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From the Litter to the Field: Choosing Your Next Hunting Companion

Purchasing a hunting dog can do nothing but add to the pleasure of the sport – if done correctly. I have seen more than one dog point a covey a quail, wait for the flush, then point the first of many singles before the shooter has vested the first bird. On the other hand, I’ve also been on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, Kansas, chasing a dog that refused to hunt or return to the car, as the group debated whether to leave just the dog, or the owner and his dog, to fend for themselves while we went to the closest restaurant for supper.

You never want to be “that guy” in the field, the one with the dog who doesn’t obey, can’t locate birds, or can’t retrieve. Instead, you want to be the one that is called when a friend has wrangled a new hunting spot. With a good dog, you will be.

Given another chance, are there things a dissatisfied pet owner could have looked for to help guarantee a better field companion? Furthermore, are there universal teaching steps that should be taken, regardless of the type of dog selected or hunting desired, once this training begins? Yes, and yes. The practicality of the following steps makes dog training seem like one of the most doable aspects of the outdoors as long as you possess one attribute: commitment.

The Italian spinone excels at both pointing and retrieving, a fact potential dog owners should know before purchasing. Jeff Kurrus/NEBRASKAland Magazine
The Italian spinone excels at both pointing and retrieving, a fact potential dog owners should know before purchasing.
Jeff Kurrus/NEBRASKAland Magazine

Litter picking

“I train a dog which retrieves 200 geese during a weeklong trip to Canada each year,” said Bart Peterson, professional dog trainer and owner of Bar Ten Kennel in Cozad, “and then comes back to Nebraska and hunts four days a week with his owner.” Prospective dog owners have to know themselves when purchasing a dog: Are they a once-a-week hunter looking for a dog that works close and is easy to handle? Do they hunt three times a week and want a strong dog that can hunt long days? Aggressive and quick, or slow and methodical? Ducks or quail? Pheasants or geese? Or a little bit of everything?

There is a long list of traits to look for in a new dog. “You want a dog that walks through like he owns the place,” said professional dog trainer Scott Steede. “When I’m picking out a dog, I’ll throw an empty milk jug in the corner of the pen and see what puppies go to it first. The milk jug is usually bigger than the dogs and gets them ready for tall grass. The ones that go to it aren’t intimidated and are going to do well in the field. If I have a hat, I’ll do the same thing.”

“If you’re picking out a dog to hunt with because he’s cute or an attractive shade of yellow or white,” said Pheasant Bonanza trainer Ben Murray “then you’re taking a big chance on whether or not he’s going to be a good dog.” “Forget looks. You want a dog that has two things: confidence and desire,” said Steede. “Have you ever been with a dog who will hunt for 10 minutes and then be behind the hunter? That dog has a lack of desire. A hunter wants a dog that would rather spend time in the brush versus near the fireplace.”

Murray laughed. “I’ve seen very young dogs, ones with a ton of desire, walk right up to birds, tame geese for example, and try and bite them.”

“With a good breeder, you can find an entire litter that has confidence and can turn off the lights and get a good dog. Take the milk jug, and look for the one that wants to explore,” Steede said.

Conversely, picking a dog from an unknown breeder or a classified ad can be quite chancy. Spend a lot more on your dog versus your gun, these dog trainers said, but the real issue goes back to the seller of your dog. There’s no reason to think spending $75 on a crossbreed between a German shorthair and a German wirehair is going to yield a bird dog that you would stake your life on. At the same time, many people reason that spending an excessive amount of money is not an option.

“But you will be wasting money if you’re paying $150 for a dog and then spending $800 a month in training,” Steede said. “You’re better off putting that money in a good dog and training it yourself.”

“If a dog is talented,” said Murray, “after 30 days we’ll know the dog is going to be great. If we have a marginal dog come in to be trained, after 90 days, you’ll see a marginal dog.”

“A potential dog owner needs to understand that some dogs are very talented and some are not,” said Peterson. “No matter how hard you work and prepare, and no matter how good you are as a trainer, if you don’t have the ability that God gave the dog then you’re not going to get to the upper level.”

“A lot of people think they’re getting a good deal when they buy a $150 puppy,” Steede said. “My experience is when the dog has been part of a field trial family and they have eight puppies, all eight puppies will be good. With a backyard breeder, you’ll have a couple shining stars and the rest are marginal. We have more problems with $150 dogs than we do with any other ones.”

“Most dogs I reject as candidates to train are those found in a classified ad that says ‘both parents hunt,’” said Peterson. “Maybe they do, but do they really retrieve? Plus, finding a wellbred puppy also deals with a dog’s health, especially a Labrador retriever’s. If you are buying a Lab, you need to ask two questions before anything else: 1) Are the dog’s hips Orthopedic Foundation of Animals (OFA) certified, stating they are free of hip dysplasia; and 2) Has CERF (Canine Eye Registration Foundation) found the Lab’s eyes free of retinal displacement (or genetic eye disorder)?”

