A beginners guide to training a bird-dog
Training your pointing dog puppy: A beginners guide to training a bird-dog, by Grant Carmichael
I don't remember why I wanted a German Shorthair (GSP), but I did. I deer hunted growing up, but I'd never been on a bird hunt or seen a bird-dog work. More than anything, I wanted a friend for my Lab/Pointer mix, Cow. I searched some humane societies, but never made the decision to get up pup. Lindsay surprised me on my birthday with Bell, a female GSP. Shortly after I got Bell, I had to put Cow to sleep because he had a liver disease.
In my mind I could already see Bell and I enjoying hunts together, but I had no idea how to start. I knew nothing and no one that knew anything about bird-dogs. Lindsay and I rushed out to buy some training tapes. We watched a man dangle a wing on a string while a 10 week old pup pointed it. I looked at Lindsay and said, "No way Bell can do that!". I marched out in the yard, shot a bird, and tied its wing to a string. I bounced that wing in front of Bell and she pointed that wing like I'd never seen before! Literally =) From that "point" on I was a GSP/bird-dog fan.
After spending the last few years really soaking up different training methods, I noticed there is somewhat of a common process that people use to train their bird-dogs. I've written this article for the people who are in the same situation that I was; A new puppy and nowhere to start, or looking for a puppy with no place to begin.
Finding a puppy
Finding the puppy is one of the most exciting parts of the whole process. Look for breeders who aren't breeding dogs as fast as possible just for the money. How do you recognize them? Search for pointing dog clubs, breeders, and kennels on Google.com and visit a few websites. Look at what they are doing with their dogs. Does it look like they put a lot of time and effort into improving the respective breed? Are any of their dogs currently competing in competitions? Orthopedic Foundation Association (O.F.A.) and Canine Eye Registration Foundation (C.E.R.F.) were created to assist breeders in identifying inherited disorders in their breeding stock. Does the breeder pursue these certifications on their dogs? You can also talk to people on a gun dog chat site who really would enjoy helping you find a good puppy.
Finding a puppy with an impressive pedigree doesn't guarantee you a quality pup, but your chances are better if you do! Like people, genetics play a huge role in the athletic ability and health of your dog. You'll probably spend $100-$300 more for a puppy who's breeder actively competes and has a solid reputation, but your odds of getting a better dog are increased. As an added bonus, the breeder will probably be happy to see that you're wanting a quality hunting companion and give you lots of good info and tips on training your pup.
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Choosing a puppy
The most exciting part! Choosing the perfect pup!
Now that you've got a breeder your comfortable with, how do you pick the right pup? Play with the pups a while and find one that's personality fits you. If you've done most of the foot work by making sure your breeder is reputable and consistently produces quality dogs, chances are you'll get a good pup no matter which one you pick. For the most part, the way your pup turns out when grown is dependent on they way you train and treat that pup growing up.
Be sure not to take the puppy too early from its mother and litter mates. In doing so, you may run the risk of having behavioral problems later on. 6-8 weeks should be fine.
You'll find that in the bird-dog training world, one of the biggest questions is: When do I start training my dog?
Personally, I don't believe you can start training too early, but you can put too much pressure on a bird-dog too early. As a puppy with its litter mates, a pup starts learning. When that pup transitions into your home it needs learn its manners and place in the family. The video Training for Silent Hunting is a great video to watch at this point. In the video J.M Nahorn covers the puppy stages of training better than any video I've seen yet.
At the pups early age, keep the training sessions to about 5 minutes long. It can even be better to stop the session while the pups really enjoying it! They can't wait for another session! =) To build a good foundation for your bird-dog start teaching commands like come and fetch. More than the command itself, your pups learning that it gets rewarded for good behavior. I've found that most trainers don't teach the sit command. Will it ruin your bird-dog if you do? No, but if a dog has been drilled with the sit command and it gets pressure during a training session, that butt will probably hit the ground to assure you he can do something right.
Always remember to be a good judge on how much pressure your bird-dog can take. Watch the ears and tail for signs you're using too much pressure when training. For some, a harsh NO! will freak them out, but others take all the pressure you can give. From this point forward, almost every command/lesson builds on the other.
At some point, you'll need to decide if you have the patience, will power, time, and trainability yourself to train your bird-dog. Finding a pro trainer is well worth your time, and it's well worth the money to have a dog trained right. However, you can't beat the feeling of a successful hunt with your hunting partner you trained yourself.
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Most of the methods I've seen to teach come have the dog attached to a checkcord. They let the dog run around and play. Every so often give the come command. If the dog comes give lots of praise. If not, give light tugs to the cord and say come while reeling the dog in. Praise the dog once it's in. A generic retractable lead works great for this!!!
Most fetch methods are similar. They use a canvas dummy, sock, etc. to toss for the dog. Have the checkcord on the dog, toss the object, and say fetch. If the dog shows interest, play fetch for a short while and put the object up. If the dog shows no interest in fetching, wait for a few days and try again. If the bird-dog picks up the dummy but doesn't bring the object back, use the come command that it previously learned. If he still does not come, lightly reel him in while using the come command. Make sure this is fun! Some folks even play fetch in a hallway where the pup can only get the object and come back to you. It has nowhere else to go.
Introduction to Birds
The goal here is to introduce the puppy to birds to build excitement. The wrong introduction can make your puppy scared of birds. Pigeons and quail are good to use at this stage. Build yourself a small bird cage to keep some birds in for training. Some people buy "homers", pigeons that are trained to come back to your pen after they fly off. Others buy quail or catch pigeons under bridges or in barns. Finding birds for some areas is not too easy. By posting a message on a bird-dog forum someone should be able to help you find birds. If you choose a breeder that hunts and trains dogs, ask them where they got their birds.
