Training: When to start the finishing process
Jerry Arlington


    With the information provided in the previous articles a new spring or early summer puppy owner can expect to successfully hunt over his or her new prospect, given that the new pup is well bred with good inherent hunting and pointing instincts. However do not expect to make a silk purse from a sow's ear. The best training in the world can only produce a product as good as the raw material has the potential to be.

    I have mentioned an up and coming hunting season at this time for a very important reason. I believe that a youngster should never enter formal training until at least one good hunting season has been experienced. This is where many opinions and many theories may surface in opposition.
   
    Each individual owner will have to listen to different trainers' thoughts on this subject. He must take into consideration his prospect's talents, strong points, breeding, and the ultimate goals for his dog. Will the puppy be expected to hunt for the gun only or to be a competitive field trial dog? Which type of field trial will he compete in or will he possibly serve a dual purpose as mine always have; both gun dog and field trial dog. The best hunting dog I have ever hunted over was Hall-of-Fame, 11 x Ch. Jerry's Runaway Bandit. All of the dogs that I campaigned were hunted on foot and I ran horseback all-age dogs. They were all raised, conditioned and trained as I have described and will continue to describe in future articles.

    We as humans are only what our experiences have made us. Our knowledge in any given field is an accumulation of our experiences, both successes and failures. Even if you may not agree with what I write or my ideas, one should always keep an open mind. Remember that a wise man can learn from a fool. It's only the fool that never changes or learns new ideas.
Never take anyone's training advice as rigid "word for word" gospel. Being able to adjust and adapt to new circumstances, situations and/or special quirks of an individual dog is what separates good trainers and handlers from someone who has just assumed the title. Dog training and handling is a talent. It can be improved with instruction, experience and time but the truly great ones seem to have a special knack for it. Book learning certainly isn't a must but good common horse sense is an absolute necessity.

    Getting back to the main point when is formal training started? That may be up to the individual owner and what he expects. There may be no right or wrong time so long as the prospect will take the training with no adverse effects or side effects.
There are some sound theories out there with good logic behind them. One of them is never letting a dog chase. It is certainly going to be easier to break a dog to flush if he has never been allowed to chase. This makes sense to me. However, I don't happen to agree with that method. Although it has logical merits, I believe it inhibits some of the qualities that I find enjoyable and that I feel make a better bird dog in the long run, especially if the prospect is going to be a field trial dog. That quality is desire. Without it you'll never have a "true" champion.

    How best to kindle desire and to watch it soar than to allow a bird dog to chase birds. How will the intensity on point be allowed to reach its full potential without the apprehension as the dog anticipates the possibility of finally catching the quarry that has eluded his every attempt.    Without the freedom to develop and to chase that I allow my puppies and derbies a lot would be lost for me. Maybe I speak in defense of the chase with a bias viewpoint because I find immense pleasure in watching the unbridled ambition, desire, and reckless abandon of spirited puppies and derbies. Without these qualities they are just dogs that have been trained to point not true bird dogs whose blood races with excitement at the scent and flight of game birds.
Those dogs whom have been allowed to kindle such desire will surely be harder to hold steady at flush than those who have never been allowed to chase. However, I feel that the rewards merit the extra time and effort it will take.
It will have to be the individual who makes the decision as to what method he will pursue to finish his dog. The ultimate purpose the dog is to serve will also have to be figured into the equation.

    Another method, a slight modification to the above, is to allow the puppy to chase until he points then never allow him to break and chase again.    If you have been following my instructions of introducing birds to 6-8-week old pups I am sure they have already started pointing. Do you stop an eight-week old pup from chasing? I think not. When do you stop him from chasing? It up to the individual trainer and the individual dog.

    In my twenty plus years of experience I have witnessed bird dogs go through developmental stages. Age has less bearing on these stages than one might think. Exposure to birds and the opportunity to find and chase birds have a great deal more influence on development than maturation. The less exposure that the animal has the more time it will take him to go through these stages. The more birds and time actually spent hunting the more rapid they move from one stage to another.
These are the stages that I have witnessed.
1. Puppies will chase anything and everything that moves or flies.
2. Then they will point anything and everything that will move or fly and eventually set still. Game birds, butterflies, songbirds, small animals, or even a leaf blowing in the wind is fair game. Most of the pointing done during this period is sight pointing. However, those puppies who have been exposed early to bird will do a lot of scent pointing and all will eventually scent point.
3. They become teenagers of sort and they have developed speed, muscle, endurance and to some extent a mind of their own. Now they think they can chase and catch birds. They can't, at least not wild birds, but will try with endless desire.
4. After they find out for themselves that they cannot catch birds they will again point. When they have satisfied themselves that they cannot catch birds and have sorted out what scent has birds in it and what is old scent or foot scent then it is time to finish the dog on birds. Breaking a dog before he has had a chance to figure out for himself what scents have the bird still with it can often lead to unproductive during the breaking process.

