You have worked hard with your dog during the exposure phase and now hope to take your dog to the next level. It is now time to work on more intensive training if you want to prepare your dog for an advanced hunt test or if you simply want to shape your versatile hunting dog into the most effective hunting partner possible. In this article I will outline a step-by-step training guide that will help you immensely in this endeavor. I am the first to admit that there are others with more experience with training dogs than myself. I am still growing and learning as a trainer myself. However, the dogs I have trained and tested have had better than average success in advanced hunt tests. To date, I have Utility tested a total of four dogs in the NAVHDA Utility Test, and the last three earned a Utility Prize I on the first attempt. The average score of the four dogs that I have Utility Tested is 196 pts out of 204 pts possible. Do not get me wrong, I know this streak will likely end soon. My only point in sharing this information with you is because some people reading this article may wonder about my testing and training experience, and rightfully so. My success thus far has to do with a few things: having genetically sound dogs to work with, a little luck, and having a well-reasoned training program. The latter is what I want to share with you in order to enhance the chance that you will have success at this level of training and testing as well.
Before getting into the nuts and bolts of this guide I want to address something I feel is important. At various points of owning a versatile hunting dog, new trainers often feel a sense of uncertainty as to what hunting related tasks to train their dog for, and in what order. Often, the first time someone feels this way is when they bring their pup home for the first time. Another time is after, what I call, “the Exposure Phase,” which usually occurs during the first 9-12 months of a dog’s life. After this Exposure Phase, some trainers have no idea what to do next when it comes to formal training. For some owners, this uncertainty leads to a fear that they will “mess up” their dog during the training process, leading to inaction on the part of the trainer. That fear is real, and sadly, causes many folks to never get the most out of their well-bred hunting dog. I have learned that most V-Dogs are forgiving, and despite mistakes made on the part of the trainer these dogs usually continue to make progress if the trainer continues to work at it. The most common way that folks “mess up” their dog is by giving into the fear that they will somehow mess up their dog through training, which leads to an unmotivated trainer. To reduce the chance of inaction, I have provided you this blueprint to give you confidence and to help you train/build a hunting companion that (given the right genetics) has a good chance of becoming one of the best dogs that you have owned.
In the Cross Timber Gundogs’ Utility Training Guide, I will not go into how to train for each task in detail. What I will do, where I feel is necessary, is communicate my personal logic for doing things in this order and describe what the final product of certain steps is supposed to look like. In future training articles (or V-Dog Blog posts), I will go into more detail on how to accomplish some of the steps in this guide. Let us now turn out attention to the various steps detailed in this guide as outlined below:
1. Heel Training
For me, teaching heel is one of the first formal obedience related tasks I train my dog to do, as it serves as a good foundation for training other commands. Caution: Training your dog to heel to early may lead to a dog that does not range out well in the field. Make sure to balance heel training with frequent free runs on and off a check chord in open fields to reduce the chance of stifling the range capability of your dog. I often do not train my dog to heel until 10 or 11 months old for this reason.
2. Basic Whoa
Standing stationary until released. I train my dogs to do this before the Conditioned Retrieve or Force Fetch (FF). The dog does not have to be able to stop on a run at this point or stand through significant distractions. But, they do need to be able to stand without moving when commanded to “Whoa” and release when given a release command. If you have been having your pup stand before they get to eat on command since they were young, this should not take much work with most dogs. It is nice to have this basic stationary command well ingrained before FF. This way, when the dog is at the stage of retrieving objects from the ground during the FF process you can have them “Whoa” while you walk objects out, drop them, and come back to the dog before sending them to retrieve. The Basic “Whoa” command is a building block of steadiness on birds, but is not the same as formal steadiness on birds, which will come later.
3. Combine Whoa and Heel
This is how the final product should look, you should be able to whoa your dog, then walk out a few feet (building up to 30 feet or so) and face the dog, then upon command the dog should come to heel, facing the same way as the trainer. Using the leash/check chord, and with repetition, you will shape your hunting partner’s behavior to complete these tasks upon command. Later you can use the e-collar to enforce compliance as necessary.
