Follow these simple steps when training a hunting dog and you'll no doubt have a trusty companion for years to come.
Like all dog owners, I clearly remember the day when we brought home our German Shorthair Pointer (GSP) puppy. The excitement and anticipation had peaked and the pup was finally home with us. Maybe I remember it so clearly because of his floppy ears, searching puppy eyes, and curious sharp teeth. Possibly it is because we had found a perfect match for our young family. Most likely it is because that day was only eight short months ago.
We are currently experiencing first hand the curiosity, intelligence, and energy of our German Shorthair, Boone. Each day the full magnitude of training a hunting dog is something we must deal with. The abounding energy of a puppy simply must be dealt with. Somewhere out there a GSP owner is laughing at my plight.
Our pup is closing in on his first birthday and is doing great. My biased opinion is that we couldn't have gotten luckier. Boone is obedient, has manners, does great with our small children, and is on track to be a great hunting dog. Due to the help of many friends, some online assistance, tips from a few experts, and some serious time and commitment, we have successfully laid the foundation for a solid future.
Training a hunting dog is no easy chore, and training in the first year is exceptionally important. Here is the advice I was given that has proven to be great advice.
1. Pick the Right Dog
The first year of training a hunting dog really starts with the selection of the puppy. Take the time to research different breeds and find the breed that most suits your needs and your lifestyle. Too many times people choose a dog breed based on superficial reasoning, and wind up not meshing with their personality.
Also, if you are wanting to buy a hunting dog, make sure you buy a breed well suited for the jobs you will ask it to do. Will it be water retrieving? Hunting upland birds? Maybe chasing fur bearers? Be sure to select breeds that match your hunting needs.
Once you've settled on a breed, it's time to find a litter for sale. Depending on your breed, this could be very easy, or a huge challenge. When you go to pick up the pup do yourself a favor and work on your own schedule. The folks selling the pups ought to understand the magnitude of the decision you are about to make.
Don't rush it. It takes some folks hours to pick the right puppy. Spend the time to find the right pup and your experience training the dog will be much more enjoyable.
One thing most dog trainers will agree on is that you must begin your role as the leader from day one. It is the nature of pack canines to be submissive to the most dominant personality. You don't have to instill fear in your dog to do this, but you must make clear who is the boss. Training a hunting dog rests on the idea you are in charge and the dog is a follower. The first year is by far the easiest year to accomplish this.
2. Feeding Time
One simple way to become the alpha shows up at meal time. After the first few months, you should begin to regulate the feeding sessions. Make sure the dog eats only when you allow it to. Many people, due to busy schedules, simply throw out a heaping bowl of food and let the dog have at it. If your dog is deciding when and how much to eat, they are in charge.
To manage this, feed your dog twice a day, once in the morning and once at night. To be clear, make sure they are getting plenty to eat. The point isn't to starve your dog, it's to make he realize you are calling the shots on when he gets fed. Also, before the dog eats make them look you in the eye. To a dog, this is him asking for your permission to eat. Manage a hunting dog's feeding, and training a hunting becomes much easier.
By far the biggest piece of advice I've received from everyone on training a hunting dog in the first year is to focus on the basics. The first year should be all about basic obedience. Sit, lay down, stay, heel. If your dog is not automatic on these basic commands, there is no way they will pay any attention when the adrenaline kicks in during the hunt. Also, if you teach your dog to learn basic commands, hunting commands will come more easily to them.
Keep in mind a young pups mind can only take in so much at a time. It is best to work in small training sessions during the first year so the dog can absorb as much as possible. Anyone who has ever stepped foot into a kindergarten can attest to the short attention span of youth. Puppies are the same way.
One place where most people fail at training a hunting dog, and training dogs in general, is getting the young dogs plenty of exercise. Hunting dogs are typically bred to have tremendous endurance. Like a kettle on the stove, if their energy builds and builds it must finally erupt.
Generally, it is best to exercise your dog, then try some training. If my GSP has been cooped up for the day, training won't be anything but a disaster until he runs. Let them run and it opens the mind.
5. Hunting Basics
Training a hunting dog to learn hunting commands can actually begin to happen in year one. However, most trainers recommend it come later in the first year of life and only once basic obedience is firmly entrenched. One good skill to develop to make your dog a better hunter is to follow his nose. Hide treats under leaf litter and see if he can find it. Take some old hamburger and dump it in the shrubs. Take your dog downwind and watch him learn to use the wind to find it. Over time, your dog will understand how useful his sniffer is.
Also late in the first year of training a hunting dog, it's okay to introduce breed specific traits. Retrieving, pointing, blood trailing, whatever the case may be, the last few months should just touch the most basic elements. These tasks can be a lot to handle for a young dog. Take it slow and ensure your dog knows what you want it to do.
6. Keep Things Fun
The final step to training a hunting dog in the first year is to keep things fun. Your dog no doubt loves you and has a general love of life. Let them just have fun as well. If you nurture this side of your dog, you will see they will trust you more as their leader, and be willing to go the extra mile for you.
If your dog is having a bad day, try not to let it spiral out of control. Keep things in perspective. A lot of times, a good romp through the woods is what both parties need.
The first year of a hunting dog's life is all about the very basics. Follow the advice experienced men and women have shared with me, and your first year of training a hunting dog to be a trusty companion will no doubt be well worth the effort.
A special thanks to my good friend and former hunting guide Jason Harlan who has offered priceless advice on training my hunting dog.