stop which will suppress the development of their natural ability to figure out how to pin that bird. For a more in depth explanation of this approach see “DON’T TEACH YOUR DOG TO HOLD POINT!“.
Whether or not your pup will need further training depends on the individual dog and your personal expectations (degree of staunchness, steady to wing/shot, etc.). To give you an idea what to expect, here’s how our dogs progress moving forward. They typically do well in their first season, usually holding point and retrieving shot birds. During the second season most will go through a teenage or terrible twos stage, breaking point and flushing birds, racing through cover not even trying to locate and point birds, ranging out further, being disobedient, etc. Some hold point reliably through this stage but still do the other things associated with the second season. Over the next season or two they mature and settle down, holding point, obeying commands, being less rambunctious and more serious about finding and pointing birds.
We’ll leave you with one final word of caution.
Take your time and don’t try to do too much. Keep training sessions short and make sure your pup is having fun. Excessive drilling risks taking some of the enthusiasm out of your pup and it can be very hard to put it back once you’ve pushed too hard. We can’t emphasize this enough. Pushing too hard now can do damage you can’t undo later. Err on the side of caution – you can pull on the rope later if you need to, but you won’t be able to push on it. Keep it simple and make sure it’s fun for your pup. If you notice a decrease in enjoyment back off for a while. You’ll get there soon enough.
We have four new pups to work with this summer so we thought it would be good to share what we’re doing with them. They’re all coming up on six months old. In addition to the basic commands we use around the kennel (come, kennel, etc) they’ve had a few play retrieving lessons – less than 10 sessions. Three are from our Iris x Mac litter – Lock, Blue and Thistle. Here are videos of their first retrieve lesson and one from this afternoon for comparison:
This is Misty from Firelight Setters.
They’re all enthusiastic about bringing the glove and obviously very excited about the game. Keeping it to a minimum prevents having them get bored. This game will give us something to fall back on if they hesitate to pick up shot birds later and is well worth the effort.
We also take them for occasional short walks in the forest near the house so they learn to stay with us and keep track of where we’re going. Everything is an adventure at this point and it’s fun to watch them explore the world. Here are a few photos from this morning’s outing:
We just finished our Chukar season in western Idaho. With bird numbers still low and weather (fog) and road (mud – at one point we lost control of the truck at 10 mph in low gear and 4WD) conditions conspiring to keep us away from most areas it was really tough to find birds.
By the end of the season it felt like spring. Temps in the 50s, Huns were paired up, grasshoppers were out and flowers were blooming.
Roads dried out enough so we could get around better the last 4-5 days of the season and we found a few more birds. We had to work REALLY hard to get our young dogs into birds. Like 4-5 hours a day climbing hills like this: We had six 8 & 10 month old pups with us that had never seen wild birds. We worked them a few times on training quail and got them shot over in October and they looked really good so our expectations were high. But the proof is in how they handle wild birds so we were intent on seeing how they would do. They not only met our expectations, they exceeded them, and they’re easily the best batch of young dogs we’ve had. 3 out of 6 (Prince, Blaze, and Iris) made points on the first wild birds they found and Brook was pointing Chukars by the end of the first hunt on which she saw birds. We even managed to shoot a couple over those first points. We weren’t fast enough to get photos of them pointing but here are some videos of retrieves:
Iris (River x Spice) retrieving the first Hun she found, and pointed:
Brook (Doc x Camas) retrieving the first Chukar she pointed – this is actually the third time she brought it to me:
Here’s Gen (Heath x Pepper) on the first bird we shot for her. She wasn’t quite sure what to do with it at first but the early play retrieving lessons paid off and she recognized the fetch command:
And this is Violet (River x Paint) retrieving a Hun:
We had one hunt that’s good for a laugh. Every day we see a different truck parked in the same spot and we always hear shooting there. We’ve never hunted it but we decided to give it a try. So we climbed up and crossed a ridge over to a big canyon that’s hard to reach from other places so we thought we were on to something. It was very steep dropping into the canyon so we were walking very slow when Lisa says “there goes a covey of Chukars”. It took me a while to find them – hopping up a huge cliff 100 yards ahead of us in short steps all the way to the top. They’d obviously played the game before and there was no hope of getting them. This is the spot: It was like one of those old cartoons and we were Elmer Fudd. It did make us notice this Golden Eagle nest though:
All in all we had a good time and were especially happy with the performance of our youngsters. Seeing them put it all together under such trying conditions with only a few bird contacts was very gratifying. Since we took more photos we’ll just put them in here for fun. Hope you enjoy them.
We often receive questions about how we start our puppies. The most important lessons a puppy needs are basic obedience- Come, No, etc. We also like to add “No Chewing” to our list of basic commands. Working on these commands as a part of everyday life teaches a puppy how to learn and that you are in charge. Two commands for the field are also important to start on at an early age- Whoa, and Fetch.
The method we use for early introduction to Whoa comes from George Bird Evans’ book “Troubles With Bird Dogs”. It consists of throwing a treat out in front of the pup and teaching it to Whoa before he/she is allowed to go after it. We like this method because the puppy learns that Whoa means to wait before going after something desirable. Later Whoa will be used in the same way, only on birds. Don’t overdo it, three to five times in each lesson is plenty.
Restrain the pup by pushing it back every time it lunges, not by holding on to it with steady pressure. Give your release command as soon as your pup gives in and stops. We use OK and two taps on the head for the release. During these first lessons you are only trying to get your pup to stop. Eventually the pup will Whoa without being restrained and you can gradually increase the length of time your pup stands on Whoa before being released. Later you can graduate to walking away, etc. Try to include at least one correction during each lesson. For example wait long enough so your pup breaks and requires restraint. This reinforces that you are in control and that pup has to wait for you to release him/her. We also like to end on a positive note, one on which the pup does what is asked without being corrected. We continue this lesson until the pups are old enough to handle more serious yard training.
Here are videos of two pups getting their first Whoa lessons. Both are typical reactions to the first lesson.
Other than basic obedience, early play retrieving is probably the most important lesson for young pups. It’s important to bring out their retrieving instincts early. Then if you have trouble with retrieving later you have something to fall back on that they’re familiar with. Use a dummy that is only for retrieving, not a toy or something the pup has access to otherwise. We start with a rolled up sock and change to a work glove after a few lessons. Again, don’t overdo it – three to five retrieves per session, and make it a fun game. Some pups will come right to you but most try to run by at first. Use a hallway or similar area and position yourself so there’s room to get past you, but you can still catch your pup when he/she tries to run by. Here are the same two pups’ first play retrieving lessons.
Occasionally you run into a situation where things don’t go as planned. Stay positive and keep it fun. In the following video the pup is hesitant to pick up the sock. After being teased with it for a short time she decides it’s OK and runs off with it. Teasing them in this way works very well. Hold the dummy out to them and pull it away when they reach for it. That makes them want it even more. This also works very well with birds. Pups are often hesitant to pick up a dead bird at first so we tease them until they are really trying to get it, then throw it and command Fetch, the same as with the sock in the video.
These simple lessons will lay the foundation for later training.
Breeders of Classic foot hunting English Setters from Ryman and other close working bloodlines.