By Shawn Kinkelaar
As a pointing-dog trainer who makes a living by competing in horseback field trials, I’m a fanatic about wanting to develop dogs that “run big” and cover lots of ground at long distances. However, there are several training concepts that are just as important in my situation as they are for the hunter who has a closer-working dog. We all have the same goals: for our dogs to hunt efficiently, hunt with confidence and stay out in front. Let’s look at some of the ways we can accomplish those things.
Everything I do with a puppy, starting with the first time we go for a walk in the field, is geared toward keeping that dog in front of me. Picture the face of a clock; the goal is to develop a dog that hunts between 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock and stays in that area in relation to the direction you’re walking. This applies equally to a German shorthair in the grouse woods and an English setter on the Oklahoma prairie.
This is much easier when you have a dog that naturally wants to stay out in front of you, and I’m always watching young dogs to see which ones naturally want to “find the front.” If you let your dog hunt in any direction it wants, you’re never going to have a truly finished dog.
As a dog runs back and forth on your walks, you always want it to turn away. You need to be diligent about this. When a dog loops back toward you, don’t sit on your hands and accept that maybe that’s just how that dog runs. This is important, because a dog has just so many miles in it before it runs out of gas. Don’t let it waste time covering ground twice or, worse, getting behind you and forcing you to constantly have to reset your course.
Back to my clock example. Let’s say you have a dog in front of you at 1 o’clock and it “cloverleafs” back around, headed for 3 o’clock. You need to meet that dog halfway and “herd” it back out. Don’t let the dog get behind you; if it gets to 4 o’clock, you’re already too late. I run my dogs on a check cord from a very early age so I can quickly grab that cord and guide them to turn the way I want. This shouldn’t be a hard concept for either the hunter or dog to grasp. Hunt between 10 and 2; that’s all I’m asking my dogs to do.
Now hunting between 10 and 2 is only helpful if your dog is paying attention to the direction you’re walking. That means it needs to check in with you every so often. “Checking in” does not mean running all the way back to you to say, Hi, and then taking off again. It means simply that the dog is always aware of your location and stays properly oriented to it.
New-Generation Tracking Collars
For more than a decade hunters and handlers have been able to keep track of big-running dogs with GPS tracking collars, and the technology keeps getting better. The latest generation of these remarkable tools goes one step further by incorporating e-collar capabilities. Here are three GPS-plus-e-collar offerings from major manufacturers that are worth considering. Prices shown are for one collar and one receiver, and all of the manufacturers offer the option to add collars to their systems.
This combo collar tracks up to 21 dogs up to nine miles. Instead of pre-loaded maps on a separate receiver, it uses your smartphone with Google Maps. The e-collar provides 99 levels of constant or nick stimulation plus tone. MSRP: $430. Dogtra.
Garmin Alpha 100/TT 15 Bundle
The collar tracks up to 20 dogs up to nine miles and is pre-loaded with 1:100,000 topo maps. The e-collar offers 18 levels of continuous and momentary stimulation plus tone and vibration. MSRP: $800. Garmin.
SportDOG TEK Series 2.0 GPS + E-Collar
With this collar, you can track and train up to 21 dogs, with a tracking range up to 10 miles. The receiver comes pre-loaded with 1:100,000 topo maps, and the collar provides 99 levels of continuous, momentary or rising stimulation plus tone and vibration. MSRP: $805. SportDOG. —The Editors
Whenever I’m ready to change directions, I give my dog a “Hey-hey” or “Hup,” a word that I introduce early during our field walks. You can use whatever word you want. All you’re striving for is that your dog throws its head up and makes visual contact with you as it continues hunting. Think of your turn command as a quarterback’s “Hut” (as opposed to the more direct “Here” command) when you want your dog to come all the way back when it’s time for a break or to head to the truck.
I often am asked how I deal with a dog that’s hunting out of sight. This could happen in rolling terrain or in thick cover. You certainly don’t want to have to start shouting for your dog to come back every time you lose sight of it. Therefore, if you’ve developed a dog that stays oriented to the direction you’re walking and stays between 10 and 2, you should be confident in letting your dog use its head to get out and find birds.
I’ll add an opinion here that I feel very strongly about. In this day and age there’s no reason to turn a dog loose without a GPS collar. Losing a dog is a scary thing, and it can happen in a moment. You can even lose a close-working dog when it’s windy or rainy and you’re in thick cover. I’ve made it my policy to never turn a dog loose without a GPS collar.
In addition to always letting you know where your dog is, today’s GPS systems let you know when your dog is on point. Then it’s on you to get to the dog instead of wondering if you should be trying to call it back.
There’s a flipside to using GPS systems, which is that you need to make sure you don’t get tunnel vision and spend all your time looking at the screen. What if the batteries die or your dog’s collar has gotten damaged and stopped transmitting?
That brings us full circle to my original assertion, which is that if you work from the beginning on keeping that dog hunting between 10 and 2, checking in with you visually and turning on command, you can hunt with confidence no matter what the terrain, distance or conditions.