Peterson recommends finding a dog with a pedigree of field trial work. While there is a misconception about these dogs being too wound up and headstrong, he said dogs with these traits don’t make it in field trial competitions. “Abby, that yellow Lab,” he said, pointing to her as she lie beneath his truck, “when she’s done working, she’s calm and does exactly what she’s doing now. But she is a Platte River machine,” he said. “She marks, runs super-straight blinds and you can shoot as much as you want. She’s also a good pheasant dog. Eight people walking CRP fields in South Dakota and she’ll quarter the entire time. She can go from the pheasant field, to the duck blind, to the field trial, without missing a beat.”

“The problem we have is that people buy a dog without putting a whole lot of thought into it,” said Murray. “You have to look at it like having a child. You’re taking care of this dog for the next 15 years.”

Taking care of that dog begins as soon as the owner signs on the dotted line. Subsequently, training is not far behind. And there are two ways to do it: professionally-trained or hometrained. A new dog owner should look at it this way: should they home school their child, or send their child to school? Dog training should be viewed in the same way. And the owner must still understand how important it is to continue working with that dog at home, regardless of who first trains it.

Home training tips

The owner must first lay a foundation for future training. This is why so many people begin with simple commands such as “sit” and “stay.” There’s no reason to have a dog that knows how to hunt but hunts for itself. Having a dog learn there are rules to your relationship will allow for additional teaching down the line when more challenging training begins. When you have a new dog, look at this dog like trying to break a habit. It is going to take time.

The best way to begin working is in short bursts. Long, drawn-out training sessions are negative for both the trainer and dog. Not only will the young dog lose interest because of its short attention span, there’s also a good chance the trainer will lose something even more important, consistency.

For example, a new dog owner might become so upset with a task the dog is failing to complete that he will do it over and over again long after the dog has become frustrated or lost interest. At the same time, a dog might perform a task correctly and the owner wants to see it repeatedly, wants to show friends and family that their newfound student can do it “one more time, one more time.”

A trainer has to understand that the task, even one as simple as sitting, could become work for an anxious puppy. “I’ve seen Lab owners take a very young pup and make him retrieve all summer and then question why he isn’t retrieving come wintertime. A dog will look forward to coming out here every day because it’s a blast, not if it becomes a job,” said Steede.

“The biggest aspect of training Labs is socialization,” said Peterson. “With Lab pups, we like to get people involved at three to four weeks of age once the pups have their eyes open and are climbing out of the whelping box. They are weaned, eating solid food and also receive their first vaccination at the fourth week. After this, it is pretty safe for them to interact with the world and we make sure they do just that. We will have clients and their kids come over, and have the kids sit right in with the puppies and play with them. At four to five weeks, the puppies come out of the whelping room and venture outside. At that point, they are introduced to their first birds – a frozen teal or pigeon. Just so they can pick the bird up. At five to six weeks, we start retrieving with tennis balls and small birds. At seven weeks, they start riding in the truck, going along to training sessions and field trials. They begin to hear gunshots, and they should also be retrieving on land or in water with birds or dummies. During that same time, our clients will pick their dogs back up. And the first thing the owner should notice is how aggressive and happy their new Lab pup is running out of the kennel.”

With this said, Peterson also added that there is no magic date to officially start training a dog. Some dogs are more immature than others, and others aren’t as aggressive. As a general rule, however, once a dog’s adult teeth are in their mouth it’s usually a good time to start the training that a handler intends to reinforce.

“Start your training session with a goal,” said Steede. “If the goal takes two minutes, then stop. If it’s twenty, quit after it’s achieved.” Steede pointed to a German shorthair he was training. “This dog has never been out here. If he finds the bird, the goal is done.” Steede motioned to a pointer. “He is working on steadiness. I’ll restrain him when he’s on point. If he stays calm once the bird flushes, the goal is accomplished.”

One of the most important aspects of training, Steede said, is that a limited amount of negativity should occur when in the field. The tougher moments, he believes, must occur in the yard because the field is for hunting and positive experiences, an idea also shared by other trainers. “I don’t do a lot of training with my dogs, per say, but everything I do with the dog is associated as something positive.” said longtime Nebraska pheasant hunter Lee Rupp, who was the topic of the November 1999 NEBRASKAland article, “Think Like a Rooster.”

Even if some negative training moments do occur between handler and dog, finish with a positive. This is age-old, common sense handling, yet it still applies today. The last thing a young pup needs to do is finish a day at school feeling like the dumbest kid in the room. “You don’t want to be forceful in the field,” said Steede. “You can do the retrieving work, which can become extremely repetitive, in the yard. A lot of people read books and the books stress yard work drills. That’s good, but when people come out in the field, they force steps like they would in the yard and dig themselves a hole.

“Even the ones I restrain out here,” continued Steede, holding a chukar in his hand before releasing the next dog from its kennel, “I only restrain a little bit. You’ve seen guys cramming a dead bird in a young dog’s mouth. Why would you want to give a dog that bad experience? Do things like that with a retrieving dummy in the yard. Make reads off the dog. You’ll hit walls. When you do, back off.”

