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‘Whoa’ Isn’t for the Birds

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.
Holding point is the most important job your pointing dog has. A pointing dog that busts birds before the sportsman can approach is best relegated to cleaning up able scraps. If you aren’t going to train your dog to hold point, leave it home while you go hunting.

Teaching a pointing dog to hold point and stand birds with style and intensity depends on a solid foundation of the "Whoa" command. This command is also a prerequisite to training a dog to back, be steady to flush & shot, and stop on running birds. It may even prevent a dog from getting snakebit or running in front of a speeding car.

It’s important to understand that the place to teach "Whoa" is not in the field on birds. That is teaching the dog to hold point. Training a dog to hold point should come after the dog is comfortable with "Whoa" and when it responds with excellence the first time the command’s given. Holding point, backing and -the icing on the cake-steadiness to wing & shot are all built on the yard command "Whoa." "Whoa" is simply a command, or cue, instructing the dog to stop where it is and stay put at that spot until instructed otherwise. Attempting to teach a dog "Whoa" by leading it on a check cord to a planted bird and giving the command prematurely can create disastrous results such as blinking.

As with most commands, trainers use a variety of methods to teach "Whoa" and with varying results. An individual trainer’s patience and ability to read a dog is important in creating a stylish response to the command. Terms such as the "rope-and-sling" method and "’Whoa post" as well as training tools like flank hitches and prong collars are only a sampling of things that have developed through the years in connection with "Whoa" training. Personally, I have borrowed, tweaked and improvised in developing my approach to teaching "Whoa." I use a combination of the "Whoa" board, the "Whoa" table, barrel training, the suitcase handle and remote training collars.

Association and reinforcement-both positive and negative-are powerful learning tools for dogs. I prefer to make the command "Whoa" a positive one. I have seen too many dogs cringe in anticipation of something bad happening when they hear "Whoa." This is the result of trainers either having followed the command with too harsh a correction or having corrected the dog before it completely understood what the command meant. In either case the dog now associates punishment with "Whoa." Because holding point, backing and steadiness to wing & shot are taught by association and repetition in conjunction with "Whoa," the association with the command must be positive or there will be no foundation to build on.

Much of my advanced training, such as holding point and steadiness, involves a "Whoa" board; therefore, I want the dog’s initial exposure to the board to be positive. A "Whoa" board is simply a piece of plywood roughly 2 x 3 feet. I like a board that can be raised four to six inches, so that later the dog will have to step up onto it. In advanced training, I teach the dog to remain on the board while birds walk around it or flush from remote launchers. Because dogs are place-oriented, it is much easier to teach the dog to remain steady at a specific place before progressing to an open-field situation.

To achieve this positive association with the board, I begin feeding pups as young as six weeks old on it. I place the board on a pigeon crate so it is just a little too high for the youngsters to climb onto it by themselves. I place the pups’ food on the board, then lift them onto it for dinner. This way, not only will the board be associated with a positive experience, but I will be viewed as the provider. At this point, I have not yet introduced the pups to the word "Whoa." That will come later, as will teaching the pups to stay on the board. I will continue feeding the pups on the board for at least a couple of weeks.

After the pups begin thinking of the board as a good place, I will continue this positive association. I do this by having "Whoa" boards everywhere. There is a board by the pups’ kennel; there are boards scattered throughout the kennel yard. If your dog lives in the house, place a board by the door the dog normally goes in and out of. I pick up pup and place it on the board. I hold it gently by the collar to prevent it from bolting. While restraining the dog non-threateningly, I repeat "Whoa, Whoa, Whoa" in a soothing, non-disciplinarian tone. I then give the dog a pat on the shoulder and allow it to come off the board. I am simply teaching the dog what the word "Whoa" means. It will be easier for the dog to understand that "Whoa" means to stay put on the board than it would be to get it to stay in one spot in a wide open field. If I stop the dog on the board repeatedly, it will come to expect to stop whenever it is on the board. When walking the dog by the board, it is imperative to always stop it on the board. If sometimes the dog is stopped and sometimes it isn’t, the dog will not see the board as a place where it must always stop. The key is to be consistent and not confuse the dog.

As the dog begins to anticipate having to stop on the board, gradually lengthen the time it is kept on the board while you repeat "Whoa" gently and reassuringly. lf the dog tries to come off the board, simply place it back on the board non-emotionally. Show it what you want at this stage. You are a teacher, not a harsh disciplinarian. Demanding excellence will come later. After the dog has been consistently stopped on the board, it will begin walking onto the board and whoaing itself, as long it associates the board with a positive place. As the dog gradually spends more time on the board, you can begin stroking its back rewardingly while repeating "Whoa."

While the introductory board work is going on, I am also using a barrel and a "Whoa" table. For barrel training, I use a 55-gallon drum laid sideways on a sheet of plywood, to which is nailed a three-foot 2x4 to prevent the barrel from rolling off. I can make the barrel stationary by pressing my knee against it to hold it firmly against the block. I place the dog on top of the barrel, initially holding it by the collar to prevent it from jumping off. I repeat "Whoa, Whoa, Whoa" while the dog stands on the table. When the dog moves, I release the pressure of my knee and allow the barrel to rock. This makes the dog uncomfortable. When the dog is stationary again, I once more press on the barrel. By doing this, the dog quickly learns that when it is motionless, the barrel does not rock. As the dog learns to stand still, I will stroke its tail up, if it is a long-tailed pointing breed. With my free hand, I prevent the dog’s head from moving. By placing my thumb in the V of the dog’s lower jaw, I can hold the dog’s head up while preventing it from turning to the side.
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