Starting Out Strong


How to build a strong foundation in your pup and create a lifetime hunting and family companion

You’ve been planning this for a while, researched the breed that is right for you, found a reputable breeder, and you just picked up your new 8- to 10-week-old versatile hunting companion. Congratulations! Now what? 

You know what you want out of that puppy over the next few years: a staunch point, steady to wing and shot, a reliable retrieve and, most importantly, you want your adult dog to be well-adjusted and a good companion for many years. How do you get there?

It all starts with a solid foundation, and you can begin building that foundation the day you bring your new pup home. We asked several NAVHDA breeders what they hope every puppy buyer would do over the first 6 to 12 months of age to form a solid foundation for both hunting skills and good citizenship.

Clyde & Marilyn Vetter, Sharp Shooter’s Kennels 
New Richmond, Wisconsin

(German Shorthaired Pointers)

You have done your homework and now have a puppy that comes with the genetics for high desire, pointing, backing, natural retrieving, cooperation, and sound temperament. But even if your pup has all those attributes, as its owner you must take every step possible to keep and build on those traits. We are firm believers that at least 60% of how your dog is going to turn out is established in the first six months of its life.
One trait that we routinely see ignored by novices (and some breeders) is creating a dog with mental toughness. Toughness doesn’t mean a puppy that wants to pick a fight; rather it’s a pup that has grit and tenacity; one that can focus, problem-solve and act independently. A mentally stable dog will maintain its composure through the most difficult situations, which is why this should be emphasized in training early in your dog’s life.

What does that look like? That means a puppy that can spend time alone in his crate, even when you are home, and one that doesn’t bark incessantly at training days (i.e. knows and respects quiet time—which might mean wearing a bark collar). This is established by giving your puppy safe toys in his crate, by feeding him in it and by laying down the law when he’s creating a ruckus. Self-control is a must for them to learn so they can work through the over-stimulation of encountering a covey of quail, a crowd of people at a test or multiple shots and retrieves while you are hunting. Self-control is taught at every step along the way; even with small steps like not letting them run out the door in front of you or demanding being petted when you are sitting down to dinner.

Your pup is not made of porcelain. Most are naturally born with toughness and resilience, so foster it and remember that most so-called “soft” dogs are created by their owners. Don’t coddle them when the old dog in the house puts them in their place, or when you accidentally step on a toe or if they get scared by a sharp noise. This doesn’t mean you don’t praise your dogs or treat them with affection; actually, it’s quite the opposite. You will build a mutual respect with your dog through exuberant praise and by establishing clear and consistent boundaries. Let them work through their challenges on their own instead of baby talking to them by telling them they “will be okay.” Let them try to work things out on their own. If you must, you can give subtle reinforcement to help them learn from what they encounter; but if you do all the thinking for them, they will never learn how to work independently in the marsh, or pursue a track or drag out of sight from you. 

Your pups’ first six months are less about formal training and more about learning how to be a civil citizen. Be consistent, affectionate and persistent and they will be too

Kyle Hough, Schwarzwald Kennels 
Andreas, Pennsylvania

(German Wirehaired Pointers)

The exposure given to a puppy prior to six months of age will play a major role in his or her development and success as an adult gun dog. A long time ago, a friend of mine gave me this advice. He said, “If you don’t expose your puppy to live birds before they are six months old, you will only ever have half the bird dog you would have had.” A properly exposed six-month-old pup will staunchly point, back other pointing dogs, swim and recover shot game. 

For owners eager to develop their puppies into successful gun dogs, we recommended some key tactics and the value of observation. 

First, we highly encourage owners to take puppies out with live birds by 10-12 weeks of age. In doing so, it is best to use flighty-liberated quail which help to teach that birds will not be caught and initiate caution.

Running puppies in braces with adult dog(s) which back and honor is also encouraged. This creates confidence in puppies as they observe and learn from the more mature dogs. In following these two best practices, a puppy’s backing instinct typically kicks into full gear after only a few hunts, and their pointing becomes very staunch and intense. Shortly thereafter, pups will even attempt to recover and retrieve shot birds before their brace mates.

Following such outings, we suggest a gradual water entry on a warm day, again with an adult dog. To do so, toss any freshly killed birds into the water and have the adult dog retrieve them while the puppy observes. Once a competitive reaction is shown in the pup, toss a fresh, warm bird in the water short of swimming depth while restraining the adult dog. In just a few tries the puppy will likely break swimming depth to recover the birds.

As always, any time a puppy does any of these tasks it is important to give them lots of praise!

Carey Killion, Sure Shot Weimaraners 
West Valley, New York

After months, and often years, of planning, preparation, and anticipation, and eight weeks of raising a litter, sending them home to their new families is one of the most rewarding experiences for me as a breeder. I know what my dogs mean to me, and to be able to give that to others is a blessing. 

Once pups go home, there are some key things that owners can do to set their pups up for success for the rest of their lives. All of these will create a confident, happy bird dog, and a lifelong hunting partner.

Most importantly, let your puppy be a puppy! Have fun with them, love them, and let them love you. Make them part of the pack, and provide structure so that they know their place in it.

The rest, in no particular order:

* Be consistent. With the words you use and your expectations. Make sure they understand what you’re asking of them, and don’t change the rules, you’ll only create confusion.

* Exposure. New places, new types of cover, new people.

* Proper gun acclimation. If you’ve never done it before, ask for help. It’s easier and cheaper to not create a gun-shy dog.

* Encourage the natural retrieve! Let your pup carry things around, and praise and pet them when they return to you before you take things away from them.

* Wild birds! We don’t all have easy access to wild birds, but wild birds make a bird dog. Make the drive, take the trip, whatever you have to do. It will be worth it.

Photo credits top to bottom: 1) Katie Inwards; 2) Shawn Perkins; 3) Heather Grantham; 4) Jessica Mackey.