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Buckets for bird dogs?

We all know that a dog must be staunch on point in order to be considered a finished gun dog. The dog that refuses to hold his birds for the gun has ruined many a hunt. The question is how to attain a high level of steadiness on game while at the same time maintaining the dog's style and intensity.

The answer can be found in a myriad of different training procedures and techniques. Over the years I have used and have observed several different approaches that have yielded satisfactory results. With that being said, I have also seen many otherwise good dogs ruined via the use of overly harsh methods.

The biggest mistakes are made by overcorrecting the dog while it is on point. Here is what usually happens. The dog goes on point and either starts to creep on point or breaks point altogether. If you are going to discipline the dog it must be done very carefully, if not he will likely associate the correction with the bird. If this happens, things can come unraveled pretty quickly. The dog may begin one of several undesirable behaviors, these include flagging on point, laying down on point, loss of intensity, and even blinking birds.

So how do we avoid these career ending pitfalls? First of all, the dog must be fully "whoa" broke both in the yard and in the field. There seems to be some confusion as to the definition of "whoa broke" so let's clear that up right now. By my definition a dog is not whoa broke until you can bring him from a dead run to totally stationary with the issuance of one stern "whoa" command. We teach our dogs "who" by using continuous stimulation from the e-collar. We do this while walking the dog at heel. The command sequence would go like this. At the instant that the "whoa" command is given the dog receives low level continuous stimulation. We would then use the check cord to help the dog stop. As soon as the dogs feet stop the stimulation ends. This gives the dog a clear picture of how to turn the stimulation off. It is important to only use low level stimulation, so as not to frighten or intimidate the dog. Our collars have 6 levels of stimulation and we always start out on the lowest setting.

As the dog learns how to turn off the stimulation, we throw in "freebies". In other words give the command and let the dog have the opportunity to obey without using any stimulation. If he complies, great, he has learned to avoid the stimulation by performing the command quickly, the first time he heard it. If the dog refuses the command, we would give the command a second time in conjunction with the stimulation. This technique gives the dog a clear comparison and makes doing the right thing easy and fun.

If a dog is "whoa" broke in this manner, the dog becomes accustomed to being corrected for moving its feet. Of course this training is started in the yard totally away from any birds or bird scent. It is imperative that the dog be properly conditioned to respond to correction away from birds. Later when we go to the field and correct him for creeping or breaking point we can correct him with confidence knowing that he understands that it was his feet moving that caused the correction and not the bird.

Nothing revolutionary here right? Many trainers have been using this technique for years. Let's take it one step further. Once again, let's remind ourselves that dogs are extremely place oriented. Therefore, if we could limit most of our correcting to yard work, it would stand to reason that we could further reduce the chances of encountering problems while transitioning back to field work. If we were to go back to the field and put the dog on birds we would be correcting the dog, were he to break point, with his nose full of bird scent. Let's back up a step and increase the temptation to break while at the same time breaking the connection between bird scent and correction.

Enter the humble 5 gallon bucket. We need to start with a clean 5 gallon bucket with the lid removed. A short section (5'-8') of light weight cord is secured to the bucket via a small hole drilled in the side. A slip knot is then tied on the other end of the rope. Here's where things get fun. Secure a pigeon or quail by its leg with the slip knot. The buck is then placed over the bird so that the dog is unable to see it.

The dog is now brought in on the upwind side of the bucket so that it can not smell or see the bird. The dog should be brought to within about 20 feet of the bucket. At this time the dog should be given the "whoa" command. After the dog has stopped and is under control, have an assistant walk up to the buck and gently turn it on its side. The bird will walk out of the bucket and proceed to parade around in front of the dog. This will cause almost all dogs to come unglued and get happy feet. The handler should command "whoa" and regain control of the dog with the check cord if necessary. The beauty of this drill is that it gives the handler the opportunity to correct the dog several times in one session since the bird is tethered to the bucket and is obliged to stick around.

So let's think about what were doing here. The dog is introduced to a temptation to break a command that he is already familiar with. The dog is corrected for disobeying the command but is OK with the correction because we have already spent many sessions correcting him while teaching the "whoa" command. Therefore we have limited the number of new concepts for him to understand and have built on the foundation of concepts that he already has a firm grasp on. Once again it is critically important that the dog be upwind of the bird. We are setting the dog up to be corrected, so the last thing that we want is for the dog to smell the bird while being corrected.

After a few sessions most dogs will stay put as the bird walks around in front of them. The dog can be further tempted by having the assistant nudge the bird with his foot to encourage it to fly. Of course it is still tethered to the bucket and will flutter down to be flushed again. If the dog is to be broke to wing and shot this drill sets up the concept of remaining steady to the flight of a bird.

After graduating from the "bucket drill" most dogs are steady as a rock when taken back to the field and once again put on birds. Even if a correction should be necessary while on birds, the dog will understand why it is being corrected. After developing and using this drill I have noticed that my dogs typically break out easier and make a much smoother transition when we go back to birds from yard work. They also exhibit the epitome of style, confidence, and control on point.

Travis C. Ruff
Professional Gun Dogs
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