4. Force Fetch (FF) or Conditioned Retrieve
There are several books and videos that are very useful in learning how to take your dog through this process. I prefer to embark on this training around 11 or 12 months of age. Sometimes I will take a dog through this process a bit earlier or later, depending on the timing of our Cross Timber litters which require lots of my time. Retrieving is a significant part of most advanced versatile hunt tests, so taking the time to ensure your dog will retrieve reliably will often lead to a better test score or prize at the end of the test day. I take my dog through conditioned retrieve training before engaging in any formal steadiness training on birds. Here is my logic, I want my dogs to know exactly what to do to make a successful retrieve prior to formal steadiness training on actual birds. This way, when the dog does everything right, and demonstrates the desired level of steadiness on a bird, they can be sent for a successful retrieve. I train my dogs in this sequence for this reason: I want the retrieve to be the reward for remaining steady on a bird. If the dog is not a reliable retriever with good mouthing habits prior to formal steadiness training, problems can occur. If done out of order, the trainer will find themselves frequently correcting the dog for both steadiness issues and poor retrieve manners on a single bird encounter, which can be confusing for the dog. This is why the conditioned retrieve/FF training precedes formal steadiness on birds in this program. That said, low pressure, non-formal steadiness work can be done prior to FF, such as launching birds at first movement or shooting a blank and tossing a frozen bird in front of a young dog that has held point longer than normal. Just be gentle and do not demand a clean retrieve until after formal retrieve training.
5. Combine Whoa, Heel and Fetch
This step, to me, is really a continuation of a good force fetch program. The final product for this step should look like this: the trainer should be able to whoa their dog, walk out from the dog to place a retrieve object on the ground, return to the dog, and with the dog at heel send the dog to fetch the object. Upon the fetch command, the dog should retrieve the object and finish at heel. While standing or sitting at heel beside their trainer with object in mouth, the dog should deliver the retrieve object to hand. Ensuring a good, clean retrieve at this stage will make things easier when steadiness training ensues for the reasons already stated in number 4 above. At this point you should be doing at least “mini piles,” meaning placing at least 3 objects out and sending the dog for one after the other. You can view a video of me working one of our females on a ladder style “mini pile” on our Cross Timber Facebook page for reference.
6. Steadiness Training
This refers to the training one does with their bird dog to get them to remain on point and not creep or move towards the pointed bird after establishing point. Some hunters want a dog that remains on point all the way through shot and fall, and until they are sent for the retrieve. Others only want their dog to remain on point until the bird flushes. When it comes to steadiness training, much of what I do is similar to what is learned in the Silent Command System by Rick and Ronnie Smith, but I do a few things different than what they present in their system, which I won’t go into here.
7. Bucket Drills on Land
You might be asking yourself, “How in the world is a bucket useful in the training of a versatile hunting dog?” The white bucket is simply a visual cue letting your dog know there is something near it to be retrieved. Through repetition on land, your hunting partner will come to associate the bucket with something to retrieve, which makes it much easier later when you are trying to teach them to swim across water to retrieve. Again, this step in many ways is just a continuation of a solid Force Fetch program. Basically, you place a bucket in the field/yard, bring your dog up and “Whoa” them. Then, walk to the bucket, and place 3 bumpers, walk back, and send your dog to retrieve one at a time. I use this training time to further reinforce and shape the dog to deliver at my side facing the same direction as the bucket. This type of delivery has some eye appeal and positions the dog to easily be sent for the next retrieve. I will start at about 10 yards distance and over the course of time I will increase the distance to around 50-75 yards before ever doing bucket work across water. (Note: If your dog is one of those dogs that does not have a strong inclination to retrieve bumpers, then once you work up to beyond 30 yards with bumpers on land feel free to begin using defrosted ducks to get them amped up and moving at a faster pace).
8. Steady by Blind on Land
To start, I will train my dog to remain steady throughout the different parts of the Steady by Blind portion of the NAVHDA Utility test, but do so on land before training for this on water. I will heel my dog around a bit, then I will give my dog a stationary command near a cedar tree, and walk out of their field of view on the other side of the tree (or even a wall of a building, etc.) and then go through the different aspects of this portion of the test. I will often throw a Dokken on the last shot, and finally, send my dog for the retrieve. I correct the dog anytime the dog makes a mistake. These training sessions are nice for folks who do not have the convenience of living near water. They can train on land at home in preparation for when they can get to water to train. I do not always follow the exact sequence of the test. I mix it up, sometimes throwing a retrieve object at random times, and walking out to retrieve it myself and then continuing with the rest of the Steady by Blind sequence. Keep it interesting for the dog. Training your dog to do well in this portion of the test on land first allows for swifter correction than on water. Some dogs will break and be in the water before you can correct them properly. I would rather correct a dog on land before I correct them in water to ensure there are no incorrect associations with water when training them in that environment with an e collar.
