Reprinted from the Summer 2016 Puppy Issue of the Griffonnier, the magazine of the American Wirehaired Pointing Griffon Association. To join the AWPGA is only $35 a year, for four awesome magazines per year (I’m the co-editor, so I make it worth your money). Join now at https://awpga.com/membership
Book Recommendations for further study: Gun Dog by Richard Wolters. The Training and Care of the Versatile Hunting Dog by Sigbot “Bodo” Winterhelt and Dr. Ed Bailey (free with the NAVHDA premium membership http://navhdastore.org/membershippackages.aspx). How to Help Gun Dogs Train Themselves by Joan Bailey. Training the Versatile Hunting Dog by Chuck Johnson. SmartWork Retriever Training by Evan Graham.
DVDs: Perfect Start/Perfect Finish Jon Hann of Precision Kennels. Huntsmith Rick and Ronnie Smith.
Early Exposure for the Gun Dog Puppy
By Charity Upchurch (with Charles Upchurch)
Raising a good gun dog puppy starts before you even bring it home. I start exposing my litters to things that will help them in their future training as hunting companions. Owners then continue that hunting exposure process once the pups go home at eight weeks old. Equally important and also done with the new owners at the same time, but outside the scope of this article, is basic puppy training such as obedience, housebreaking, crate, and leash. The following information is not organized by priority or in sequence, all of the pieces of the exposure are equally important and occur concurrently.
You can expose the pups in a litter to birds any time after four weeks, when they are walking fairly steady. I prefer to wait until six weeks when they have lots of energy and a small degree of focus. There are a few ways that you can do this. You can place the bird in a small cage and just sit it in the middle of the puppies for them to go and check out. But I usually put the bird in a bird harness with a clothesline tied to it. You can buy various sizes of bird harnesses through hunting dog supply companies, I own a quail and a pigeon harness. I then just put the bird out in front of the pup. They may or may not point it (you can’t train a puppy to point, it is genetic/inherited, and if they don’t point the bird at this early stage it doesn’t necessarily mean it will never point a bird). I like to sort of lift the bird up and down in front of their face, so the pup can see it flap its wings. Don’t let the pup chew up or try to take the bird from you. They can sniff it or maybe pat it with its paw, but there’s no good reason to let them tear the bird up (especially with the price of birds these days).
The pups usually start ranging out of the kennel timidly and with encouragement at about four weeks. They really start roaming at about five weeks and I like to have them able to follow me on a walk around the perimeter of my three-quarter acre fenced area by eight weeks. Start walking your new pup off-leash in short amounts as soon as possible. If it is a clean area that is rarely frequented by other dogs, it can be right away. If you only have areas with heavy dog traffic, you should either drive a little farther, or wait until the pup has finished its vaccination schedule. We have access to both private land and clean state ground about 20 minutes out of town, so this is where we work. Really gauge the pup on this one. Walk when it is cool and work in 15 minute increments. Start with walking the pup for 15 minutes, allowing it to explore. Walk at a leisurely pace at first. Increase your time and pace as the pup improves. We are usually up to an hour of field running by six months, since the pup will be expected to at least tag along on a 3-4 hour half-day morning hunt September 1st, for the opening of sharptailed grouse and prairie chicken in the Nebraska Sandhills.
The first and easiest thing to do is to bang a can or pot to call them to eat. Loudly. This makes loud banging noises a good thing. I start this at three weeks old and continue until the dog is working with a starter pistol. Once the puppies are running in the yard at five weeks old, we use a kid’s toy cap gun to snap off caps while the puppies are playing. Make sure that the puppies are busy and distracted before starting this. Do not to acknowledge the puppies if they notice the noise. Act like nothing is happening. Once the puppy is in their new home, this should be continued until the pup has worked with a starter pistol.
We continue the progression into the field with a starter pistol and planted quail. With our hunting season starting September 1st the progression is pretty quick for a spring pup. They have to be shotgun ready by six months old. At around four months old they should be ready for this step, as long as they are accustomed to the noises at home, not showing any fear at them. You plant your quail with the pup in the truck (spreading the birds out, of course). Try to use a place with tall enough vegetation that the pup won’t see the bird when it lands. Walk your pup into the bird, make sure that he knows that it is there, hopefully pointing it. Then you flush the bird in front of the pup and fire the starter pistol. At least for us, we are not worried about steadiness at this juncture. We let the pup chase but not catch. Other trainers may have other thoughts on this.
[How to lightly plant a bird for recapture: Tuck the quail’s head under its wing. Pull back on the quail’s legs until they are straight behind their tail. Wait until they relax and quit fighting it, they’ll go into a brief catatonic state. Tuck the bird into some vegetation with their legs still out behind them.]
