Bird Dogs & Training  |  05/12/2016

The First Six Months: A Bird Dog Training Plan

You took your time, did your homework and picked the perfect puppy. Now you’re faced with the daunting task of turning that squirming little ball of energy into a competent bird dog. You know it will take about two years and that every training step is important. But no phase of a dog’s life is more important than the first six months, because that crucial half-year period sets the stage for all that is to come.
Someone who has bred, raised and trained bird dogs for years is Tracy Divelbiss, owner of Lookaway Kennels near Fredericktown, Ohio. A Pheasants Forever member, Divelbiss specializes in German shorthaired pointers. “If someone has not already chosen a gun dog puppy, I can’t over emphasize the importance of good breeding,” Divelbiss begins. “The key is finding a reputable breeder. Do that, and you will find the right dog. What you’re looking for is a breeder with a solid reputation who guarantees his/her puppies against physical defects.”
Divelbiss says that both males and females make excellent hunters, but he prefers training female bird dogs. “In general, females are more easily trained, more coachable than males,” he explains. “And females generally make better companion dogs. Even if you hunt every day of the season, your dog will be in the house with you more than in the field. The only downside of owning a female gun dog, in my opinion, is dealing with her twice-annual heat cycle.” 
He also believes that having a gun dog in the house does not diminish its hunting ability or desire. “In fact, it may enhance those qualities,” says Divelbiss. “The more time you spend with your dog—particularly when it’s a pup—the more quickly and strongly that dog will bond to you. And that pays big training dividends down the road.”
Divelbiss begins intervening in a puppy’s life as early as three weeks of age. “The sooner you begin introducing some soft dog food into their diet the better,” he explains. “If you wait until the typical four to five weeks of age to begin weaning, some puppies won’t do well. For some reason, they don’t make the transition from mother’s milk to dog food as easily, and as a result don’t develop as quickly or as fully as they could.” 
Every time Divelbiss feeds his puppies he first blows a whistle. By doing so, the young dogs quickly associate the sound of the whistle with something positive, in this case food. So when basic training begins at about eight weeks of age—such as retrieving a tennis ball—Divelbiss blows his whistle when the puppy picks up the ball. And when the dog brings it back, Divelbiss is lavish with praise. “I generally don’t use food to reward a dog for retrieving,” he says, “just lots of praise.”
During a puppy’s first six months, Divelbiss uses negative reinforcement only for biting or licking. “Because licking leads to biting,” he says. For such an infraction, he will rap a dog sharply across the top of the snout with the fingers of his open hand, accompanied by a stern, “No!”    

First Hunting Command

The very first hunting command Divelbiss teaches a pointing dog is whoa. He does so using two items: a suitcase leash and a whoa board. A suitcase leash measures only about four feet in length, clips to a dog’s collar, then loops around the dog’s haunches. A whoa board measures two feet by three feet and sits up off the ground an inch or two. By pulling up on the leash, the dog is literally lifted off the ground—like a suitcase—and placed on the whoa board. Divelbiss then says the word whoa, which means don’t move.
“Pointing dogs point birds instinctively,” he says, “but won’t necessarily hold their point. They eventually want to creep in or break completely and flush the bird. They need to be trained to hold a point and let the hunter flush the pheasant. The whoa board aids in this by giving the dog a defined space they know they are not to leave.” Divelbiss suggests introducing this drill when the pup is about four months of age. He does it five times per day for five minutes each training session. Patience and persistence are the keys. “When dogs are young they will probably only stay on the board for a few seconds, but that’s a good start,” he says. “Praise them and place them back on the board, again saying whoa. Eventually, the dog will learn not to leave the board without your okay.”    
For flushing dogs, Divelbiss substitutes the commands sit and stay for whoa. Two other early commands Divelbiss teaches both pointers and flushers include come (meaning come to me immediately) and kennel (meaning go into your kennel, transport crate, etc.). Numerous bird dog training books explain how to teach these basic commands.  
Lastly, keep in mind that your puppy naturally wants to please you. Make it as easy for the dog to do that as possible, and training will be fun for both of you. You’ll also be developing a competent bird dog and companion you’ll enjoy for years to come.
Story by W. H. “Chip” Gross
Photo Credits: Main image, Rachel Mackey / second image, Jerry Imprevento