How to Finish Your Hunting Dog:

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.

September 2008

 In last month’s column, I encouraged readers who own pointing dogs to take some time before the start of the upland bird season to finish your dog. I covered many reasons to finish your dog and mentioned that there is no legitimate reason not to take the extra step. That much-anticipated October 1st date is only one month away; however, there is still time to start the season with a finished dog, and I can assure you that a finished or “broke”dog will make you smile.

Finishing your dog in just one month requires that you have done your yard training and your dog is already obedient to the whoa command. Whoa means stop-on-a-dime, don’t twitch a muscle. I’m also assuming that your dog is already steady during the point and shows no sign of being gun shy. For beginners, over the next several months, we will cover the entire spectrum…from puppy time to finished dog.

In the pointing dog fraternity, a finished or “broke” dog is one that is steady through point, flush and shot. The dog does not move until released by the handler. The only exception to this is that the dog is permitted to move slightly to mark the path of a flushed bird. Do not correct or scold a dog that moves to simply mark the flight of the bird. 

With all dog training, please remember that dogs are not machines. In fact, it is hard to find a dog that is permanently finished. There are always variables which will make your “brag” dog break point and chase an occasional bird. Be patient and persistent. Remember, pointing is a natural instinct of a predator. After the point, it is natural and instinctive for the dog to chase and catch the prey. We’re training against nature. Let’s have some fun, however, and get that dog as finished as possible.

There are two ways to finish a pointing dog. The simple way is to take the dog to a professional trainer twice a week until opening day. You’ll have a pretty good dog to start the season. If you choose this method, contact the Yankee Chapter of the North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association (NAVHDA) for suggestions for a trainer in Maine. Their website is www.yankeenavhda.org. For a New Hampshire trainer, call Dave Trahan at 603/463-7828. The second method is simply to do it yourself and that’s the method we’ll cover. Training will be most effective if you have access to live birds. You can use chukar, quail or pigeons. If you don’t know of a bird propagator, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife told me that you can call 207/621-2600 and, for a small fee, you can obtain a list. Ask for Customer Service. The ideal situation will be to find a propagator within a reasonable driving distance which will allow you to make weekly trips to pickup fresh birds. If you hold birds for gun dog training, however, you will also need a propagator’s license. You can obtain this by calling Inland Fisheries & Wildlife at 207/287-3614.

Once you know where you can get birds, create a caged area about 5’ x 5’. Make sure predators cannot get into the cage. Buy only 10 birds at a time unless you have a facility and time to take care of a couple dozen.

Are you thinking you don’t want to get a propagator’s license and build a cage but you still want to do your own training? Then simply go to a preserve in Maine and buy the birds from the preserve. You can do all your training on their property. To locate a preserve in Maine, go to www.wingshootingusa.org or www.shooting-hunting.com.

Before you buy birds from either a propagator or a preserve, we’re going to do some simple yard work. You’ll need a dummy with grouse, pheasant or quail wings attached. If you don’t have wings, at least have a flag on the dummy, which will flutter when thrown. You’ll also need a check cord, a 22-caliber pistol (or starter’s pistol) and a box of blanks.

Attach the check cord to the collar and then half hitch around the dog’s waist. This will give you much greater control of your dog. While holding the check cord, walk through your back yard and whoa your dog. Pull-up on the check cord if necessary. While gently saying whoa, throw the dummy. If the dog breaks, jerk on the check cord and give him a stern whoa. Repeat this simple exercise until the dog is steady. A day or two later, take the dog to a field and repeat the process. Now, however, shoot the blank pistol when you throw the dummy. If the dog breaks on shot, shout whoa firmly and jerk back on the check cord. Repeat this exercise until the dog is steady to the shot. Take a week, if need be, for these first two steps. The reason we take the dog to a field for the second step is that we don’t want the dog to always see the dummy when it drops. I get concerned about a dog sight pointing if the bird is too often visible during training exercises. These two exercises are simply a warm-up. When your dog is steady to the dummy throw and the shot, we move onto the next set of exercises.

It’s now time to use live birds. It would be helpful if you have an assistant; son, daughter, wife or neighbor will do fine. You, the handler, will again have your dog on a check cord with a half-hitch around the belly. Your assistant will have three birds in a shoulder bag; however, make sure the bag has ventilation. Casually walk through the field and have your assistant, without announcing, randomly throw a bird in the air. Make sure your dog stays steady to the flush with a firm whoa and jerk on the check cord. Repeat with the remaining two birds. When your dog has become steady to the flush and that may take two or three outings, with three or four birds used in each outing, then we move to steady to shot.

Have your assistant go to your chosen field and plant three birds. Make sure they’re about 50 yards from each other. Do not rock quail to put them to sleep; simply toss them firmly into some cover. Your dog should not see the birds planted. While your assistant is planting the birds, work on whoa reinforcement. Now your assistant also becomes a shooter.

With check cord attached (but not half-hitched around belly), cast your dog into the field. When the dog locates the first bird and is on point, walk up to the check cord and slowly, hand or hand, work your way to the dog. While doing this, in an easy voice, repeat whoa two or three times. Have your assistant and shooter approach from the side, flush the bird and shoot. Throughout this process, you’re keeping the dog steady with the check cord and a sharp whoa if the dog attempts to break on either the flush or the shot. Do not reward the dog with a retrieve if he tried hard to break and chase. Remember, it’s fine for the dog to move to mark the flight of the bird.

Continue the exercise with the remaining two birds. Continue the training with planted birds two or three times per week for another two weeks. This training process should give you a finished dog by October 1st. Keep in mind that training a pointing dog is a continuous process and that there is never a truly finished dog. Also, there is a big difference between pen raised birds and wild birds. I highly recommend that the first time this season you’re in the field for wild birds, that you invite a friend to do the shooting and you not carry a gun. Spend the entire day paying attention to your dog. Use a check cord the first day out and repeat the process you used on pen-raised birds. Help the dog stay steady and you’ll be rewarded the remainder of the season.

So, many of you are asking “What about an electronic collar?” Well, I do believe in the e-collar if properly used. It is a great training tool. I encourage you, however, to try training your dog first without the collar. E-collar training is at least another two or three columns so we’ll cover this process in the future. I love beepers. No more careful listening for the old bell and wondering if your dog is on point. With a beeper, you know where your dog is and when he’s on point.

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