Once the pup has shown confidence with the starter pistol (usually 2-3 sessions) and is excited about chasing birds, we use the same scenario but this time replace the starter pistol with a sub-gauge shotgun, such as a 410, 28 or 20 gauge. If you are a terrible shot, you may want to have a dead bird on hand from a previous training session (you should keep some uncleaned dead birds in your freezer). The same thing, let the pup point the bird, you flush it, then shoot it. Hopefully you don’t miss. If you miss, take the dead bird out of your pocket and throw it. Show the pup the dead bird and encourage him to pick it up and carry it around. Lots of praise and excitement. Do this in two to three sessions before taking your pup to the wild bird field or preserve.
With a litter, I will generally encourage them to get out and roam at about four weeks when they are ready to leave the kennel to explore with encouragement and by five weeks they are blowing out of the kennel door. To get them to come back, I use a combination of whistling, hollering their collective name, “Puppies!”, banging on something loudly or clapping. They generally come back, but there’s always one or two that I have to chase down.
Once I have my eight week-old puppy on its own and housebreaking, I use its name and the whistle to call it back in from going potty. If it tries to rebel and not come back, I go out in the yard and pick up the puppy, whistle in its face, say its name, and kind of give him some gentle pokes, as to say, “Hey, that means you!” The important part of this is to NOT chase the puppy down unless it is in imminent danger and it is an emergency. Also, you shouldn’t pick it up for a correction every single time, to mix things up you can just stand close by and sort of fake ignore the puppy and eventually it will come back to you. When it does come back to you, give it lots of praise and love.
At the four to six month stage, they need to be working on consistently coming back when called in the field. But you have to strike a balance here. Only call the dog when you really want the dog, like at the end of a training session, if it is chasing something, etc. If you hack on the dog and are constantly calling and whistling to it, you will kill his desire to range and have a “bootlicker”.
If you are not getting a consistent recall in that four to six month stage, take a 30 foot check cord and go out into a field that doesn’t have a bunch of brush. Let the dog run and drag the check cord. Whistle and call the dog by name. If the dog does not respond, run up and grab the check cord and reel him in like a fish. The dog will get the check cord all tangled up in stuff and find it annoying, but will learn that he won’t get to run loose unless he responds to the recall.
We know that it is a crime in some circles, but we have never force fetch trained any of our dogs. But they all fetch. Once again, I start early at five weeks. I place dead quail on the ground for them to sniff and pick up. I throw around cheap little rope bones for them to pick up. I put the quail or rope bone in their mouth and praise them for holding on to it.
At 8 weeks I take them into the front yard so that they are not distracted by the other dogs. I start throwing the rope bone and the dead quail for them to pick up and bring to me. When I throw, I use the commands, “fetch” and “find the bird”. Once they pick it up, I say either “bring it to me” or “fetch”. If someone is planning to force fetch later on, my understanding is that they need to avoid the “f” word (fetch), so “find the bird” and “bring it to me” would be good replacement commands. Of course, lots of pets and praise and excitement when they do bring it to you. As they get bigger, the dummies get bigger. First I start off with the Tom Dokken dove dummy. It is the perfect size for the 4-6 month old puppy. By the time that they are one year-old, they can pick up the Canadian Goose dummy. At the same time, as they get bigger, we throw cylindrical training bumpers, dead ducks, chukar, and pheasant.
Very important: never snatch something out of a dog’s mouth. Always use a command, whether it’s “give” or “release”. If they don’t drop an object in your hand, you can either stick your hand in their mouth, pry it open, then remove the object, or you can give their belly a little pinch (right where it meets the leg, like the flank on a horse), say your command, and they should give up the object. Whichever works for you and your dog. Also, your family members have to be trained how to do this as well. The kids need to know not to play tug-of-war with the dog. Ever. No taking stuff out of the dog’s mouth without the proper sequence of events.
Go swimming with your dog. Many six week-old puppies will go into the water on their own. It helps that I have kids to encourage them to get in. If any of the pups are reluctant, we carry them in gently and just let them go, swimming along-side of them and praising them. Just swim with the dog for the first few weeks or so. Once the dog is confident in the water and is doing well with the retrieving work at home, go ahead and throw the dove dummy in the water for them. I like to take an object that I’ve been working with on land and throw it into the water for the first few sessions. Don’t throw it very far at first. And make sure to wear clothes that you can get wet in, because chances are that they won’t retrieve it every time at first. Transition into throwing dead ducks and training bumpers as the pup gets larger and more confident.
It takes some time and effort, but getting that gun dog puppy ready to go into the field is fun. The first year you and your older dogs will be doing most of the hunting and your new buddy will just be tagging along. Since we aren’t training for AKC Master Hunter or NAVHDA Utility Prize I at this point, we just let the dog have fun in the field the first year and make lots of mistakes. Some people do it differently and train the dog by the rules from the get-go. Maybe we’ll modify our techniques in the future to get better test results, but we sure have a ton of fun hunting with our wild beasts just using these basic techniques to get them ready to go.