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.
The “whoa” command is the most important tool a handler has for working with pointing dogs. It’s a non-negotiable, stop-on-a-dime command. It has multiple applications both during training and hunting sessions. If taught correctly, it can save a dog’s life if approaching a highway; it can prevent the dreaded porcupine or skunk encounter if the handler sees trouble ahead; and it will be a priceless tool when training a dog to be staunch on point and steady to wing and shot.
Training a dog to be compliant to the “whoa” command is not difficult…it just takes time and patience. As with teaching any command or exercise, the process is one step at a time. Go slow…this is not a speed contest.
The only mandatory tool you’ll need to teach “whoa” is a ten-foot check cord. An additional tool that would help the process would be a training table. The training table helps you have more control over your dog and saves your back from leaning over. If you want to go even one step further, buy a suitcase handle training device from one of the mail order dog supply houses.
As with any training exercise, we start our training based on the temperament of the dog. In general, I like to begin teaching “whoa” around four months of age. If you have a bold puppy, starting earlier than four months would be appropriate. A soft, sensitive puppy could mean waiting another month.
Either kneeling down, or on the training table, simply pick-up your puppy gently and then put him down gently. The moment the puppy’s paws touch the ground or the training table, softly say “whoa”. If you begin teaching whoa with a soft voice, you may never have to raise your voice with this command. I’ve watched the real dog training “pros” stop a dog in their tracks with a “whoa” so soft I barely heard it. When the pup’s paws touch down and you’ve given a soft “whoa” command, hold the pup in that position for just a couple of seconds. As you progress, beginning holding the pup for five seconds. Once five seconds becomes easy, extend the holding period to 30 seconds.
Always teach commands of this nature in sets of three or seven. For a young puppy, begin with three. Make every effort to do this exercise twice a day…perhaps before you go to work in the a.m. and then when you return home in the evening.
Early in the exercise, once you’ve seen the pup begin to hesitate when hearing “whoa”, take your hands off the dog and continue to say “whoa”. You just want to see how long the pup will stay still. At this stage, remember that there are always set-backs. Your pup may respond perfectly two or three consecutive times and then completely ignore the next “whoa” command. This is normal and don’t be concerned…it takes patience and time for this command to consistently be effective.
Once you’ve seen progress with the “hands-on” approach, then begin walking with your dog on the check-cord. While walking along with your dog, give the command “whoa”.
Since you would have quicker access to your dog, here’s where a training table could be beneficial. You’ll want to be able to correct your dog immediately if there is non-compliance. If non-compliance, pick-up your dog and put it back to the location where you gave the command; and when putting the dog down, give the command again. If there is compliance, be sure to praise your dog.
A common problem with teaching any command is that the dog will put itself in a submissive position and walk toward you. This is simply a cop-out on the part of the dog. It’s an easy way to avoid compliance. This is a good time to introduce hand signals. Extend your arm toward your dog with the palm of your hand pointing directly at the dog and then give the “whoa” command again. Hand signals will be useful during many future situations.
The initial process of teaching “whoa” will take at least two months; however, it’s really a life-long process for the dog. When you begin using “whoa” in the field to teach staunchness on live birds, the excitement might cause your dog to have a memory lapse. Don’t be discouraged, just keep working on the command.
Teaching the “whoa” command may take time; however, the alternative is a great deal of screaming, yelling and unhappiness during the hunting season, and we want hunting season to be fun, don’t we?