Turning Your Puppy into a Hunting Dog - What to Know

Scott Linden • January 30, 2023

Watch a dog … your own, if you’ve already fallen for one; someone else’s if you’re teetering on the brink of hunting dog life. Dogs are always watching, eyes on the move, ears pricked, nose flaring. They are processing that data, reacting to it, constantly learning from the day they leave the dam’s womb.

Remember that. The old timers’ axiom of “letting a pup be a pup for a year” should be relegated to the dumpster. Your breeder, you, and your family should be teaching on Day One. Okay, a puppy won’t be working double-blinds or holding steady to wing-shot-fall. But we pour the foundation on which a peak-performing bird dog is built when he’s still a tottering little bundle of fur.

Every day, his mind expands, literally. He’s receptive to new stimuli (including your voice). His needs change; his capabilities grow as fast as his stubby legs and massive ears. And he’s constantly looking to someone, some thing, for guidance. Be aware of that, and take advantage of it.

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Okay, the most valuable lesson you’ll learn is right here: designate another human as “dog.” Imagine a treat hidden somewhere in the room, and you must direct your “dog” to that spot. First time, the only word you can use is “no” when the dog isn’t going the right way. The second time, you can only say “good dog” when appropriate. Third time, you can use both.

Which worked best? Usually, the third time, where the proportion of praise to correction is inevitably about seven to one. Tattoo that on your forearm. It’ll come in handy for the rest of your lives together.

Then, remember your breeder and fellow dog club members are an invaluable resource. Counsel with them when you hit speed bumps, need feedback, or simply want to make sure you’re not doing something that could haunt you and your bird dog for a decade or longer. They are your reality check, and while it’s true you can get three opinions from two bird dog owners, you may find nuggets of wisdom in all of them.

You’ll hope your breeder is doing the basics from whelping day until you arrive to take the ball of fluff home: handling the pup, exposing it to stimuli from noise to different floors to shallow water to other people, including children. It’s important that a puppy stays with its littermates and mother – some say for seven weeks, others as many as ten weeks. There, he learns the basics of dogginess: relating appropriately, power struggles that stay non-violent, taking orders, getting along in the pack (of which you will become leader).

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Once home, pup has a raft of unfamiliar stimuli to cope with. His “training” starts with low-key, relaxed introductions to his new crate and bedding, food and water bowls, your family, other pets, the home and yard layout, potty breaks and location. He should be held and handled by everyone (with proper instruction), feet, ears and tail especially so when nail trimming or temperature-taking is required he’s not freaked out.

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“Moderation in all things:” isn’t just a Ben Franklin quote, it’s a mantra for dog training: proper balance of praise and correction, managing expectations, watching a dog’s progress and evaluating mastery (or lack of it!). So lower the bar with your little guy (or girl) and get started.

First skills include recognizing his “call name.” A simple, unique one-syllable moniker is best. A well-bred dog may have a silly, purportedly elegant “kennel name,” but in the field you want one you can yell, LOUD, and not sound like a pretentious dandy. When he’s ready to hear it (no distractions), start calling him, and when he turns his head, praise him up. Food treats to attract attention from pup and reward him for a job well done are very appropriate. Acquaint pup with a collar and short length of cord – “leash” – so you can begin the next phase: the recall.

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Remember the moderation thing? Distance is your best friend: a kitty first glimpsed at 25 yards is harmless to a pup, but a hissing cat up in his face is a Stephen King novel in the making. Same for any other stimuli from gunfire to bird contacts.

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Eventually, a young pup should come when called. This is a good time to remember the great trainer Delmar Smith who taught us to “never let a dog fail.” There’s some wiggle room here (another story, another day), but at this point, he’s spot on. Ensure your pup is comfortable with the collar and “leash,” there are no distractions, and you have your repertoire of praise/rewards at hand. Choose your command word carefully. Only give commands you can reinforce by leash or catching the offender. My advice? “Here” is louder than “come.” Tempt, cajole and if you have to, reel pup toward you with the cord. Any progress should be rewarded – inches at first, a few feet, and eventually, many yards in the backyard.

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Rinse and repeat with every skill and command. Baby steps, building on one another and constantly praised/rewarded with you carefully observing your pup’s reactions and willingness to comply. (No overdoing it, a couple good repetitions is plenty.) No rush, no pressure – every dog learns at a different pace (my five-year-old wirehair is finally walking at heel when under pressure!). During puppyhood, there is seldom reason to punish, and correction should be gentle, positive, subtle and within the context of steering him toward the desired skill. Time to remember another chunk of Delmar wisdom: a puppy can do no wrong. Be kind.

As your puppy grows, you add distractions, ensure compliance with gentle tugs from a leash, praise lavishly and correct mildly. Build distance between you and your charge, and change locations frequently (always contained, safe from traffic and other dogs). A dog has learned a skill when it can be executed correctly in multiple locations with myriad distractions at great distance (or in some cases such as gunfire or birds, up close). That only happens when a dog has learned to trust you, respect you, and understands that compliance is the only acceptable expectation.

I know, this sounds like another semester of high school calculus but it’s not. Puppyhood is ephemeral and a joy to both parties when done right. It should establish a life-long bond built on trust. Enjoy.

--Scott Linden