    During my experience training, I have steadied many dogs to wing and shot well before a year of age and before these dogs had progressed through stages three and four. These dogs eventually finished their last two stages. Some do it with zest while many others with subtleties of contempt.

    Several went thru a period of bumping birds and styling up to watch them fly out of sight. It seemed they were defying their training as if to say "maybe I can't chase but I'll have the satisfaction of putting them in the air before anyone can get here" and then rationalizing that they couldn't very well get punished "standing on point!" Working on wild birds this sometime takes a while to figure out, giving the dog the benefit of the doubt. But after a week of never flushing birds for them and always finding them on point after the birds had been seen in the air it becomes very obvious. They are having fun and only breaking part of the new and restricting rules.

    How many times have you witnessed derbies competing in "broke dog" stakes that were winning like gangbusters? Then, in their first year all-age or even sometimes into the second year, they drop from grace. Some come back at four & five years of age and start winning again but others can't take the pressure that it takes to get them right on game again. These dogs are not breaking and chasing like puppies but are making enough errors around game to keep them out of the money. Sometimes the correction of these small errors around game takes more pressure to cure than the big errors. I surmise that it is more obvious to the dog that he is at fault when his error is done with a flare.

    I believe that this is why a lot of field trial dogs are "long aged, to get them thru this stage before their first year all-age.
Have you ever witnessed a young bird dog point momentarily, then see him lean back and blast through where he thought the birds were, turn in mid-stride and do it again? Then, when nothing flies, stop, posed for action but with an absolutely befuddled look on his face. The expression is hilarious. That dog was positive that the birds were there. He was bewildered and perplexed that they weren't. How will he ever figure out these mysterious puzzles if he is not allowed to break point and run through the scent and learn which fragrances have birds still in them. Some might respond; the trainer. After he attempts the flush and finds nothing, he can send the dog on. But what will the flushing attempt and time do to the scent cone that first deceived the dog? Wouldn't it be better that the pup explores the area himself before the scent that fooled him was disturbed?
The primus that I base my training philosophy on is that experience is the best teacher and that we as humans can only make feeble guesses at what scenting conditions prevail or what the dog might be thinking. There are some things that we know so little about that the only logical avenue for us to pursue is to allow the animal to experience it for himself and learn from his own mistakes and rewards.

    I have owned or trained two dogs in my lifetime that would circle a running bird, Bandit's Wildfire and Bandit's Special Harvest. They learned this at a very young age. Special Harvest was doing it before he was 12 months old. I had absolutely nothing to do with teaching them how to pen the running birds. They learned how themselves. How would these dogs have learned this if I had not allowed let them break point and discover for themselves that the way to pen the bird without flushing was to circle around the bird and cut his escape route off?

    How do dogs learn when to move up on birds and when not to? In training situations, we can control "artificial" birds with electronic release traps but what happens when they start working "real" birds?
Have you or someone you know spent good money on sending a dog to a trainer to be trained and watched the trainer work him with excellent results, take him home and hunt him on opening day and have him chase every wild bird that he encountered? (I am not condemning the use of liberated birds or the trainers who use them nor am I suggesting that those trainers who use them are not earning their training fees. Liberated birds are very valuable tools in training bird dogs. Training on planted birds can build a significant and valuable foundation for finishing the dog on wild birds.) Dogs training on planted birds sometimes develop the habit of crowding their quarry and never learn how close is too close. Wild birds do not tolerant mistakes of this nature. The dog will have to learn for himself how close he can get before the birds take to the air for escape and how far back he can point them and not have them always running out on him. Only so much can be achieved with "artificial" birds because sooner or later the hunting dog or the wild bird field trial dog will have to pay his dues. I believe an obvious solution is to allow the dogs to teach themselves how to handle wild birds and not to rush the breaking process until they have.

    I would like to state again that it is up to the individual when and how he is going to train and finish his dog. The ultimate goal for the dog is a major part of the decision. If running field trials or hunting preserves where only planted birds are used, never allowing him to chase may be a good choice. If hunting wild birds and wild bird field trails are your passion, I believe that it would be best to allow your dog to figure out nature's mysteries for himself before the breaking process.
In future articles I will explore many different ways to get the same job done. I will explain why I prefer a certain method to another. It will be up to you to choose the method that best suit you, your dog and your ultimate goal.