9. Initial Duck Search-Bucket Drills Across Small Water
This is the start of getting your dog to learn that there is something across water to retrieve, which they will have to do during the Duck Search. Your dog should be able to go moderate distances on land to retrieve a few bumpers (or defrosted ducks) by a bucket. The bucket now has become a visual cue that there is something to retrieve near it. You can now take the bucket and place it on the other side of a small channel of water or the neck of a pond. The dog should not be asked to go across further than about 20 yards of water to start. I usually place two bumpers (or defrosted ducks) in the water near the bucket by water’s edge. I will toss the third bumper I kept in hand across and try to have it land near the bucket and other two bumpers, and command the dog to “Fetch.” The dog usually happily swims across and gets it. I may run into a hiccup on the second and third bumpers when I first start this training because nothing is thrown. However, I find that throwing the first one often gets the dog going, and allows them to see that there are more bumpers to retrieve once over there. A few sessions down the road, your dog will likely go for each bumper one at a time when sent without the first bumper thrown at all. Note: Some dogs are not as bumper driven, if this is the case with your dog, you may consider using defrosted ducks in place of bumpers. Other dogs do not care for frozen/defrosted ducks, if I am describing your dog, then start buying live ducks, which is way more exciting for the dog than bumpers and smelly reused lifeless dead ducks anyway.
10. Steady by Blind on Water
Start out doing the Steady by Blind training on water on a smaller pond with shorter retrieves and work up to longer retrieves on bigger ponds or bodies of water.
11. Duck Search-Bucket Drills Across Larger Water Using Live Ducks
Increase the distance of water crossed to the bucket until the dog is crossing around 100 yards of water to find live ducks on other side. At this point, you should be putting only 1 live duck by bucket, the other should be placed to the left and right of bucket (starting with only 10 yards on both sides) at increasing distances apart, but always on far side.
12. Duck Search using Live Ducks (Without Bucket)
You should now be able to remove bucket during duck search training. The bucket drills on land and water have prepared your dog to swim directly over to the far side to search on a single command instead of running the bank or spending a bunch of time on the side you are on looking for ducks.
Anytime I do a duck search in training, I always put at least 3 ducks out for each session to increase the chance of success. Putting a large launcher on far bank with one of these live ducks inside it can be very helpful as ducks are notoriously uncooperative at times, and will sometimes even leave the water and walk off. Having a duck in a large launcher on the bank, positioned so that it can be utilized to launch a duck directly into the water’s edge when your dog gets close, ensures success. (Note: I suggest tying the launcher to a nearby tree so that it does not inadvertently end up in the water). The same positioning of the launcher can also be used to get a confused dog to cross big water. At first a dog may not understand that they are to swim across the water when the bucket is removed. Simply launch the duck in the launcher into the water with the push of a button on the far bank when your dog is peering across the water, and with the splash of the water the dog will usually go when sent. Training tips like this were adopted by me because I have had to train my last two dogs pretty much exclusively without the help of a training partner.
Another tip to get the dog going across without the bucket is to use a shotgun to shoot the water near the far shore to cause a splash, then send your dog. As always, phase these aids out as quickly as is possible so the dog does not come to rely on these aids to get the job done. In fact, I suggest that you only “very sparingly” use a shot at all when duck search training as some dogs will come to require a shotgun blast to enter the water and search. It is easier to add it later, after the dog is reliably crossing on command, than to create a dog that requires a shot to go. At the test, if your dog finds the duck before the 10 minutes is up, then you must resend your dog without a shot. You do not want your dog requiring a shot to go for this reason.
13. Duck Drag Training
The duck drag is about 150-200 yards long. I typically spend the least amount of time on this part of the test, but you would be a fool to ignore it. During your duck search training with live ducks your dog has already likely learned to track ducks on both water and land (i.e., As stated earlier, live ducks will sometimes leave the water during duck search training, and walk off, requiring the dog to track them down on land), so I think this is part of the reason the dog is so prepared for this portion of the test once I begin working on it. If you did a good job on your FF training, then the dog should know that when they find the duck at the end of the track that they are to bring it to you. Some dogs are less cooperative than others, so a clean delivery with no messing around when out of sight of the trainer must be reinforced. Make sure that on occasion you put a helper at the end of the track acting as a judge while in training. This way, if your dog inadvertently spots the judge in the test they have been trained to bring the found duck to your hand and not the judges.
If you have carefully read and applied the methods described in my former V-Dog Blog posts for preparing your pup well during the Exposure Phase, then your dog should be well prepared to begin getting serious about using this guide. By following the Cross Timber Gundogs’ Utility Training Guide, you will mold your pup into one the best dogs you have ever owned. V-dog owners have different goals for their dog. That said, whether or not you plan to test your dog in an advanced hunting test, I strongly encourage you to at least apply some of the steps outlined here to get more out of your dog when hunting. If you do, your dog will likely become the envy of your hunting partners.