$64K Question - George Hickox

Helping You Get the Most From Your Hunting Dogs

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$64K Question - George Hickox

by George Hickox

Put a pack of gundog owners together, and odds are that conversation will be wholly focused on training, hunting and bragging. Throughout my years of involvement in such talks at lodges, camps and our gundog training schools, people have asked me the gamut of dog questions. They've ranged from, "How do I get my beagle to point with style?" (to which my answer was, "I don't know") to "My dog is four years old. Is she too old to train?" Following are some of the more frequently posed queries and my thoughts on each.

Q: Is my dog too old to train?

A: Age is not the pertinent question. Trainability is highly dependent on the early development of the dog along with its genetics. If a dog has been well socialized and is bold and confident, it may well prove to be an "A" student into middle age. If a puppy was isolated from people and new stimuli during its first six months, then it is unlikely the dog will ever become a willing student. My advice is to put your training time into a confident dog, one that doesn't exhibit a multitude of problems. The earlier the hunting instinct is nurtured in a youngster, the more success the trainer will achieve. The more formal aspects of training, such as teaching a dog to hunt in range and respond to voice, whistle and hand commands, can be taught to an older student. I know of a dog that had had zero yard training at three years of age and became a field champion on the all-age open circuit. Erasing bad habits, however, is definitely more challenging: than starting the training process with a : clean slate at an early age.

Q: How old should my pup be when I start training?

A: Training starts when the puppy is still nursing. Handling a pup, getting it to respond to a human voice and exposing it to different noises are all critical elements in the youngster's development. When the dog is seven to 12 weeks old, I recommend introducing it to "Sit" (for flushing and retrieving breeds), "Whoa" (for pointing breeds) and "Here" or "Come." Make the sessions short and reward the pup with praise or, even better, a treat. Don't demand excellence in these informal primary learning stages. You must teach the dog what the command means before expecting it to perform every time. Far too many owners employ discipline before adequately showing a dog the meaning of the command. In the early stages of development, it is important to teach the pup how to learn. Be upbeat and consistent.

Q: Will it ruin my hunting dog to have it live in the house?

A: Absolutely not! In fact, quite the opposite is true. The more people the dog encounters the better. Kids and pups are great for each other. The only disadvantage of the house environment is that often the dog will be given a multitude of commands by a multitude of people. The key to training a dog is consistency in giving commands and demanding compliance to them. In other words, if a dog is sometimes commanded "Here" and other times "Come" and still other times "Get over here," it will most likely do none of the above with any degree of regularity.
Have a board meeting so that all members of the family use the same commands, thus making it easier for the dog to understand.

Q: My dog is hard-mouthed and the birds he retrieves aren't fit for the table. What should I do?

A: The only effective way I know to cure hard-mouth is to put the dog through a forced retrieve program (which I'll cover in a future issue). I'm not in favor of wrapping a spiked harness around a quail or pigeon or driving a nail through a frozen bird. I figure it's just as likely the dog will come to not want to pick up a bird at all as it is for the dog to learn to pick one up gently. (If a chef put thumbtacks in my steak, I know I'd stay away from ordering steak the next time.)

Q: How do I get my dog to retrieve the bird by the body, as opposed to dragging it by the wing?

A: Again, the dog should be taught the forced retrieve. The forced retrieve cures not only non-retrieving but also hard-mouth and butter-mouth.

Q: What breed of dog should I get?

A: Oh, boy! If there was ever a loaded question. . . . My best-and least volatile answer is that some people like chocolate and others like vanilla. What I do recommend is choosing a prospect from a strong gene pool. Breeds with limited registered numbers often have pervasive positive or negative characteristics. Beware of breeds having only 200 entries in registries such as the Field Dog Stud Book, the American Kennel Club or the Canadian Kennel Club. I am a strong proponent of buying dogs from proven field lines with potent field trial pedigrees. These dogs will have solid hunting or retrieving instincts, and their ancestors were obviously trainable to a level of excellence. Also check with the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals for the breed's propensity for hip dysplasia. Ask your vet about the genetic soundness of various breeds. You'll be much happier with your decision when you spend your money on training birds and hunting trips instead of costly inherited health problems.
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