The importance of the "whoa" concept for hunting flushing dogs in the uplands
By Andrew McKean
Nellie is as boisterous as a 6th grader on a May afternoon. And just about as oblivious to expectations of social norms. A coming 3-year-old yellow Lab, she will literally auger herself into the ground, she’s so squirmy with anticipation of whatever’s next, whether it’s food or a hunt or even a romp in the yard.
But one command will quiet her like lightning before a storm.
Sit I say, and she becomes an obedient, watchful coil of expectation: ready to find, retrieve or stay sitting until I release her, which is achieved with a light tap to her right shoulder.
The sit command is extremely useful when I’m in a duck blind and don’t want clod-footed Nel padding all over my buddies and spooking the birds. And it’s good when I’m in the house and don’t want her breaking for the food dish or for the UPS delivery person at the door. But sit is less valuable when I’m in the pheasant fields, and want her to stay close but not stationary.
So, I have introduced a second command: Whoa. Nellie struggles with its nuances from time to time, usually when a hot-running rooster is making a break for freedom. But she knows that it’s a middle course between sit and okay, which is my command for her to run wide and find whatever is next.
If I’m being honest, whoa is the command I employ most fervently when we’re hunting with friends with pointing dogs. I want Nellie out there, questing for game with her buddies, but I absolutely do not want her roaming out of gun- and voice-range and flushing birds that the pointers would happily pin down and hold until their owners approach.
WHOA—AND HUP—AS A RESET
I trained whoa in order to build civility, and frankly livability, into my trip-wire Lab. But Dan Murray says that’s really just the start of the utility of the command. The owner of Absolute Gun Dogs near Bismarck, North Dakota, Murray trains spaniels, setters and retrievers, and says each requires a slightly different command, though the goal is the same.
“Essentially, whoa as a basic command enforces the point where the dog’s momentum ceases, but it’s desired at different points of contact with scent or birds, and may mean slightly different things for different breeds,” says Murray. “The basic command is hup for spaniels, sit for retrievers, and whoa for pointers.”
The difference is that pointers are required to cease their momentum prior to flushing game while Labs are commanded to sit to indicate that a transition is coming, usually a retrieve following a successful flush and shot.
“With spaniels, the momentum continues until the game is flushed,” says Murray. “At this point, momentum stops, and the command is hup to signal a changed focus to mark the retrieve.”
Murray dissects how that foundational command — hup — is used in a typical day hunting with a cocker spaniel. First, the dog should hup until the hunter or group is positioned to push cover, and the dog is given permission to quest. The second hup comes when game is scented, commanding the dog to stop his momentum as game is flushed from cover. The third hup is given as the dog retrieves the bird to hand or is directed for a blind retrieve.
But in the course of a hunt, hup has additional utility. Murray commands a dog to hup when moving game is taking her out of gun range. And a spaniel should hup at the sound of gunfire, in order to either honor another dog’s flush and retrieve or to raise his head to see the fall of downed game, and thereby mark a retrieve and increase the likelihood of bringing a bird to the bag.
Murray says that same hup command is given for springers, cockers and Labs as an early indicator that they should stop their headlong forward motion and wait (and watch) for a transition. But with Labs, especially those that will do duty in waterfowl situations, there’s an even more fundamental command, one that has utility for spaniels and setters, too.
THE VALUE OF PLACE
“The very first command I teach is place, coming to and staying on a slightly elevated platform, only 3 to 12 inches off the ground. From place we can teach everything else, including the hup or sit or whoa commands,” says Murray.
“The place board teaches three important concepts,’ he explains. “The first is hup or whoa, which we instill as a focus needed to do anything before hunting or retrieving. The second concept is to teach a dog to come to the handler with enthusiasm, which we build by offering treats when the dog places correctly. And the third concept is to teach the dog to go away from the handler with enthusiasm, which is necessary on both marked and blind retrieves as well as questing for game.”
As for my Nellie, our sit is a surrogate for Murray’s place. It’s a command that demands that she slow down, watch for whatever’s next, and respond to my next command, which at its very best is the “Go Git It!” directive that there’s a dead bird to be retrieved somewhere in the tangle of cover just ahead.
Andrew McKean and Nellie work on hup from their home in Montana.
This article first appeared in the Summer 2020 Issue of Pheasants Forever Journal.