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.