For pheasant and quail hunters, there are few things more thrilling than developing a well-bred pup into a lean, bird-finding machine. Success, however, doesn’t happen overnight. Instead, pups should be gradually introduced to the work they will be expected to perform.
“For puppies that are future hardworking bird dogs, start by building a physical and mental foundation,” says James L. Cook, DVM, PhD, DACVS, DACVSMR, director of the Comparative Orthopaedic Laboratory at the University of Missouri. “This includes building muscle and ‘concept training’ to introduce the dog to the idea of hunting. Don’t do too much too soon because the musculoskeletal system is not mature until dogs are 10 to 18 months old, depending on the breed. Rather, early training should focus on core-strengthening activities that promote muscle and nerve development and control.”
Breeder-owner-trainer Nolan Huffman of Beeline Brittanys in Lewistown, Montana, says early training begins with proper socialization. “The goal of socialization is to get your dog comfortable in as many situations as possible,” he says. “We play with our dogs, let family and friends handle them, introduce them to birds, go on walks around our farm, wade through shallow creeks, and take them on car rides. These techniques make for well-rounded pups.”
Basic obedience commands, such as “heel,” “here,” “recall,” and “whoa,” also are part of the Beeline foundation. After mastering these commands, dogs are introduced to clapping and whistling, acquainting them with the sounds they’ll hear later in the field. Huffman prefers to train dogs on grass because it provides a cushion to support dogs’ paws and pads, unlike hard surfaces, such as concrete, which could cause injuries.
When a pup matures into a young adult dog, with a fully developed musculoskeletal system, it is safe to begin a conditioning program. Cross-training and core-stabilization exercises help build the strength and endurance needed for upland hunting and reduce mental and physical fatigue. Focused exercises, such as leg lifts, cavaletti movements and figure 8s on an incline, combined with cross-training, such as running, weight pulling and swimming, are good examples.
“Most importantly, to prevent injuries, remember to always warm up a dog before exercise, allow time for recovery between high-intensity training and hunting trips, and cool down a dog after exercise,” Dr. Cook says.
Top-Notch Training Tips
A solid foundation is the key to developing a pup into an enthusiastic, eager-to-please bird dog. Following Huffman’s training tips is a good place to start.
- Build Trust - Your dog should know you’re the pack leader. A dog that respects your dominance will trust you, which helps develop his or her natural ability.
- Keep a Dog Happy - Keep training fun because a dog that enjoys training is more likely to succeed. A happy dog wants to please you.
- Customize Training - Realize that each dog has a distinct personality and responds differently to training. As a trainer, you have to treat them as individuals. Spending time with a particular dog will help you read and determine what works best for him or her.
- Praise Your Dog - When your dog performs well, reward him or her at the moment of accomplishment. Always praise your dog for a job well done and be sure to end each training session on a positive note.