Start by letting your pup smell the bird with no wings flapping. If the pup shows lots of intrest, clip the flight feathers, harness the bird, or hold the bird in your hands so the pup can play with the bird some. It the pup is scared, don't let the bird flap its wings, just let the pup get close and smell. As the pup gets bolder, you can start letting the pup mouth the bird some. At this point, it's okay if the pup catches the bird. It teaches him that he is stronger and more powerful than the bird.
Whoa is a command used to bring your bird-dog to a complete stop. I think it is the toughest command for the bird-dog at this point. The pup may need to be 8 or 9 months old before its mature enough to handle the pressure of learning whoa. Some of the main techniques used to teach whoa are a sling method, a table method, or a walking/standing method.
The table method is great for most dogs. Just grab a table and stand the dog at the edge. This takes the dog out of its comfort zone, but at the same time is not too stressful. Tell the dog whoa and give a light snap on a lead. If the dog steps or moves from the whoa position, repeat the whoa and snap. Its nice to start with this method then move to the walking method.
This works well for dogs who don't handle pressure well. Just walk with the dog attached to a lead. Stop walking, give a whoa command, and light snap on lead. If the dog takes steps, give a whoa command, a light snap of the lead, and set the dog back a foot or so. Give whoa command again. If the dog takes a bunch of steps, you don't have to move him all the way back. A little will do.
Using the sling method, the dog is hoisted into the air following a whoa command. Lower the dog to the ground, and most likely, the dog will stand for you. If he takes a step, give the whoa command and lift the dog into the air. For more details see this article at thecheckcord.com.
Personally, I've found the sling method useful for stubborn dogs. It takes the dog out of its element and help you gain its attention.
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The Detail Work
I use an e-collar to finish up the whoa command. It's usually not best to teach commands to a dog with an e-collar, but after the dog knows the command it works really well. When you can tell the dog whoa and he complies, you can start the detail work. Start by taking a walk with the bird-dog. Give the whoa command and keep walking. More than likely, the bird-dog will keep walking with you. Give the whoa command and set the dog back. This may last a little while. Once you can give whoa and the dog stops while you keep walking, test the bird-dog by walking, turning your back to the bird-dog, and other crazy stunts. If the dog breaks, apply light collar and whoa. Be sure to apply the collar as soon as the dog takes a step. I like to be able to whoa a dog at any point. Its nice to see a dog in full sprint whoa on a dime at command. This detail work will get the job done.
Steady (Holding a Point)
A steady dog is a dog that will hold a point and not dash in to chase the bird. A bird-dog is steady because he knows that the bird can't be caught; A pointing dog is basically stalking its prey. Think of yourself, when you go to swat a fly, what do you do? You pause, right? Why? If you move too quick the fly will take off! =) Same situation for the dog. A helpful way to create a steady dog is to put the dog on wild birds, or simulate it. Wild birds will flush if a puppy jumps in on them. Sometimes pen-raised birds are easy to catch, and you really don't want your pup catching birds at this point.
Planting the birds in heavy cover will make sure the pup is pointing by smell and not by sight. It also lowers the possibility of the dog jumping right on top of the bird if he breaks.
To simulate the wild bird scenario, use pigeons/quail in a bird launcher. Lead the dog down wind into the bird and launcher. When you see that the bird-dog smells the bird and does not point, or points and breaks, flush the bird. You may even give the whoa command , and if the bird-dog doesn't stop then flush the bird. However, you don't want the dog to learn to point at you saying whoa. After a few times or days of repetition the dog will learn that if it breaks, the bird gets away. When you transition your dog from the launcher to the hunting situation, don't shoot the birds that your bird-dog flushes. You don't want to reward him for mistakes.
Introduction to the Gun
This phase should be taken very carefully. If you surprise a dog with a gun shot, you may make your dog gun shy. I know of two main ways to ease a dog into gun fire. The first, and I think the best, is to let the bird-dog chase a flushed bird. When the bird-dog gets out a ways, shoot the bird. The bird-dog will be so focused on the bird, it shouldn't even hear the gun shot. The other method is to break a dog into loud noises while the dog eats. Basically the dog may be scared at first, but at some point the hunger outweighs the noise?
All together now!
Now that your bird-dog has been introduced to birds, whoa, the gun, and holds a point, put them together. Plant a bird, bring the bird-dog down wind and let the bird-dog point. Flush the bird by walking a circle around front of the dog, then walking toward the dog. This helps the dog keep steady. If you approach a bird from the side of the dog, it makes it more tempting for the dog to break. Enjoy doing this for a while. Keep note of where your dog needs work. If you need to, go back and retrain some of the previous steps.
You might be wondering what all this steady to wing or steady to wing and shot is. Basically, if your dog is steady to wing, it will remain standing after the flush. If you dog is steady to wing and shot or steady to shot, your dog will remain standing after the shot until you release him to fetch. For the most part, steady to shot is safer and takes extra training to achieve. It looks really nice if a bird-dog has the obedience to stand throughout the shot and watch the bird fall. Some handlers prefer a dog to break at the flush. In this case, the bird-dog will get to the bird faster and decrease the chance of losing a wounded bird, but the odds of the dog getting shot are increased. It's not uncommon for a dog so leap after low flying birds.
Now that your ready to compete or hunt with your hard working partner, you need to make sure your dog's getting the right nutrition. As a puppy, your dog needs the high protein diet found in puppy foods. As the dog gets older, a high fat diet will give the dog the energy it needs in the field.
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I think you will agree, Grant really knows his stuff and his passion and enthusiasm comes out in his Article. You can read more from Grant at
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