Editor’s Note: In our continuing effort to offer the perspectives of various gundog trainers and authorities, we have begun including guest writers in the Hunting Dogs column. This issue we feature professional trainer Dan Ihrke.
A great hunting dog has a centuries-old lineage carved through selective breeding for optimal health, intelligence, athleticism, an instinctive drive to hunt and a tremendous talent for locating game. Besides its genetic background, the dog is the product of countless hours of training. In the field, its first priority is to locate and pursue the quarry while remaining continually aware of the handler. For the partnership to work, the dog must always be ready and willing to stop the hunt, temporarily ignore its powerful prey drive and perform a task required by its handler. For example, a flushing dog may be commanded to stop, sit and wait for the handler to catch up while tracking the hot trail of a running rooster, so that he does not flush the bird out of range. Without a supreme grasp of how to balance focused pursuit with steadfast obedience, the harvest of the game would be unlikely. So, when, where and how does a well-trained hunting dog learn and practice these obedience maneuvers to become so disciplined?
To understand how obedience fits into a good training program, let’s first study the three main elements of the system: socialization, obedience and fieldwork.
Socialization is exposing the dog to the elements of life that it will see as an adult in a controlled manner while the dog is developing, to promote a confident understanding of how to behave in these environments. Good socialization involves careful, positive exposure to people, places and things. It begins when the dog is seven weeks old and continues well past one year.
Obedience is teaching the dog a set of commands and the desired behaviors that go with them. The product of successful obedience training is the dog displaying a consistent behavioral response when a command is given, no matter what the environment. Obedience training begins at eight weeks, progresses into the controlled or contained setting of yardwork and continues throughout the dog’s working life.
Fieldwork literally takes place in the field and involves teaching the dog the concepts of the hunt. It starts by accentuating the dog’s natural hunting instincts by exposing it to the game it will be hunting in a controlled manner. Fieldwork begins during puppyhood and continues throughout the rest of the dog’s hunting career. Initially fieldwork focuses on building drive and confidence without requiring much control. Then obedience concepts that were trained in the yard are slowly introduced to various hunting scenarios, with the end result being a dog that will hunt confidently, under control and within the parameters that the handler has set.
During the dog’s training life there must be a balance between the discipline of obedience work and the freedoms and excitement that fieldwork provides. If a dog receives too much obedience and not enough fieldwork, it may not be able to take its focus off of the handler and express its hunting instinct. Conversely, a dog with too much fieldwork and not enough obedience will be efficient at finding game but will not work with the handler. It is therefore imperative that the overall training plan has the proper mix of obedience and fieldwork to ensure that the dog is always excited and confident while hunting.
Learning the Language of Obedience (seven to 12 weeks old)
Obedience concepts are taught starting when the dog is seven or eight weeks old with a few simple procedures. With these methods, the dog begins to learn the basic training language that it will see throughout its life presented in a positive light. In layman’s terms, the dog learns to perform a task for two completely separate reasons: First and most important, to allow it to get something it likes; second, to avoid some sort of punishment. Following are two of my favorite puppy-training methods that incorporate these concepts.
The first method that we use teaches the pup to cease all bodily movement—to stop wiggling—in order to be released when being held. It starts by simply holding the pup until eventually it stops wiggling and fighting, and then letting it down once it reaches a calm state. The pup learns that it will not receive what it wants—to be let down—until it calms down. As the dog begins to understand the concept, the handler begins to apply physical pressure while cradling the pup until it stops squirming, and then promptly stops the pressure. This process is repeated until the pup lies calmly in the handler’s arms, and then the handler lets down the pup. With this simple exercise, the pup learns to perform a task—to calm down—to avoid the punishment of the pressure. When successful, the pup receives positive reinforcement by getting what it wanted.
The second method teaches the pup to calmly wait to be released from its crate. This is achieved by simply waiting until the pup stops whining and wiggling before letting it out. The pup soon learns that it must be calm and quiet in order to be released. Now we teach the pup to remain inside the crate with the door open until receiving a signal. This is accomplished by opening the crate door a few inches, and then pushing the door against the pup’s nose as it attempts to prematurely get out. The handler continues to slightly open and shut the door until the pup finally decides to move back into the crate to avoid the pressure from the door contacting its nose. The pup is then given a verbal release command while letting it out. This signal will become the release command for future obedience scenarios. This command could be any word or noise, but many trainers use the dog’s name. (Please note that after this initial obedience phase, field training also should be taking place.)
