Training a Cover Dog Trial Prospect Part A
Let me start this part of the discussion by saying it is my opinion that you can definitely hunt your cover dog competitors, but it’s hard to win a cover dog trial with your hunting dog. Ch. Wild Apple Jack, Ch. Stokely’s Ginger B, Ch. Mr. Ted Stokely, R/U Ch. Stokely’s Mikey D, Ch. Stokely’s Al B, Ch. Stokely’s Diablo Ginger, Classic winner Stokely’s Diablo Buddy, and many other dogs that I have trained or trained with along with the current crop of puppies that both Tony and I are working were started with the goal of winning wild bird trials in the woods but all spent or spend many more days having birds shot for them than they did or do competing. The differences between the way we approach training these dogs and what we might do to come up with a dog that we were strictly going to hunt are many but often very subtle. The dogs that we start and don’t make the cut as trial dogs are more often than not great hunting dogs that any hunter would be happy to have.
Training for our trial dogs starts very early in life and at first is what you would do with any of the pointing breeds. I’ll use Wild Apple LJ and his litter as an example. I start watching the puppies in the whelping box that is under the table in my office. I watch them feed, I watch them start to play, and I pick them up frequently and handle them. This litter was born in early May, so I was able to start taking them out on the lawn when they were just over four weeks old. I let them play and explore the world on their own. Visitors were encouraged to sit on the lawn and play with them. Every time they go out I’m evaluating them. I want to know which one’s the most aggressive, which one stays the closest, who do I have to get up and go look for, whose the last one to come and flop in my lap after playtime. By five weeks we start taking short trips around the yard. On these walks I change direction frequently and call the puppies trying to impress on them that they need to stay with me. I don’t get into a lot of pack behavior discussions, but in reality what I’m doing is getting them to pay attention to me as their leader. Most of the puppies in this litter, as well as their father and the subsequent repeat breedings that I did with Wynot Ace and Elhew Liebotschaner, want to go with you and very early on start keeping track of me. The puppies that seem to consistently find the front on their own as I wander around the yard are the ones I take an early interest in.
By seven weeks we start leaving the immediate yard and going on longer walks through a series of narrow mowed fields which includes going through my planted bird area on the way out and the way back. There are a number of various turns I can take and try to vary the route every time. It’s about 20 to 25 minutes out and back. On the way back, I usually stop at the quail pen and let a couple of birds out for the puppies to do whatever they want with. The first few times some of them may show a little timidity as the bird flushes out in front of them but very soon they begin hunting birds. After the first four puppies had gone down the road and I just had PI and LJ, they would often run ahead on the way back and be found sitting quietly by the gate to the quail pen waiting for me to let some birds out for them. After the initial flush I would let them chase and re-point the birds a few times. Somewhere along in here I usually shoot a 22 crimp when they are chasing a bird. I’ve had a couple of pups over the years stop at the shot the first few times but most of them quickly associate the shot with all the other fun they’re having. The pups out of this line have such a high pointing instinct that they often hold point long enough for pictures and sometimes even a flushing attempt. At this point, the puppies can do no wrong. When they get a little bolder we start taking them up the hill away from the fields and into the woods where they get to explore even more. If we’re lucky they stumble onto a wild bird or two. If they don’t, I really don’t worry about it.
The next faze of their training may surprise some of you. We now take puppies, some times as young as ten weeks old, and let them tag along with our finished shooting dogs as we work them in the woods. As long as we don’t have to hunt for them and they come in when called they get to be tag-a-longs. When one of the older dogs goes on point, we make it stand while we get the puppy and bring it in on the point. On numerous occasions, we have literally picked up a puppy and set in down in front of the dog on point to flush the bird. All this time they are learning a number of lessons. They learn that if the come when called they are rewarded with getting to flush the wild bird. They are also learning that the birds are in the cover and not usually along the paths where they were walking with us. They also learn that a standing dog means there is a bird in front of them. It’s amazing to watch a little puppy realize this and start to back naturally or in many cases get in front of the dog, catch scent, and point on their own. It does not take long for the good ones to start going into the cover on their own and hopefully finding their own birds. If you have Earl Crangle’s book Pointing Dogs: Their Training and
Handling reread the chapter on “The Mexico Method” to get another perspective on this type of training where the puppy is learning its job through experience.
Once the puppies get bold enough that we need to pay attention to them when they’re running, they stop being the tag-a-long dog and get either run on their own or with an experienced bracemate. Once they start showing an interest in finding birds, about the only time they run with another puppy is when they are entered in a puppy stake or on rare occasion when we don’t have enough shooting dogs on the truck. Once puppies start being run on their own and are instinctively pointing birds we might have them drag a light rope so we can start staunching them up a little bit. You have to keep in mind that up to this point we have done little or no yardwork with a puppy. That doesn’t happen until they are ready for it. By that I mean they are blatantly disregarding their handler, intentionally ripping out birds, or worse. At that point, I’ll do enough yard work to introduce the e-collar in the yard for handling. If they are real wild around birds, they may also begin their heel and whoa training in preparation of using the bellyband around birds. This happens with different dogs at different stages. Tony’s dog Frankie got the bellyband fairly early in the fall of last year once the hunting season had started and he was obviously ripping out birds. Within a very short period of time, because he had already pointed many and had some shot for him, Frankie was standing his birds and finished the season as our top puppy. The fact that he placed as both a puppy and as derby this spring shows you how far along he was ready to come. LJ on the other hand never had an e-collar on either his neck or belly through the entire fall hunting season. It was not until this spring that he began needing an e-collar for handling and will get introduced to the bellyband soon.
All during the hunting season LJ was worked on an almost daily basis. Many days he would get the end of the day run at the house where he would regularly find and often point double digit numbers of grouse. One of the more memorable finds was on a small knoll that is covered in apple trees amongst a number of poplar and other hardwood whips. The grouse would come to feed in the apples at the end of the day. On this one occasion I was still about 100 yards away when his bell stopped. When I got close to him a grouse lifted and I shot at it. I expected LJ to break as I knew he was close by even though I hadn’t seen him yet. Then two more grouse lifted and still the puppy that was 5 ½ months old at the time still didn’t move. I saw him on point by the top of a pine tree that had blown down and when I stepped toward him a fourth grouse lifted from right in front of him and then he broke. My only response was to miss when I shot and yell “good boy.” Just in the walks LJ took on the home course at the end of the day, he must have been exposed to a couple hundred grouse and that’s probably a conservative number. By the time the snow finally came around Christmas he was an accomplished grouse finder and has also had a number of woodcock shot over him as well. He had been taught little but learned much. He was as close to being a naturally trained dog as you can imagine. With very little guidance he had learned where the birds live, how close he could get with out flushing them, and the early conditioning to stay with me was still working most of the time.
In the next part of this series I’ll talk about the more formal training that LJ is receiving and will receive as the summer leads into his fall trial season as derby and his second hunting season.