Teaching Backingby George Hickox
In the world of fine pointing dogs, a gentleman’s shooting dog is expected to back, or honor, the point of its brace mates. A dog that fails to back another’s point and rushes in to bust a bird or steal a point is the equivalent of a street urchin eating caviar with his fingers at a black tie affair. Many a re-invite has been forfeited due to an ill-mannered pointing dog that refused to back.
Teaching your dog to back is easy. Unlike some other training exercises, this one doesn’t take thousands of birds, hundreds of acres of property or unlimited time. The investment in effort and money is minimal once the initial groundwork is complete.
The prerequisites for teaching backing are that the dog is birdy and knows the "Whoa" command As I’ve mentioned in the past, I’m an advocate of using low level electronic stimulation. I strongly recommend that a dog learn how to turn off and avoid stimulation through proper conditioning (see "Electronic Training," Sept/Oct ’97) before using the collar for more-advanced teaching. Although the ecollar is certainly not mandatory for teaching backing, it can definitely make the job easier. In May/June I covered teaching "Whoa." Reviewing that article along with "Right Time, Right Place, Right Start" (March/April ’99) will give you the necessary tools for teaching backing.
Now sometimes hunters get "lucky" although I believe this is more often the result of a well-thought-out decision in that a pup may boast strong genetics to be a natural backer. Quite often a blue ribbon youngster will back from the get-go or shortly after its first exposure to birds. But even if your dog is not a natural backer, it’s no big deal. A dachshund can be taught to stop at the sight of another dog standing still.
Once your dog is reliable with "Whoa," knows that the field is its office and its job is to find birds, and performs with confidence, you are ready to begin work. As Pavlov proved, dogs readily learn through association, and learning backing is no different.
For this exercise I use a remote autobacker, which is a dog silhouette that pops up and down when signals are sent from a hand?held transmitter. I place the autobacker in a field or hedgerow in the down position (so the dog is unable to see it) and downwind from the direction the dog will be approaching. In addition I place two or three remote bird launchers with quail, chukars, pigeons or pheasants in the area of the autobacker.
In the early stages of teaching backing, I work the dog with a 20 to 30 foot check cord. (I’m presuming that when the dog was younger it ran free dragging a cord and therefore is comfortable with one. If to this point the cord has been associated only with "Heel" or "Here," using it may make the dog apprehensive and prevent it from casting out in the field. A lot of training is based on a building-block concept, and it is important to recognize the effect of early lessons on future teaching.) I begin by walking the dog into the field in the direction we’ll be traveling with the wind at our backs. (This is a visual, not a scenting, exercise.) I also incorporate a quartering, or patterning, drill into the training. If we I re traveling from north to south, I’ll pattern the dog east and west. It is best not to do a patterning or backing ill in waist high cover, and for this reason I prefer using a field with cover eight to 12 inches high. This way the dog can run easily, the check cord will not tangle and the dog will be able to see the silhouette when it pops up.
Before allowing the dog to cast out, I "Whoa" it to both reinforce that command and establish control. I then release the dog with a tap or a verbal or whistle command. When the dog is on the right side, I’ll give two short tweets on the whistle followed by a quick tug on the check cord. The dog should reverse directions to run across in front of me. When the dog reaches the end of the check cord on the left side, I again tweet the whistle and jerk the cord. The dog should reverse direction and cross again. I continue this as we progress down the field.