Natural Ability & Trained Ability

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 2012

The distinction between natural ability and trained ability is a question I often hear when presenting a seminar. It’s a good question because each ability is distinctively different and requires different training methods.

Let’s begin with natural ability. Natural ability is inherited. That’s why it’s so important to check bloodlines before you buy a puppy. You need to buy a puppy from a respected breeder who is known to breed dogs for the qualities you require in a hunting dog. Field champions are born…not made. Through outdoor exposure to scent, birds, etc., you can help your dog develop his natural abilities…but you can’t teach them. The number one natural ability inherited from a blood line is a nose. You can spend thousands of dollars on professional training; however, no one can improve a dog’s nose. I learned this very early in life. My father and I had both English setters and beagles. Setters for birds and beagles for rabbits. An outstanding beagle had a nose often twice as powerful as the average beagle. The same is true of bird dogs.

 

In addition to a dog’s nose, prey drive, handling the scent (stay steady or relocate) and learning to hunt into the wind are all examples of natural ability. None of these abilities are taught; they are allowed to develop throughout the first year. And, they can only develop if the pup is exposed to multiple wild bird species, changing scent conditions and changing seasons.

Natural ability is the foundation for a good bird dog…so buy wisely.

So, what then do we call trained ability? Trained ability is often a behavior that violates natural ability. Trained ability includes remaining steady to the flush. Natural prey drive makes a dog want to chase the bird when it flushes. We don’t want that for a few reasons. One is for safety of the dog. Shooting at birds flying over a chasing dog result each hunting season in hundreds of dogs taking lead. It’s sloppy and unsafe hunting. Another reason is that a chasing dog will frequently flush another bird which will be out of sight or range for the hunter. There are too many things that can go wrong when a dog chases on the flush. We correct that by teaching the dog to stay steady during the flush. That steadiness is a trained ability.

Other trained abilities are some of the obedience commands such as recall, whoa and heal. No dog has a natural instinct to perform any of these commands. Compliance with these commands is taught.

There are two abilities which are borderline between natural and trained. The first is the honor , which is backing another dog’s point. This is a much debated subject. Some breeders claim that their bloodline is known for natural backing. I believe that today’s modern bloodlines do have some tendency to honor another dog’s point. The centuries old training of the versatile breeds to be a one dog show make me feel that they’re the least likely to develop honoring as a natural ability. I’m sure it might exist in some of the versatile blood lines but it’s not an easy natural ability to develop. 

The second ability which is borderline between natural and trained is the retrieve. I’m referring to pointing dogs and not the retriever breeds. This is an ability which I feel the versatile breeds, due to centuries of training, might have more “natural” than “trained” in their blood. I’ve watched amazing retrieving skills, on both land and water, by many of the versatile breeds. I personally feel that retrieving develops a little harder for the traditional setter and pointer.

That’s an introduction to the difference between natural ability and trained ability. Buy from good blood lines for your natural ability and work hard with the trained abilities and you’ll have a true “brag dog.”

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