The best part about summer being over is that our hunting seasons loom around the corner. If you are a waterfowl hunter, chances are that you have some kind of early season in September for teal or goose. If you are an upland hunter, then typically you are just two or less months from chasing roosters in the field. Nonetheless, as bird dog owners we have hopefully been training and conditioning our dogs throughout the off-season to keep them not only in shape, but sharp on their skills. By skills I am not just talking about obvious hunting related skills such as finding birds, marking, retrieving, etc. I am also referring to obedience and common everyday commands that are extremely important in any hunting situation. Depending on the type of hunting that you do, and the type of dog(s) that you hunt with, there is often a difference in commands and styles so I will do my best to keep this generic and applicable to all. I’d like to take a look at some of the most important commands you’ll be using in the field with your dog, and briefly explain their application and importance.
More times than not, I am hunting with a retriever. I do tend to be in a duck or goose blind most of the time, and that is why I am beginning with the “Sit” command. In the blind, one of the hardest things to train a dog is to sit and be patient. No one likes a dog in the blind that is constantly moving around, or a dog that is not steady while birds are being called and hunters are shooting. A dog that sits well in the blind is more enjoyable to hunt with, and is also safer to hunt with (a dog that breaks prematurely can be in the line of shooting and be problematic). For you upland hunters, sit is still an important command whether you hunt with a pointer or flusher. For a flusher, you may want your dog to sit on a bird flush. For a pointer, there may not be times in hunting where you want the dog to sit (in fact I’m positive you do not want your pointer to sit at any time while hunting), however keep in mind that when you are an upland hunter, it is quite possible that you spend a lot of time at hunting clubs or preserves. Having control of your dog in parking areas, club houses and other public places is still rather important as etiquette is still a large part of hunting with dogs. In my training program, sit is also synonymous with “stay”, meaning once I tell my dog to sit I expect them to remain sitting until released or asked to do something else. That level of control with your dog is critical both in and out of the field.
Whoa / Stop or Stay
For you pointer owners, this command is no stranger to you. Getting your dog to steady on point is a very large part of hunting with a pointing breed, but the concept of “Stop”, “Stay” or “don’t move” can apply to several situations in the field. If you are hunting with multiple dogs, it is important for them to honor another point, or another dog retrieving a bird. Whoa is not typically a command for this, however the concept of whoa is similar. It means “stay where you are, do not move”. This is an extension of the sit command with a flusher or waterfowl dog; stay where you are being the message to the dog. There are times where I need my dog to stop and stay, for example when a deer gets up in the field and the dog begins to chase, or you see your dog heading for a road or barbed wire fence. Sometimes handlers choose to stop and sit their dog on a whistle, either way, the concept of “whoa”, “stop” or “stay” is incredibly important when handling your dog in hunting situations.
This topic is simply a matter of opinion, but my preference in a hunting dog is a bird that retrieves birds that we shoot in the field. Some people incorporate force fetch in their training program, other people teach “fetch”, “hold” and retrieving concepts other ways. Either way, for obvious reasons “fetch” or “fetch it up” is something many of us say to our dogs in the field. A dog that does not retrieve well in my opinion can make or break a hunt!
Come or Here
Being able to call your dog to you in any situation is important, possibly the most important in my opinion. It is the basis of retrieving back to the handler, it is the idea of calling a dog back into range if they are hunting too far out and most important (as mentioned earlier) it is a matter of control and safety for your dog in the field. “Come” and “Here” tend to be the most popular commands for this, but handlers often times utilize a whistle recall as well. This may seem to be a redundant message, but the first time that you have a dog unable to come when called as well as sit or stay when instructed to you will realize just how important it is.
Every year I witness someone who wishes they would have tried to teach the kennel command better with their dog. In the home, it is nice to say “kennel” and have your dog load into their crate without having to lure them in, or push and pull the dog to get them into their crate. The same luxury exists in the field when you want to load the dog into the truck, the crate, the dog box or dog trailer after training or hunting. It can be very frustrating to have issues getting your dog loaded into their kennel after a day in the field, and if you are at a gun club, hunt test or just a field with hunting friends it can be humiliating! Make sure to work with your dog on this, and make sure they understand to load into the vehicle, crate, box or trailer.
The basic commands covered in this article are just that; basic. Most of you probably have them covered and use them every day with your dog; however I do recommend practicing them and making sure the dog is sharp so that when hunting season comes you do not encounter any unnecessary issues. Good luck to everyone this fall and happy training!