Then & Now

Paul Fuller is the gun dog columnist for Northwoods Sporting Journal. The Journal has granted permission to re-print Paul’s articles. Thank you Northwoods Sporting Journal.

July 2012

Today, there is a plethora of training information available for the pointing dog enthusiast. Books, DVDS, YouTube all offer instruction for training a pointing dog. Do you ever wonder how long these training methods have been used? I’ve read that there is a 200 year- old written document on how to train a pointing dog. I haven’t seen 200 year old documents; however, I do have books almost 100 years old on pointing dog training. Simply for fun, let’s examine a few of the methods used 100 years ago.

First, we must recognize that, 100 years ago, all training was done on wild birds. Birds were not “pen raised” for training until after World War II. Recognizing the plentiful populations of wild game birds, trainers of 100 years ago or more, often allowed dogs to self-hunt their first year. It was popular to take a pup to a farmer and allow the pup to run wild and then pick-up the dog around twelve months of age. Er Shelley, the pre-eminent pointing dog trainer in the very early 1900s, said that a pointing dog will train itself 90% if allowed to run freely during its first year. Shelley felt that a pup would learn quickly that a bird must be pointed since it wasn’t possible to catch a wild bird. At one year of age, the only training remaining was steady to wing and shot and obedience training.

Another major change from today is that 100 years ago pointing dogs were taught to lie down for the flush and shot rather than stand still. I’ve asked many pro trainers when the change was made from lying down to standing and no one has ever been able to tell me positively. The best guess is that trainers began changing in the late 1920s. If a reader has a more accurate answer, please email me. My email address is below. How were pointing dogs taught to lie down? They were whipped with a buggy whip.

And speaking of harsh training, wide ranging dogs were often peppered with bird shot if not responding properly to commands. Today, we use a much more humane tool…the e-collar. The e-collar, however, can be as, or even more, cruel as bird shot if not used correctly.

One tool that is as popular today as 100 years ago is the check-cord. It’s basic, easy to use and works wonders. Old time trainers used a check-cord for early obedience, yard training, staunchness and steadiness. Long live the check-cord.

I believe the chain gang was used more 100 years ago than today. Today, I often see professional trainer ads that promote one-on-one training. One hundred years ago, professional trainers had very large kennels and had to train several dogs at once. The philosophy behind the chain gang was that dogs watching other dogs being trained would learn by watching and want to be part of the process. The chain gang was used to teach many different commands.

One training technique that has changed very little is the force-fetch. A man by the name of Sampson is credited with developing the force-fetch in the late 1800s. Today, the pure force-fetch is used by pinching either the ear or the toes. Sampson’s technique used only a toe pinch. The ear pinch was a later development.

One interesting change from 100 years ago is the position of the tail during a point. In photos from 100 years ago, the tail was always pointing straight out rather than pointing up. This is another change that has defied explanation. My guess is that in high stakes field trials, handlers wanted their dogs to more easily see a point and then respect the pointing dog with an honor. The high tail offered better visibility. Of course, then the versatile hunting dogs were introduced from Europe in the mid Twentieth Century and most of them had a cropped tail. Maybe that’s why we’ve never seen a versatile dog running in the National at Ames Plantation.

Hope you enjoyed this piece of bird dog history.