By Jim Morehouse
When SportDOG™ asked me to write training articles on some of the aspects of training pointing dogs to handle birds, it seemed like a pretty easy task. As a full-time trainer and quail guide in Arizona, pointing dogs and birds are my passion. However, as I started to write about my training methods, I quickly realized things were going to get a bit complicated. That’s because there are a lot of topics within that one category of “pointing dogs and birds”: Teaching “Whoa”; introducing young dogs to birds; how to deal with creeping; best way to handle running birds … and on and on. All of these thing are related, and it’s nearly impossible to talk about one topic exclusive of the others. Therefore, I’m going to give you an overview of some of the most important aspects in the training methods I use with the goal of getting my pointing dogs to hunt upland birds with maximum success.
No discussion about training a pointing dog can begin without an understanding of one absolute: It’s all about “Whoa.” If your dog isn’t compliant with this command, nothing else is going to fall perfectly into line for you. “Whoa” is a control device. People are surprised to hear me say that “Whoa” is not about birds. It’s not! “Whoa” means stop and stay until commanded to do differently. That’s it. It can be used to keep a dog from running out onto a highway. It could be used to keep him from approaching and getting aggressive with another dog. And, of course, “Whoa” is what we associate with a dog being on point. A properly trained dog, however, doesn’t need to hear “Whoa” to stop and hold point. His nose, instincts, and training take care of that.
When I’m teaching a dog to hold point, I begin with the dog on a lead. We work in a place with no other dogs, no distractions and, most importantly, no birds. I’ll walk with the dog at my side and let him get a foot or two in front of me. Then, I simply say “Whoa” and give a sharp tug on the lead. I keep pressure on the lead and walk around the dog. The first time, and possibly the first several times, the dog will want to turn with me, which is just his natural tendency. When that happens, I set him back where he was and repeat “Whoa.” I repeat the process until he understands he is not to move no matter where I walk or what I do.
The dog is also learning that the tug and “Whoa,” whether together or separately, both mean stop and don’t move. When your dog is reliably staying put via the tug, the word “Whoa” or both, you’ll soon be ready to move into working with birds.
The biggest mistake people make is trying to move on to the next steps before “Whoa” is perfect. It takes a solid foundation to build a pointing dog. If you don’t have a solid foundation, the walls are going to crumble and the roof is going to cave in. I’ve made the mistake of going too fast. I thought I had a good foundation and started on the walls, but then I found that the foundation wasn’t strong enough to support those walls and I had to go back and start over.
I’m not big on constantly giving commands during hunting. If you take care of your “Whoa” foundation and then properly tie it into the live-bird exercises that I’ll be covering in future articles, you’ll find that you don’t need to talk to your dog in the field much at all. Other than a command to get a dog to turn or possibly giving a dog a “Whoa” to keep it from barreling into another dog that it can’t see, there’s no reason to be talking all the time. Nor should you be yelling and screaming. It’s just not productive. If you find yourself doing these things, you probably didn’t build a good foundation.
In my next article I’m going to explain the methods I use to introduce young pointing dogs to birds, and future articles will explain how these steps all tie together.
In Part One of this series I explained why “Whoa” is the most important command in pointing dog training. Now I’ll explain the next step I take toward tying “Whoa” and live birds together.
I want to give my young dogs plenty of experience with finding live birds. One, it’s fun. Two, it’s also educational. I want them to learn that they can’t catch a bird. It’s their job to locate it and stand still. But early on I’m not concerned with them holding point.
I mainly use pigeons with my young dogs. They’re usually easier to get than quail, and they cost less. More importantly, pigeons fly better than quail most of the time. That’s important because again, I don’t want a dog to catch a bird. I never use release traps with young dogs because sometimes they can startle them, and that could lead to a dog actually avoiding bird scent.
In a relatively small area with some good cover, I’ll take four or five pigeons, slightly daze them and tuck them into the cover. I always plant these birds fairly close to wherever we’re starting our walk. This is another lesson for the dog to pick up on: You don’t have to run out of the country to find birds. I want my dogs to learn that if they stay near me, they’re always going to find birds.
So, we head out on our walk and eventually a pup finds that pigeon and tries to catch it. The bird flies away and the dog chases it, which is fine. This exercise has nothing to do with control or “Whoa.” This is also the stage at which I introduce the gun. You want to introduce that loud gunfire when the dog’s mind is on chasing the bird. I pop off a .410 shotgun or .22 pistol while the dog is running after the bird. His mind might register the sound, but it’s nothing that startles him. He makes an association between birds and gunfire, which is good. If you do this enough times you’re never going to have a gunshy dog.
Depending on the dog’s age and maturity and if you live in an area that has lots of wild birds, you can also take your young dog hunting. There’s no goal other than that to expose him to more birds. He might stop and point sometimes, and if a bird flushes, go ahead and shoot. If he flushes a bird, then don’t.
Even though we’re out having a good time and finding planted birds and maybe even some wild ones, none of that negates the “Whoa” and tug training I explained in my earlier article. Now it’s time to put your dog back on the check cord and tie everything together.
The first step I take in breaking a dog in the presence of birds is to outfit a very stout fishing pole with a 10-foot cord and a live pigeon in a harness. I’ll have a helper hide behind a bush and then I’ll bring the dog up into the area and the helper will throw that pigeon right in front of the dog, out about 6 or 8 feet. If the dog moves toward the bird, I give him the “Whoa” with a tug. We repeat this over and over until after a while I just give the tug. After enough repetitions of this, I don’t need to do either. Again, I’m trying to get that dog to understand it’s his job to just find the birds, and then that job is done. Eventually we work up to the point where the pigeon can practically be standing on the dog’s nose and he won’t move.
