“At what age should formal training begin?”Emily in Nebraska
A general rule of thumb is that dogs are ready for training at around a year of age. However, there is no magic age. Whether or not a dog is ready for training has to be measured on an individual basis. We have been able to begin formal training with some dogs at about 6 months and we have also not been able to start training some dogs that were 3 and 4 years old.
It is my experience that a dog is ready for formal training when he has met two criteria. First, the dog has to have good social skills so that he will be receptive to the trainer and the training. Second, a high prey drive is the passion that will sustain him through the training process. When your dog has met these two criteria you can begin your Foundation Level workouts with confidence.
To make sure that you are developing a dog with good social skills spend a lot of time with your young dog and expose him to as many new things and environments as you can safely do. Dogs that have been routinely exposed to new environments and people tend to be bolder and more confident. They will not perceive strangers as something to be afraid of and that will help them to become a better hunting companion in the long run. Not only should you be sure to expose your dog to new people, but to other dogs as well. Dogs raised in a single dog household often do not know how to interact with other dogs. So be sure to give them that exposure as well.
A high prey drive is part genetics and part experience. If you give your dog lots of experience around birds at a young age his genetic potential will be fulfilled. Young dogs exposed to lots of birds are simply more proficient in the field. I think Puppy Development is critical for young dogs, if you don’t have access to birds, this is a good time to consider sending your dog to a professional for a Puppy Development Class. Puppy Development should give your young dog bird exposure and field time, at this point there is no need to try to implement any rules. Just let them have fun.
“When do you begin formal obedience, sit, down, heel and come? I have always been told never to teach a pointing dog to sit. I have also been told never to teach a pointing dog to heel until after its first year.”Donnie in West Virginia
We suggest beginning formal obedience when you begin your dog’s formal training. You are right, the pointing dogs we do not teach “sit” or “down.” The reason is that it can become a default mode that will follow you out in to the field and your bird work. For example, a dog that is taught to sit or down will sometimes default to that position while on point, after a flush, or during a back. For this reason we suggest not teaching a pointing dog these commands. If you really feel the need to do so, we recommend waiting until after your dog’s formal training is completed.
“What should I expect when hunting my dog for her first hunting season?”Freda in Hampton, Virginia
This really depends on the amount of training that your dog has going into the season. If you have not yet been able to do any formal training with your dog then you should look at this first season as simply an opportunity for your dog to gain more proficiency at locating birds. Be patient with your young dog because you will not be able to enforce any rules around birds yet. So if he punches the bird and chases it over the next hill…it’s all fair game at this level! Just grin and make a resolution to get his training completed this next year!
If you have been able to take your dog through all three levels of training (Foundation, Intermediate, & Advanced) then you will be able to hold your dog to the proficiency level that you taught during your training classes. That may be steady to wing or steady through the shot, it is up to you.
Most importantly, always keep in mind that an animal does not program like a computer. Even if your first year dog has performed perfectly in a training scenario for weeks, he may forget himself in a real world hunting situation. This is to be expected and is why you spent all of that time and effort putting a good foundation on your dog. With a solid foundation in place you can simply use low level remote cues to keep your dog steady and bring his performance back to the top while in the hunting field. It will be up to you though to not get caught up in shooting and forget to be your dog’s coach!