“I have a six-year-old male field champion Lab that weighs 88 pounds,” said Peterson. “He’s a creampuff. So you have to be real careful with him when training, making sure you don’t overtrain or overcorrect because the dog will get down about it. I have another dog, a young 45-pound female Lab, that you can’t train enough. Another Lab I have has so much drive that when he sits in a holding blind, he quivers and nearly yodels the entire time he sits there, waiting for something to happen.”

These statements are made by people who train dogs for a living, those who analyze the differences between dogs and make adjustments because of these differences. Not only is a handler training a dog, they’re also training themselves to be a more consistent trainer, something that doesn’t end when the dog is out of the field.

“The dog needs to learn that regardless of where he’s at, he needs to perform because a dog will shut down,” said Steede. “The big key is following up. A dog will do what it wants to do, hunt and quarter, but will often not do what it doesn’t want to do, sit and mind. ‘How come the dog won’t do it for me?’ people ask. Because we make them do it.”

Advanced do’s and don’ts

There are several specific points that both the dog trainer and the dog should know before entering the field. Here is that list:

1) Know your breed: Pointing breeds and young dogs want to run. “We put birds out close for dogs that want to run,” said Steede. “That way, the dogs understand that the birds aren’t far off. They are right here.” In the future, if the dog isn’t finding birds in front of its hunters, the dog will check back knowing that there is the possibility of a bird being close to the handler. “As far as breeds are concerned, we also make it a point to pet and praise pointing breeds when they are standing, and retrieving dogs when they are sitting.”

2) The “Whoa” Command: If working with a pointing breed, don’t introduce the “whoa” command until it is apparent that the dog is comfortable with working with birds in the field. Many dogs, if pressured, will sit when “whoa’d,” something that isn’t needed when a covey of quail is close by. The “whoa” command never needs to be something that a dog fears.

3) Collars and leashes: It’s good to work a dog with a collar. It gets them used to a routine. Using a leash is part of avoidance training. If a dog is new to the field, it allows for more control to keep a dog extremely close by, avoiding potential problems that could arise if releasing a leashless dog in the field for the first time.

4) Obedience training: “A dog that knows he has to be good is a perfect problem to have,” said Steede. “He learns that it is the handler who is going to give him freedom.” Always work with obedience training with your dog and be creative. For example, if it is a dog that will be sitting most of the time in the field, such as a duck blind Lab, have the dog sit at each door you encounter before you enter. You go through, and then have the dog go through behind you. If it is a standing breed, such as a pointer, go through the same steps with the dog standing.

5) Obstacles: Provide as many different obstacles as possible during afield, including water training. If you like to pheasant hunt near cattails, there is eventually going to be a downed bird in the water. Make sure this isn’t the first time your dog is exposed to a water retrieve. Also, have the dog make retrieves where they are forced to cross a road, going from taller grass to no grass at all. It’s just one more thing that won’t confuse a dog if they see it in the field. “If I have a dog that does not do a certain type of retrieve well, that’s all I’ll do for two weeks. I will do it with very little correction, but I will make them grind it out until they’re doing it,” said Peterson.

6) Train alone: Quite often people buy a puppy and work it with an older, more experienced dog. “I never train puppies with other dogs,” said Steede. “They’ll just learn bad habits from old dogs. Once I know the young dog can hunt by himself, I’ll hunt with an older dog. But people do it all the time. Generally, as a rule, they’ll learn bad habits and it’s better to let them learn on their own.”

7) Teething: Steede and Peterson both start formal training after the dogs have their permanent teeth, which can be a different time for each dog breed. “There is no reason for a dog to pick up a bird while they are teething and associate that bird to some sort of negativity, pain in this instance, with hunting,” said Steede.

8) Distractions: When a dog gains confidence with its surroundings in the field, begin to add distractions. Extra walkers, gunshots, conversations, different terrain. The dog shouldn’t hunt for just one person in the group. Get the dog used to working with other hunters so that the dog becomes a very needed accomplice in the field, not an adversary.

Time spent

Steede spends at least six days a week with the dogs he trains. He sees them in small doses, and he understands each of their strengths and weaknesses and how to point them in the right direction. He argues that a person can’t teach a dog desire, but knows that if a dog has talent there is a long list of steps that should be taken when training. And even though his knowledge is immense, he is still in constant contact with trainers asking questions, and is always watching videos and reading books to add one more weapon to his training arsenal. Because in the end, whether he’s at a field trial competition or pheasant hunting throughout Nebraska, he knows his dog is only going to be as good as its trainer. So he must instill the same rules upon himself as he would the dog.

Peterson, while working with a different breed, carries similar sentiments. “The money and time you will spend, whether you choose a professional or do the training yourself, is a huge commitment. Watch the videos and read as much as you can. Something you read in this particular book or journal might be more suited for you, might strike a better idea while you’re studying. Involve as many different sources as you can. But remember, always use common sense. If you don’t want your dog to jump up on the table, tell it not to. You don’t want it to do something else, don’t let it.”

This story first appeared in NEBRASKAland Magazine, March 2008.  

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