Now you have a dog that understands “Whoa” and knows to do so around birds. In Part Three of this series, I’ll explain how to continue these types of exercises using more live birds.
In Part Two of this series I outlined my method for tying in the “Whoa” command with live birds. Now it’s time to get into the some more advanced live-bird work. Everything I’m explaining here still involves using a 15-foot lead or check cord. I don’t introduce the electronic collar until a dog is completely broke to wing and shot.
After many repetitions with a live, harnessed pigeon on a fishpole like I described in Part Two, the next thing I do is expose the dog to lots of live birds on the ground. I’m talking about six or eight quail or five or six pigeons. I let the birds walk around while I’m standing next to the dog, keeping control using the lead. The whole time, I’m talking quietly: “Easy, easy, easy …” I want to reinforce that these birds aren’t something to try and catch.
Now, in the same way you started your “Whoa” training using the lead and walking around the dog while making him stay put like I described in Part One, you’re going to do it again with all these birds walking around in plain sight. You’re trying to work up to the point where you don’t need any pressure on the lead at all, and he’ll just stand there and watch those birds no matter what they’re doing.
When your dog is reliably staying put with those birds walking around and tempting him, it’s time to work on planted birds. I use a pigeon for this next step. After I plant the bird in cover I bring the dog on the 15-foot check cord and work him toward the bird. What is most important here is that you don’t approach from downwind. Always come from the side. Here’s why: A dog wants nothing more than to get his nostrils full of that bird scent, and that’s what leads to a tendency to creep forward to get more scent. So you bring him in from the side and you watch. The second that nose and body language shows he’s gotten that whiff, you give a tug and say “Whoa.” Now that dog has associated the tug, “Whoa” and the scent of the bird with stopping. After several repetitions, I stop saying “Whoa” and just use the tug. What you’re working up to is that when that dog comes in from the side and hits that scent, he stops and stays without any tugging or any command from you.
When the dog is hitting that point and holding it with no reinforcement from you, it seems like the next step would be to remove the check cord. Don’t do that just yet. Leave the lead on him, but don’t hold it any longer. Be ready to grab the lead and reinforce with a tug, of course. It’s a big step to remove that lead, and there’s a transition period before you can do that.
Remember, you can’t be in a hurry. If you make a mistake and that dog breaks and catches a bird, you’ve gone backwards and now you have to do a lot repetitions just to get back to where you were before the mistake.
In Part Four of this series, I’ll give you my thoughts on how to handle a pointing dog’s biggest challenge, which is running birds.
In Part Three of this series I explained how to work on more advanced steadiness exercises using live birds. Now I’m going to finish by giving you my thoughts on how to deal with running birds.
I’ve mentioned that when you start using live birds, you always try to work your dog into them in a crosswind so he hits that scent all at once and stops immediately. It’s very easy to see exactly when he winds that bird, and you’re right there in control to make a correction if needed.
Now, when you’re out hunting, your dog might get into a field where your dog is getting a nose full of scent from a bird or birds directly upwind, and they’re running. That’s an awful lot of pressure. Instead of stopping and staying stopped, he’s tempted to try and get closer and closer, which we call “creeping.” The result is often a bumped bird. Whether you’re taking about pheasants in South Dakota or Scaled quail in Texas or Gambel’s quail in the Southwest, the principles are the same. And while a single running rooster is one thing, a covey of 20 or more quail is another.
How do you prepare for this challenge? The first thing I recommend if you’re in a location that provides the chance, is to work a young dog on wild birds while keeping him on a lead. If you’ve already worked up to the e-collar stage, you can go with that, but the important thing is that you’re in control if you encounter running birds. I shoot very few training birds over my dogs. And I don’t do it until they’re completely steady to wing and shot. That’s a reward, not something I want them doing every day.
There are a lot of arguments for and against letting a dog point and then relocate on his own if the bird moves. I don’t let a young dog relocate on his own. A young dog needs to stay stopped until I release him, which I do by just stepping in and giving him a tap.
I’ll hear people say, you’re going to lose birds if you don’t let the dog stay right on top of them. Well, I’m not a big believer in that. When you allow a dog to creep, maybe the first time he gets 20 yards out of gun range and the bird flushes. The next time it’s a little farther. After that, the dog just thinks it’s OK to keep doing that and now you’ve got pheasants flushing 100 yards out ahead of you.
However, as a dog matures and after he’s worked lots of birds, I’ll let him relocate on his own. Where I live and hunt in Arizona, I have dogs that will trail quail 200, even 300 yards. They’ll point, relocate, point, relocate … over and over. I do a lot of guiding, and I tell my clients to just stay with the dog. Eventually the birds are going to stop running and we can get a flush or they’re just going to take to the air. To be clear, though, I’m talking about a dog that is 4 or 5 years old and has seen literally 1,000 birds down here in Arizona.
I guess you could say experience has to be the biggest factor you look at in making the decision to let a dog relocate. We have Mearns quail down here and when the dogs go on point sometimes we’ll get up there and the birds are walking around right in front of the dogs, sometimes just a few feet away. I’ve even seen them walk right under a dog. It all goes back to teaching whoa and the tug. And remember, every dog is different. Some mature faster than others.
My way’s not the only way. It’s harder for some people who don’t have access to lots of wild birds to get their dog as much experience as they would like. So, I’ll remind anyone who likes to work dogs on liberated birds or training birds, when they go to true wild birds, most dogs can’t make that transition without a little reinforcing. Even with some of my experienced dogs, when we get out of summer training and actually get back to hunting wild birds in the fall, I’m usually ready to make corrections with the e-collar because it’s such a transition. It’s exciting and they need a reminder now and then.
I hope the most important thing you take away from this series is that everything in pointing dog training is a building process. You can’t be in a hurry. That’s when you make mistakes, and those can be hard to overcome.