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Right Time, Right Place, Right Start

by George Hickox

The George Hickox School of Dog Training and Handling is a five day training school for owners and their dogs conducting at facilities throughout North America.
The most frequently asked question regarding dog training is undoubtedly, "When should I start training my pup?" The easy response-and correct answer-is from the first day the new dog is acquired. More difficult questions concern when particular commands/abilities should be taught/trained for and what levels of performance should be expected?

My training philosophy is not based on getting the youngest dog ever to be shot over, hunting in control, retrieving to hand, holding point or being steady to wing & shot. I preach a building block program-one that produces a happy, confident dog that responds with enthusiasm and style.

It’s imperative to understand that it is impossible for a dog to achieve excellence without correcting it for non-compliance. The danger of disciplining incorrectly, inconsistently or excessively is that it may result in irreparable damage to the dog’s attitude. A bold and confident dog will respond to proper correction with an attitude that says, OK, I get it. I screwed up. Let’s shake hands and go have a beer. A youngster lacking confidence may sulk, fight or try to avoid training altogether. Trying to get the unconfident dog to hold point, for example, actually may lead to blinking (purposefully avoiding) game. Once the trainer recognizes the advantages of having a bold and confident pup, answers to the aforementioned question will be more apparent.

In other words, the trainer’s job during the pup’s first six months is not to line-steady the dog or teach it to back another’s point. The task is to create a dog that will be a good student-one that will respond enthusiastically and successfully to proper training methods- when the time comes for it to go to school. Keep in mind that the right time is not the same for all dogs. It is determined by the maturity level of the particular dog.

As I’ve espoused in the past, the key to getting a bold, confident, trainable pup is genetics. Genetics is the mortar that cements the building blocks together. A prospective dog owner should never skimp when it comes to selecting a future gunning companion. A pup should come from proven ancestors, with the abilities of the dam and sire being more important than lineage four or five generations back. Genetics plus training plus nutrition, in that order, are the keys to producing a successful bird dog.

As far as training goes, the first six months of the dog’s life are the most critical. This is when its personality is formed. A dog can be taught "Here," "Sit," "Whoa," "Heel" and so on at any age, but training will progress more quickly--and with fewer problems---if the pup’s formative months are spent developing boldness and confidence rather than having to comply with commands. Over-training early is a temptation far too many owners succumb to in their rush to see results. Giving the pup its first year simply to be a pup will yield greater rewards in the years that follow.

So what are some dos and don’ts of working with young pups? Anyone who’s spent time with me knows the importance I place on birds. As long as the pup has inherited strong genetics, nothing will create a bold, happy and confident bird dog more effectively than exposure to the feathered critters it will spend the rest of its life chasing. Don’t wait for the pup to be "old enough to train" before introducing it to birds; such exposure helps build enthusiasm and fine-tune hunting instincts. Of course, this does not mean shooting over a very young dog, but merely letting it learn to use its nose. A pup will never acquire hunting savvy by learning to "Sit" or by curling up at your feet in front of the TV.

Take the pup to the woods and fields. Expose it to water. The pup needs to experience a variety of new grounds and situations outside its backyard. Not doing so risks creating a ill dog that lacks confidence in strange surroundings.
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