Teaching Backing - Page 2
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Helping You Get the Most From Your Hunting Dogs


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Over the course of its training, the dog will repeat this exercise enough times that it will become conditioned to turn on the whistle, which makes tugging on the check cord no longer necessary. Repetition and consistency are what training is all about, as the object is to condition a dog to respond in a constant and confident manner to specific cues. These cues may be touch, sound, scent or, as in the case of backing, sight.

I’ll let the dog make several (the exact number is not important) back-and-forth casts, then when it is in position to see the autobacker, I’ll press the button to pop up the silhouette. As soon as the dog sees the silhouette, I’ll command "Whoa." If the dog moves from the spot where it was when told to "Whoa," I’ll unemotionally pick it up and stand it back at the original spot. I treat these early efforts as "show pup" exercises, in which I’m showing the dog what I expect of it. I don’t harshly and unfairly correct the dog for something it hasn’t learned how to do. As this is the first time the dog has seen the autobacker, it may be curious, confused or even skittish. Not until the dog has stopped either when the autobacker pops up and I’ve given my initial "Whoa" or when it’s been set back at the original spot do I release a bird.

If you have trained your dog to be steady to wing, it should remain staunch when the bird goes up. If the dog is not steady to wing, it will likely lunge and pursue the bird. Obviously, if the dog is not steady, use only one launcher, as you don’t want the dog getting into a loaded trap and having a bird launched in its face. Also remember that now is not the time to introduce a dog to being steady. Training should be done one step at a time (remember those building blocks), and now you are teaching backing. Therefore, let the unsteady dog take off after the flier?unless, of course, it was trained to be steady and is simply disobeying, at which point it should be corrected. It is for these reasons that I generally don’t teach formal backing until a dog is steady to wing & shot.

This is straight Pavlovian pre-cue/cue. We are using the power of positive association. The autobacker popping up is the pre?cue. Once the silhouette is visible, we issue the previously taught cue, or command "Whoa," meaning stop. With enough repetitions of the backer popping up and the dog hearing "Whoa," eventually the dog will stop upon seeing the backer alone, simply anticipating the "Whoa" command. Now the dog has been trained to back, which is different than merely having the genetic instinct to do so.

If a bird is always launched after the backer pops up, the dog will associate the silhouette of a standing dog with birds. The expectation of birds is what puts style into the backing dog. If the dog is steady to wing, additional birds can be launched at random to keep the dog "looking good."

The reason I use an autobacker at the outset is because it never breaks point, is always where I want it, and it allows me to devote my full attention to the dog. Once the dog is performing reliably with the autobacker, I’ll progress to using a live model. Obviously, the lead dog should be one that reliably holds point, and I prefer using a seasoned dog that won’t become nervous should I have to pick up the backing student.

A dog that handles comfortably and in range, holds point with style and honors the point of its brace mate is truly a bragging-rights bird dog-one that any shooting sportsman would be proud to hunt over.

THE LONG & SHORT OF IT

When teaching backing, it’s also important to train your dog to back all kinds of pointers-whether they have long tails or short, brown coats or white.

This hit home like a bomb while I was making a video on putting the polish on pointing dogs. While filming the segment on backing, the plan was to use my English setter Laddie to back a friend’s shorthair, Lynette. Well, wouldn’t you know it that as the camera was rolling, Lynette went on point, Laddie came racing around the comer, and with a disinterested glance and never breaking stride, the setter raced right past the shorthair.

After recovering my senses, I realized what had happened. All the pointing dogs in my kennel are primarily white and my autobacker is white. Lynette is brown. Laddie had never seen a brown dog on point and thus made no connection between the shorthair and backing.

The bottom line is that dogs really are creatures of habit and that training is all association.

Oh, and Laddie now backs brown,
short-tailed dogs ...

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the January/February 2001 issue of Shooting Sportsman, "The Magazine of Wingshooting and Fine Guns." Be sure to visit www.shootingsportsman.com.

About the Author: Following a successful field trial career, George has focused his energies on the George Hickox School of Dog Training. This widely acclaimed, five-day program is limited to 12 students and their dogs per session at host facilities across the U.S. This program has developed a world-class reputation for bringing out the best in young dogs while providing a wealth of dog training knowledge to novice and seasoned handlers alike. George is also the Hunting Dogs Editor for Shooting Sportsman magazine and the host/producer of several award-winning videos. He recently co-authored a book for training flushing dogs: Hunt ’em Up! For more information on training products, books, videos or Grouse Wing services, visit www.georgehickox.com.

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