Leash & Treat Training (three to six months old)
Treats, a short leash and a nylon or leather collar are used to begin training in the general obedience commands and proper responses. At this point the dog learns all of the obedience commands that will be used for the rest of its life. For the pointing dog, these will include “Whoa” (stop and stand still) and “Here” (come to the handler). For the retriever, they will include “Sit” (sit down and stay in position), “Here” (come to the handler) and “Down” (lie down and stay in position). Flushing dogs will learn “Hup” (sit down and stay in position) and “Here” (come to the handler) among others.
During this phase the pup learns that when it sees or hears a certain cue, a treat will be presented by the handler. When the pup follows the treat and performs the task, it receives the positive reinforcement of actually receiving the treat. For example, to teach the pup to come to the handler, a handful of treats are waved in front of the pup’s nose to get its attention. Then the handler slowly moves backward, allowing the puppy to follow the treats. As the pup follows, a verbal command such as “Here” is given, so that the pup eventually will make an association with moving toward the handler and hearing the command.
Once the pup consistently is performing the appropriate task to receive a treat, we begin to teach the pup to perform the same tasks in order to avoid pressure applied by pulling on the lead. This is accomplished by giving the known command, and then promptly, lightly, tugging on the lead in a direction conducive to get the pup to perform the task. The pressure is released immediately when the pup begins to perform the task, and it then receives a treat. For example, the pup is told, “Sit,” and receives light upward leash pressure until it begins to sit. When the pup’s rear touches the ground, the pressure is released and a treat is given.
Formal Yardwork (six months and beyond)
The general training concepts learned earlier are now transitioned into a more formal, regimented format called yardwork. It is in the yard, a non-hunting environment, where the dog begins to learn to perform obedience at higher levels of consistency. This is achieved through more repetition with leash and treats, but a choke chain is used instead of a regular collar. This allows for a greater level of pressure to be applied when the dog deliberately fails to perform a known task. At this point, having enough experience to be able to read the dog is necessary to know whether the dog’s failures are deliberate. Not surprisingly, this is the period when most novices will consult with an experienced professional before continuing. After the dog receives a correction with choke-chain pressure, the scenario is repeated until the dog performs the task without needing a correction with the lead; it then receives a treat as positive reinforcement.
When the dog shows increased consistency performing commands, understands and is confident with leash and choke-chain corrections, we introduce e-collar conditioning. During this phase the dog learns that stimulation from the e-collar will first accompany and then eventually replace leash and choke-chain corrections. This phase usually takes two to four weeks, depending on the dog’s demeanor and ability to learn.
Slowly the training scenarios transition into the dog working completely off lead. Eventually through repetition and reinforcement, the dog learns to be confident, compliant and disciplined off lead, including when controlled distractions are added to the scenarios.
Transitioning Obedience to the Field (eight to 12 months)
One of the most common failures of new trainers is the assumption that since the dog is obedient in a yard setting, it automatically will perform at the same level of control in the field. This is definitely not the case! Transitional training must be done, to ensure that the dog understands that all of the concepts it has learned in the yard must also be applied in the field.
Remember that during the same time frame that obedience training was ongoing, field training was being taking place two to five days per week. During this field training the dog was presented with scenarios involving real game in order to build drive and confidence. The dog was run with a check cord for control and to prevent bad habits, such as running out of range or not coming back with a retrieve. At this point the dog is extremely excited and confident about finding game in the field but has little, if any, obedience control. It now is ready for the obedience concepts that it learned in the yard to be transitioned into the field. Slowly and sequentially, at a pace the dog can keep up with, we begin to ask the dog to perform the obedience tasks in the field. Initially the dog is simply asked to go through a basic obedience routine before being released into the field. As training progresses, the dog is asked to perform tasks during the hunt. Through the proper implementation of obedience during fieldwork, the dog learns that it will receive the activity of hunting or the game itself only through compliance with the handler. Because of the association that is created between obedience compliance and being allowed to hunt and pursue game, the dog becomes increasingly motivated to work for the handler.
Maintenance Training (the remainder of life)
Because the dog already has been educated, during this final phase the necessity for corrections (pressure) should be less frequent. However, there is no dog that does not need practice and intermittent reinforcement to maintain top performance. From the dog’s perspective, hunting is tremendously exciting, to say the least. With this excitement comes the inevitable breech of compliance due to the overwhelming emotional drive to pursue game. Consistent corrections—and most importantly denial—must be implemented, or the dog may begin to become “self-employed,” working only for itself. A good dog/handler team can be compared to a good sports team: The quality and frequency of practice is directly linked to performance, and without it things tend to go south.
Dan Ihrke has owned and operated Green Acres Sportsman’s Club, an exclusive hunting preserve in central Illinois, for 17 years and has trained more than a thousand dogs of different breeds. Ihrke’s Gun Dog Success Program focuses on harnessing the power of the dog’s instinct and drive as motivation for strong performance. For more information, visit www.huntgreenacres.com.