Training Tips from NAVHDA Dog Handlers
by Nancy Anisfield with Tracey Nelson, Blaine Carter and Kyle Hough
Winters are long in the north country. Once our post hunting season reflections subside, the brush-battered gear is repaired and the dogs have depleted the backyard supply of frozen rabbit turds, it’s time to get back into training mode.
Keeping in mind there’s no single “official” training method for the North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association, I asked three pro trainers, all with many years’ experience in NAVHDA, for their favorite winter training drill.
Living in Mineola, Iowa, Tracey Nelson finds plenty of wintry precip and low temperatures. One of her favorite skills to teach dogs in the winter is heeling. Tracey explained, “Part of being a responsible hunter is presenting your canine hunting partner as a well-behaved companion, not a fire-breathing dragon at the end of a leash. Teaching your dog to ‘heel’ is an easy task and a great thing to work on during winter months.”
Tracey defined heeling more accurately, “First, the old wives’ tale that if you teach your hunting dog to heel, he will always walk at your side and won’t hunt is false. That said, if I’m working with a dog that isn’t what I would want in the desire and drive category, I’ll teach leash manners but hold off on formal heeling until bird introductions are made.” Tracey then clarified that when she refers to “leash manners,” she means a dog that walks calmly on a loose lead. To her, “heel” is a position – not necessarily an action – and that position is at her side with the dog’s shoulder roughly at her knee.
“I start all pups on a flat-buckle collar. At a young age, I teach them not to put pressure on the collar by giving continuous short ‘pops’ on the collar whenever I can feel them at the end of a leash,” said Tracey. “When they’re where I want them, I’ll give a small treat or praise to let them know that’s where they should be. When I say ‘pops,’ I mean a short quick tug, not pulling the dog over or applying continuous pressure, which only encourages pulling back.”
Tracey went on to describe the next level, “To move to advanced heeling, I teach dogs to ‘look.’ To accomplish this, I have the dog in front of me with a treat (a small chunk of cheese, hot dog or whatever your dog likes). I hold the treat in front of their face and use the command ‘look’ while moving the treat to my face. Eventually, I’ll have the treat at my eye level when I say the word. At this stage, they get the treat every time they make eye contact with me. When I’m getting that eye contact each time, I move the dog into heel position and usually start over, moving the treat up to eye level until I’m getting eye contact from the heel position on each command. Next is to take one step with eye contact, treat, then move to two steps, and so on. I do finish up with a pinch collar and then an e-collar, but I mold the behavior first, so I have a happy, confident dog as my finished product.”
Blaine Carter lives in Brunswick, Maine, where his proximity to the ocean creates some interesting nor’easters and deep snow. He believes the easiest time to train line retrieving is during the winter months. “Using a straight trail in the snow helps a dog understand direction and find objects you’ve placed at intervals along the trail. The goal is to teach trust and build a desire to work,” said Blaine. He added that you need to have patience helping your dog learn, and you need to demonstrate excitement as your dog builds willingness to run down the lines.
“Begin by tramping a 40-yard straight line with your dog sitting at the starting point. Place your bumpers every 10 yards, making the first visible to your dog. The bumpers could be dark for better visibility. Send your dog from the heel position for the first bumper, commanding with excitement as you move forward towards the bumper and say ‘fetch.’ In the beginning, you can toss the first bumper, but that could become a crutch, so be careful. At pick up, praise and back up to receive the bumper. Praise again. Don’t worry about a perfect delivery right now – that will come later. Your dog is learning to trust you and go out. For each bumper, reposition your dog in the heel position and resend. If the dog stands, stops or acts confused, walk him down the trail and praise him when he gets to the bumper. As the dog becomes more proficient at the drills, you can add multiple lines and use varying distances,” Blaine said.
Summing up, Blaine pointed out that along with being a specific retrieving drill, this also teaches your dog to trust and learn with confidence, which is vital for more advanced training.
Tracking Wounded Game
Kyle Hough lives in Andreas, Pennsylvania, where the Lehigh Valley winters count on a fair amount of snow. While tracking can be taught year-round, Kyle agreed that winter has some advantages. A dusting or a couple of inches helps the dog because moisture holds scent well. Winter fields where the brush is matted down offer particularly good grounds for tracking drills.
“This tracking exercise will increase your chances of recovering wounded game fallen after the shot,” he explained. “Take your pup and a live training bird to an unknown field or wooded area. Before releasing the bird on the track, have your training buddy remove flight feathers on one wing only. Hold your pup on a lead while your training friend shows the pup the live bird. Before releasing the bird, have your friend remove a few feathers and place them on the ground at the start of the track a few yards in front of you and the pup. In view of the dog, release the live bird on the ground into the direction the wind is blowing. Once the bird runs out of your eyesight, it’s time to initiate the track by showing your pup the pile of pulled feathers from where the bird initiated its track. Unhook your training lead and hold your dog’s collar while simply patting the ground with your free hand at the feather pile. Once your pup acknowledges the track, let him go and slowly walk behind him as he uses the wind in his favor to take the scent forward. Encourage your pup to continue by telling him ‘good dog’ each time he acknowledges the track and eventually catches up to the bird.”
Kyle suggests that after a session or two, you make the track more challenging by just showing a feather pile and tracking with the wind in different directions. “This exercise will help you and your dog recover more wounded game,” he added.
For our bird dogs, winter offers a range of pleasures from contented snoring in front of the fireplace to porch-view plotting against a flock of snow buntings conferencing in the south pasture. But all play and no work makes Rover a sloppy gun dog. These drills will help pass the time until next hunting season and make him a dazzler to, from and in the field.
Note: NAVHDA members use many different methods in their dog training. The information and advice in this article doesn’t represent an official training method standardized by NAVHDA International.