How to Teach WHOA to a Hunting Dog part 1

Scott Linden • September 13, 2023

Why bother, how to start

My dog isn’t steady – ask the vet who just pulled the last of 35 stitches from him, the result of a rabbit point that turned into a balls-out chase. Most of my other dogs have been steady to wing, shot and fall … unless they’re on my TV show. I swear they know I’ll be well and truly embarrassed. But with Flick, it’s still a work in progress.

So, since that infamous barbed-wire incident, I’ve made a study of the topic, consulting my go-to experts, hard-won experience and watching others train their own dogs. Here are some basic suggestions and considerations you can take or toss, but somewhere, someday, one or more might be helpful to you and your dog.

What is steadiness?

To each his or her own, but it involves a progression based on an owner’s own needs and perseverance. From stopping at bird scent or sight, staying stopped while the bird runs or flies (“steady to wing”), to holding while the gun goes off (“steady to shot”), to waiting for the shot bird to hit the ground (“steady to fall”)and a fetch command is given.

There are arguments for training up a dog to any of those points. Bottom line? Easier said than done, and most of us are, um, a little flexible, especially as the season wears on. But let me make an argument for aiming at the highest target: steady to wing, shot, and fall.

That dog is always safe from low shots by lazy hunters, because he’s behind the gun. Handlers look better because a dog isn’t racing for the single and busting the rest of the covey. Chukar dogs don’t chase a covey over a cliff. Everyone gets another chance to shoot late risers. You get the point.

If you never hunt with others, on flat ground, for loners like pheasants, a fully ”broke” dog is a lot less important. Up to you.

“Let the birds teach him”

That’s an axiom among old timers, and it’s true many times. I once had what might have become a German Wirehaired Flusher, that rare breed borne of ineptitude on the trainer’s part and hard-headedness on the dog’s part. We got through it thanks to several seasons roaming the chukar hills, where birds will not suffer fools gladly … nor their dogs.

In the days when hunters wore tweed and neckties in the field, there were enough wild birds for a dog to get a master’s degree in steadiness. Not so now, so we’ve got to do more training and simulation of the good old days. And then there are the times when you need to yell “whoa” for other reasons: oncoming car, raging river, barbed wire fence.

So that’s the first order of business: let’s agree that “whoa” is more than a word. Verbalized, it’s first and foremost a obedience command. Like “sit” or “come,” when you say that word a dog should do something. Or in this case, do nothing, stand still until released or another command is given. Train it alongside those other commands, with a leash, checkcord, e-collar. Keep your training pigeons in the loft for now – they are a major temptation at this stage.

Starting to stop

Leash your pup, walk him and say the word as you stop walking. A tight lead should check his forward progress. As he progresses, loosen up your death grip and see if he still stops when you do, then when you keep walking and say the word. You’re on your way. Let him roam on a checkcord and whoa him at a distance – give the command when he’s going away from you, so a tug on the cord stops him rather than turning him. Overlay your e-collar (try vibrate first) and eventually cut him loose in the field. Start adding distractions, including pointed birds or thrown birds from your vest.

Image relating to How to Teach WHOA to a Hunting Dog part 1

Here’s a hint: There’s “whoa,” then there are other non-verbal cues that can be taught to mean the same thing. Wouldn’t it be great if your dog slammed into a whoa if: he saw a bird; saw my hand like a traffic cop’s “stop,” heard a whistle, flush or gunshot? I do. I’ll even drill my dogs on thrown bumpers and dead birds – they should slam on the brakes (or stay that way) when they see one “flying.”

Extending the whoa is critical. Big corn field or high chukar hill, all of us will find a dog on point 50, 100, 400 yards away. I’m not climbing that rocky, wicked cliff face just to have my dog bust the covey as I wheeze the last dozen yards. So once he points, a dog needs to stay pointed. We do that by repetition, extending the time he holds position. Try it in the yard, on the training table, in town, while watching TV. We add distractions, from our moving away, throwing stuff, “flushing” birds, other dogs racing past. Eventually, we add real birds.

Helps include: hand pressure on your dog’s flank, an e-collar there, or the “half-hitch” with a checkcord and its variations. All take advantage of a reflex that, for some reason, stops forward motion. Starting this whole endeavor on a “whoa table” (or “place board,” barrels and their analogs), also helps by eroding just a smidge of overconfidence the dog may have. Another trick is to push a dog’s rear forward with gentle pressure. He’ll naturally push back, rather than lean forward toward the bird.

Image relating to How to Teach WHOA to a Hunting Dog part 1

Some trainers like to discombobulate a dog, physically. They’ll lift his front or all four feet off the ground and plop him down again. Some pull him up by his collar.

Okay, so you’ve now got a full bag of techniques and tactics to get him somewhat steady. Next article, we’ll add the not-so-secret ingredient: birds.

--Scott Linden