Pointing Dog Pointersby Dave Hughes
Like many sportsmen and sportswomen, I find few sights as breathtaking as a dog on point. I’ve been fortunate to make a living out of training pointing dogs for hunters and to compete in pointing dog competitions (or field trials, as they’re called). Contrary to what many believe, field trial dogs are highly trained—but the training must be done properly. Trial dogs must be trained in such a way that they still retain their enthusiasm and style.
The poorly trained dog might be just as steady to wing and shot as the well-trained one but will look cowed and intimidated. He might tuck his tail between his legs or lie down to escape some expected punishment. A dog that is properly trained, however, is eager and enthusiastic. He points with high style and watches bug-eyed as the bird escapes but does not chase it. Training a dog to show this kind of style without robbing him of his natural love for the hunt is the goal of proper training.
Fortunately, using a combination of old and new methods, proper training today is easier than ever.
The most fundamental of the old methods involves the use of a check-cord to teach the dog and maintain control of him during training. The check-cord is nothing more than a long rope with a snap on one end that attaches to the dog’s collar. Commercially available check-cords are generally better than home-made ones because of their higher visibility and resistance to wear and tear. A word of warning about check-cords: if you’re going to be handling the cord a lot, wear a good pair of gloves to prevent rope burns. Also, if you’re going to let go of the check-cord at some point during the training, make sure the dog is wearing a beeper or tracking collar so you can locate him if he becomes entangled in the brush and can’t return to you. (I normally avoid letting the dog run loose in this way while using a check-cord.)
Once the trainer has shown the dog what to do by using a check-cord and through repetition, he’ll most likely have a dog that performs perfectly--as long as it’s wearing the check-cord. A good percentage of dogs will return to their old pre-trained behavior once the check-cord is removed. A far easier way to reinforce the dog’s training is with a more modern method: the electronic collar (or E-collar for short).
The E-collar allows the dog to run free while allowing the trainer to correct misbehavior the moment it occurs. Simultaneous correction is critical because a dog associates any correction with the action it performed most recently. For example, say a dog takes off after a deer and returns to his angry trainer after a five-minute chase. The trainer then punishes the dog for the offense. Now, the trainer thinks he is correcting the dog for running the deer, but does the dog realize this? No; the dog thinks he’s being punished for returning to his trainer because that’s what he did immediately before being punished. The lesson? A trainer who lacks the means to correct the dog the instant misbehavior occurs is actually training the dog not to come back to him. The E-collar allows the trainer to enforce commands, to correct misbehavior instantly, and to teach the lesson he or she wants to teach.
Unfortunately, some people still seem to think that the E-collar is inhumane. Some of this sentiment comes from the misuse and unreliability of early types of E-collars. The rest is a product of ignorance. After all, electricity has been used for years to control livestock, and, more recently, in-ground electronic fences have become popular with pet lovers throughout the world. Many first-time dog trainers are amazed to discover how infrequently they have to deliver correction with the E-collar. When they do have to correct their dogs, they find that the E-collar isn’t cruel or inhumane at all.
In fact, compared to some methods used in the past to train dogs, E-collars are almost gentle. In the bad old days, dogs were shot at with slingshots or chased with horses. Both techniques often resulted in permanently maimed dogs. If a trainer became frustrated and just gave up, he might turn the dog loose to be hit by a car or, most cruelly in my opinion, simply tie it to a box until it died.
The first E-collars were designed for one purpose: to break hounds from chasing unwanted game, usually deer. They had only one level of stimulation, and it was high. These E-collars, which could be used only for breaking, eventually gave way to improved models featuring different stimulation levels. These improved models still had a severe fault, however: the stimulation level could be changed only at the collar. For example, if a trainer were out with his dog practicing the "Here" command, which usually requires only a very low level of stimulation, and his dog jumped and chased a rabbit, the trainer would have no way to deliver a more attention-getting correction. Away goes the rabbit, and away goes the dog.
It was not until Ed Rader (now the Field Operations Manager for Innotek) designed a collar that allowed the trainer to deliver different levels of stimulation from a remote transmitter that the E-collar became a truly powerful training aid. For the first time, the trainer could deliver correction from virtually any distance immediately after the misbehavior occurred.
Not that the E-collar has made the check-cord obsolete. Actually, these two training aids complement each other quite well. When I’m working on the "here" command, for example, I first put an E-collar on the dog just to let him get accustomed to the feel of it. I don’t even carry a remote transmitter. Simultaneously I use the check-cord to reel in the dog while giving the "here" command. I repeat this training several times a day for several days.