Talking to 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

June 2010

How do you communicate with your dog? In this column we’ll review the basic methods of communicating with our dogs. To begin, however, it might be fun to take a brief look at when we began communicating with canines. A logical guess might be at the time we started domesticating dogs.

The predominant theory today is that wolves and dogs split into two different species about 100,000 years ago. There is no evidence available today that suggests humans had an influence on the split. There is strong evidence, however, that domestication of dogs was in full stride 15,000 BC in China and 14,000 BC in Germany. How these pioneer dog domesticators communicated with their new friends is only guesswork. It may have been hand signals or vocal commands and all reinforced through both negative and positive reinforcement.

Vocal communication is still the most often used technique. And “here” or “come” are probably the most often used commands. “No” or “down” are probably a close second.

Today, however, we have a plethora of canine communication tools. To communicate with any living critter, you must first get their attention. The mechanical whistle has been around since 1878 when it was invented to referee soccer matches. Since the invention of the mechanical whistle, it has been the most widely used training tool for dogs. Following the whistle, we typically give hand signals to our dog. We get their attention and then, through hand signals, tell them what to do. Dogs may ignore their name but very few ignore a whistle. No matter how sophisticated your training tools have become, always carry a basic whistle. Use one whistle to stop your dog and two toots to make him come.

Using hand signals has also been in the trainers bag for many years. I recently visited a cover dog field trial in Northern New Hampshire. Voice and hand signals were the order of the day. And they worked well. Before Dillon (my shorthair) was one year old, I trained him to turn and look at me, when running, on the “hut” command. I then quickly gave him a hand signal to go in a certain direction. The first few times I did this, I took a step in the direction to help him. He learned quickly and now changes direction on his own. It’s a great technique for getting your dog into a cover where you feel there might be a bird. I want to thank Matt Libby of Libby Camps in the North Maine Woods for this tip.

Today, of course, you hear and read a great deal about the E-Collar. Although they’ve been around for over 20 years, the early collars were not very forgiving. Today’s collars, however, are vastly improved and are very effective training tools.

E-Collars, and their attachments, provide three methods of communicating with your dog. The most commonly used function of the E-Collar is an electronic stimulation. In the early days, it was called “shock” rather than stimulation. Today’s collars offer a wide range of stimulation; from hardly noticeable to a true “shock”. Stimulation is used to correct disobedience to a command already learned. It is not used to teach a command.

Another feature of an E-Collar is an attached beeper. A beeper identifies the location of your dog. You can elect to have the beeper active while your dog is running or just on point. Your dog, therefore, is communicating to you where he’s located at any given position. Many hunters feel that beepers scare game birds. If you are in that school of thought, then you run your dog with the “point only” option. If your dog is on point, he’s probably pinned the bird. The beeper will not affect the bird if it’s pinned. Last fall I watched a pair of German shorthairs, with the “on point” beeper function pin several roosters in South Dakota. Even with birds famous for running, such as pheasants, good dogs, even with beepers, will get the job done.

A third function available with many E-Collars is a buzzer. Many trainers today are using the buzzer as a substitute for stimulation. They’ve taught the dog that stimulation will follow after the buzz if a command is disobeyed. Think of the buzzer as a warning. I hardly ever use stimulation on Dillon, however, I do communicate with him, when necessary, through the buzzer…and he responds very nicely.

Okay, sit down this evening and have a good old chat with your best friend.