The importance of "whoa" for hunting with pointing dogs, and how to teach this essential command
By Christine Cunningham
Above me on the rocky slopes, the shape of Winchester on point beckoned me upward. My hunting partner stood below me in the valley and watched as I made my way.
Twenty minutes passed, maybe more. Winchester held his point without looking back, without moving at all. When I reached him, I had traveled 700 vertical feet over moss-covered slate. I was tired and sore, out of breath, with a shotgun slung on my shoulder. Winchester did not move as the white-tailed ptarmigan flock held about 20 feet ahead of him. In the half-hour leading up to that moment, nobody had said a word.
But the idea of whoa wasn’t always like that for us.
In the years since my early days as a bird hunter in the mountains of Alaska, I have often wondered how moments like the ones I treasure most ever happened at all. Sure, I read the basic books on how to train a pointing dog, but I made a lot of mistakes Winchester was able to overcome. Since then, I’ve learned from his pups that not all dogs master the field with an untrained hunter.
When I contacted Ronnie Smith and Susanna Love of Ronnie Smith Kennels, it was to ask them for simple, straight-forward tips for teaching whoa. The method the Smith family developed decades ago revolves around the whoa post. Their stair-step format builds a conditioned response with repetition proven by thousands of bird dogs.
The Smiths’ approach emphasizes communication, mutual respect, and building a relationship between hunter and bird dog. The result? Training doesn’t end with a command but provides a firm foundation for a pointing dog to continue a lifetime of learning.
Start with a controlled environment, away from game. The biggest mistake most people make is to teach a dog whoa while the dog is on game, says Smith. If a dog is on scent, and you try to steady him, whether that’s making a correction or shouting verbiage, you may cause pressure-induced behavior on game. Starting a dog in a purpose-specific training area, away from birds, provides a solid foundation that you can work up from and go back to when the dog needs a refresher course.
Teach the cue to stop and stand still with the whoa post. With a rope, quarter your dog to a stake or tree with a second rope attached. Run the whoa post rope between the dog’s back legs and over the lower back to create a half-hitch on the dog’s flank, then attach the rope to the collar between the front legs. Let the dog take a half step forward. The dog feels a slight squeeze on the flank and stops. In time, the dog associates the point of contact around the flank as the cue to stop and stand still.
Name the command after the dog has learned the cue. While the dog is learning the appropriate response to the whoa post, you remain neutral, do not talk, and wait for the dog to acknowledge the cue on the flank. Later, you can transition from the physical cue of the rope to the remote signal of a training collar, placing the collar around the dog’s flank. “We teach the behavior, have the dog doing it perfectly, then we introduce a label for the behavior,” Love says.
The ideal tone is clear and one of communication. Ronnie and Susanna agree that whoa is the most important word a pointing dog will learn: “In any situation, if you could only teach a dog one thing, it’s whoa,” says Smith. “If he is in harm’s way and you can stop him, you can save his life, whether that is from traffic, a bear, or any behavior you want to stop.”
When approaching Winchester on point in the mountains, I often find myself saying whoa in a whisper. I am not issuing a firm command in these situations. My single word is less a cry from the distance and more an intimate expression that has gained meaning over the 10 years between us. In these instances, whoa is a hallowed word that means “birds.” Sheepishly, I had to ask the experts if this was alright.
What a relief it was, after some silence, to hear Ronnie tell a story of how he had walked up to one of his dogs that he could see standing with intensity and found himself softly saying whoa … not as a command but as “I’m here.” This seemed to prove the adage that you don’t need to say a word to a finished pointing dog, but it takes learning the meaning of whoa to get there.
Christine Cunningham and her setters work on whoa in a big backyard called Alaska.
This article first appeared in the Summer 2020 Issue of